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."