Now the Atlanta Falcons can get back to more realistic goals.
Like a division championship. And home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The Falcons (8-1) will be looking to shake off their first loss of the season when they host the slumping Arizona Cardinals today, a game that can’t come fast enough for a team dealing with the unfamiliar sting of defeat.
“We’re just ready to get this taste out of our mouths,” Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “We hate losing.”
Even with a 31-27 setback at New Orleans, the Falcons are still riding high as they face Arizona (4-5). They hold a three-game lead over Tampa Bay in the NFC South and are one game ahead of Chicago for the best record in the conference.
But they don’t want one loss to turn into a different kind of streak, especially facing a team mired in a five-game skid.
“What you’ve done in September and October ... it doesn’t matter,” Robinson said. “We have to be playing our best football starting right now. It has to carry us right into 2013. The road is still long, man. We’re not excited about anything we’ve done up to this point.”
As if to show that no one’s job is safe, even on one of the league’s top teams, the Falcons made a bold move early in the week by cutting defensive end Ray Edwards. He was team’s major free-agent signee in 2011, agreeing to a five-year deal with $11 million in guaranteed money, but never made much of an impact lining up opposite from John Abraham.
Edwards lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann and had only nine tackles — no sacks — when the Falcons handed out the pink slip.
“Everybody around here knows that the only thing this organization cares about is getting wins, moving forward and doing positive things on the field,” defensive lineman Corey Peters said. “If you’re not doing that, everybody is on notice that they’re going to be looking for someone else to do it.”
Through the first four weeks, the Cardinals were even with the Falcons in the NFC standings. But Arizona hasn’t won since, its season on the brink of totally falling apart.
The Cardinals were off last week, at least giving them a chance to regroup even though it’s tough to get over what’s happened.
“It would have been nice to go into a bye with a couple of wins under our belt,” said Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals’ star receiver. “But it’s good to have a bye week before you go against the best team in the NFL. We’re fortunate we had it.”
Arizona’s offensive line has played poorly and now has rookie starters at both tackle positions. Running back Beanie Wells is still trying to get over a severe turf toe, leaving 5-foot-7 LaRod Stephens-Howling and 5-9 William Powell to man the league’s worst-ranked rushing game. The passing game isn’t much better, with unheralded John Skelton back at quarterback after Kevin Kolb went down with a rib injury.
Skelton is the league’s 33rd-rated passer, with five interceptions and just two touchdowns. Hard to tell that Arizona has one of the league’s top receivers.
“I’m a professional,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s good days, there’s bad days. That’s life. I’ve got to find a way to push through and be a good teammate, regardless of the circumstances.”
Despite their lofty record, the Falcons have some issues of their own. Start with the once-powerful running game, which is coming off a miserable performance at New Orleans. Michael Turner looked like he was running in mud on the Superdome turf, picking up 15 yards on 13 carries. The offensive line was overpowered time and time again in short-yardage situations.
Coach Mike Smith knows that must change, even though the Falcons have become a more pass-oriented team — and rightly so — with Matt Ryan at quarterback and a wondrous group of receivers: Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Stunningly, the Falcons have converted more third downs when they need 4 to 6 yards than when only a single yard is required.
“We’ve got to look at everything,” Smith said. “We’ve got to look at what we call, what we’re asking our guys to do, and then when we go out there, we’ve got to execute it. We definitely have to improve in that area.”
The line has taken much of the heat, leading to uncharacteristic rebuke from center Todd McClure, who said a strong running game is reliant on more than just the five guys up front.
Still, the linemen know they’ll have to do a better job of pushing forward against the Cardinals, rather than getting shoved backward like they were by the Saints.
“Obviously, the onus is going to be on the big guys when you’re not having success in that area,” guard Justin Blalock said. “Even though it’s a team thing, it’s kind of a prideful thing for us.”
The Cardinals have relied on the blitz more than many other defense, bringing an extra rusher on about 40 percent of the snaps. They’ll surely stick with that philosophy against the Falcons, hoping to stifle the ground game and rattle Ryan before he goes to the air.
“They blitz to stop the run. They blitz to stop the pass. We anticipate when they get off the plane, they’ll be blitzing,” Smith joked.
Some Falcons expressed a bit of relief about having the undefeated subject off the table. Linebacker Mike Peterson could feel the pressure building even before the loss to the Saints.
“I don’t want to say it was perfect timing (to lose), but I think when we get in the postseason we might appreciate it,” he said. “When you’re undefeated, it’s always in the back of your mind, in the back of everybody’s mind, is this going to the week we get knocked off? Well, we tasted that. It doesn’t taste good. That being said, I think we’re back on track this week. We’re back in grind mode.”
“We enjoyed that ride. It was a great ride,” he said. “Now that it’s over, we’re kind of happy about it. We’re ready to move on. You don’t get a trophy for (16-0). Nobody does. At the end of the year, we want to win the Super Bowl. That’s all that matters to us.”