Thursday November 26th, 2015 11:41PM

Falcons looking to finish strong in dismal season

By The Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Mike Smith knows the value of a strong finish, even in a dismal season such as this one.

The Atlanta Falcons coach has been urging his players to forget their record over the final month of season. They are off to a good start in that regard, beating the Buffalo Bills 34-31 in overtime this past weekend to snap a five-game losing streak.

Smith remembered Monday how the Falcons won their final three games in 2009 after being eliminated for the playoff race. That finish carried over to the next season, when Atlanta went 13-3 and won the NFC South.

"We are all judged on what we do at the end of the season," Smith said Monday. "Whether we are 9-2 or 2-9, the way we finish the season is really how we are judged and remembered. That's why it's so important to finish strong."

The Falcons (3-9) are one of the NFL's most disappointing teams. They came into the season with Super Bowl aspirations but already have sealed their first losing record since 2007.

While Smith has been giving more playing time to some younger players, with an eye toward evaluating their potential for next season, it's clear that winning remains his top priority.

That's not surprising, given what happened in his second year as a head coach.

Coming off a surprising playoff appearance in 2008, the Falcons got off to a 4-1 start and were still in contention for a postseason berth when quarterback Matt Ryan was injured in late November. He missed two games - both losses - and the Falcons were done. With nothing really left to play for and two of the final three games on the road, it seemed likely Atlanta would keep alive its infamous streak of never having consecutive winning seasons.

Instead, the Falcons rallied. They pulled off an unexpected road victory over a New York Jets team that would reach the AFC championship game and closed at 9-7, the second in what would become five straight winning seasons.

"We had some injuries but were able to finish strong," Smith said. "Guys who have been around understand the importance of finishing strong and that it does lead into next season."

After a stretch of blowout losses, the Falcons have been much more competitive in their last two games. The lost to first-place New Orleans 17-13 and rallied from an early 14-0 deficit to beat the Bills in Toronto, forcing crucial turnovers at the end of regulation - denying Buffalo a shot at a game-winning field - and in the overtime period to set up Matt Bryant's winning kick.

"It's obviously tough when you're not getting the results that you would have hoped to have, but you learn a lot from it," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I think as a professional and also in life sometimes, you learn more when things go wrong. As professionals we need to use that as motivation, we need to use that to better ourselves. Our guys have done a great job with that."

Rookie cornerback Robert Alford, a second-round draft pick who recovered the fumble in overtime, is one of those youngsters who can expect an ever-increasing role down the stretch, especially since starter Asante Samuel is 32 and unlikely to return in 2014.

The Falcons also are rotating more liberally on the offensive line, giving undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder some playing time at both right tackle and as an extra blocker at tight end. Special teams ace Antone Smith continues to shine in those rare times he gets the ball, breaking off a 38-yard touchdown run on his lone carry, though he did drop a certain touchdown pass. On the defensive side, rookie end Malliciah Goodman got nearly 20 snaps against the Bills and should get more chances to show what he can do.

The Falcons travel to Green Bay on Sunday to meet another disappointing team. The Packers (5-6-1) haven't won since quarterback Aaron Rodgers went out with a shoulder injury a month ago.

Smith said he'll approach the game as though Rodgers will play, though there's speculation he might be done for the season.

No matter who's at quarterback for Green Bay, the Falcons will be playing to win.

"You want to finish strong," Smith said. "That hasn't changed because of the situation we're in. I think the guys know we want to get out there and start a winning streak. I hope we can keep it going."
© Copyright 2015
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Bartus, Icemen shuts out Gwinnett
Garrett Bartus pitched a 42 save shutout, as the Evansville IceMen topped the Gwinnett Gladiators on a New year
10:23PM ( 1 year ago )
Gator Bowl Preview Capsule
A rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl, which Georgia won 45-31 in Orlando.
8:52PM ( 1 year ago )
Millsap's 34 leads Hawks past Celtics
Paul Millsap had season highs with 34 points and 15 rebounds as the Hawks rallied from an 18-point deficit for a 92-91 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday afternoon.
7:44PM ( 1 year ago )
Falcons fire offensive, defensive line coaches
The Atlanta Falcons have fired defensive line coach Ray Hamilton and offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn.
7:02PM ( 1 year ago )
Best, worst of Falcons' 4-12 season
Best Game: They'd been eliminated from playoff contention previous week vs. New Orleans, but the Falcons showed some heart with Dec. 1 overtime victory over Bills in Toronto.
6:21PM ( 1 year ago )
Gonzalez's career ends with another Falcons loss
Tony Gonzalez is ready for the next chapter of his life.
9:47PM ( 1 year ago )
Professional Sports
Commerce just fine with underdog role
The underdog role suits Commerce coach Michael Brown and the Tigers just fine...
7:20PM ( 19 hours from now )
'Scary' Archer offers huge roadblock to Hawks' semifinal quest
It wasn't quite ‘The Exorcist,’ but all it took was one quick look at Archer's game film to make Mill Creek coach Shannon Jarvis shut his eyes and turn away.
9:20PM ( 2 hours ago )
VIDEO: Races won, Champions crowned in NASCAR finales at Homestead
After 10 months, 35 races, nine elimination races, a lot of racing and just as much drama, it all came down to the final restart. Kyle Busch surged ahead of leader Brad Keselowski with just seven laps left in Sunday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
2:00PM ( 9 hours ago )
Girls basketball: West Hall closes Florida tourney with win
The West Hall girls basketball team notched a 53-42 win over TR Miller High of Brewton, Ala., on Wednesday in the Emerald Coast Thanksgiving Classic tournament in Ft. Walton Beach.
By AccessWDUN Staff
12:00PM ( 11 hours ago )
Pressure Cooker: SEC coaches face unyielding pressure to win
Georgia coach Mark Richt seems to be under constant scrutiny, and it has intensified since the Bulldogs (8-3) were knocked out of the title chase by rival Florida...
11:16AM ( 12 hours ago )