Since taking over as head coach in January 2008, coach Mike Smith has taken the franchise to new heights in the regular season.
The Falcons have posted winning seasons in each of his four seasons. They are set to make their third playoff appearance in the last four years.
But they must rebound from a difficult-to-swallow 45-16 loss to archrival New Orleans with just one regular-season game to play.
The 29-point margin of the defeat was the largest during Smith's tenure. The Falcons were drubbed by 27 points by the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs last season and by 27 points by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009.
"We obviously didn't play our best football," Smith said of the loss to the Saints. "We gave up way too many plays. Our third-down efficiency was not what it needs to be. We had some opportunities to score when we were down in the red zone and didn't get it done."
Smith would not jump into the issue of whether the Saints ran up the score late while trying to get Drew Brees the single-season passing mark.
With a 22-point lead, the Saints kept throwing late in the fourth quarter to help Brees break the record by three yards.
"It's our job as a defense to stop the offense," Smith said. "It's the offense's job to try to gain yards and they're going to gain yards in whatever way that they think they need to do it and we didn't get it done."
The Falcons close with the reeling Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then will likely either face New Orleans, the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
"I'll be quite frank with you, I'm not concerned about our seeding, who we're going to play," Smith said. "There's a lot of football to be played this last weekend. I think we have to focus on what we can control and that's going out and playing effective football against Tampa Bay."
Then he can turn his attention to the playoffs. The Falcons are 0-2 in the playoffs under Smith. They were upset both times. In 2008, they were favored to beat Arizona, but loss. Last season, they were the NFC's No. 1 seed at 13-3, but were routed 48-21 by Green Bay at the Georgia Dome.
"We'll find out after the game where we're going in terms of the second season," Smith said. "We're excited about the opportunity. It doesn't feel good right now after the performance that we had (against New Orleans), but we can't worry about the playoffs."
This will be the first time in franchise history that the Falcons have made the playoffs in consecutive years.
Smith will join Leeman Bennett as the only coaches in franchise history to take teams to the playoffs three times.
Bennett guided the Falcons to the playoffs after the 1978, 1980 and 1982 seasons. Dan Reeves guided them to the playoffs twice and to their only Super Bowl appearance after the 1998 season.
Jerry Glanville (1991), June Jones (1995) and Jim Mora (2004) each guided the Falcons to the playoffs once.
"I can assure you, for our organization, our goal is not just to make the playoffs," Smith said. "Our goals are much higher than that and we have a roadmap that you have to follow to get there."
SERIES HISTORY: 37th regular-season meeting. Buccaneers lead series, 19-17. The Bucs won 16-13 on Sept. 25 in the last meeting. The Falcons had won the last five games against the Bucs.
--Mike Peterson suffered a torn triceps in the 45-16 loss to the Saints on Monday night and was placed on injured reserve. Spencer Adkins will make his first start in the NFL when the Falcons (9-6) face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Adkins, who has been inactive for five games this season, was drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL draft from the University of Miami.
"I've been ready," Adkins said. "I've been watching these guys that I've been behind. I've learned from them. I have just been preparing myself for this time."
He will continue with his roles on the special-team units.
"I just have some extra baggage that I have to take care of," Adkins said.
Adkins has played a lot in the last two exhibition seasons. He played in five games as a rookie, nine games last season and 10 games this season. He had two tackles in the first meeting with Tampa Bay on Sept. 25.
Peterson, who was in his 13th season, was playing well. He had 13 tackles against Houston. His torn triceps will require surgery.
"No one can replace Pete," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "He brings a certain swagger and nasty attitude. He's irreplaceable. I love having him out there."
--Former Georgia Tech standout Kevin Cone, who's been on the Falcons' practice squad all season, was added to the 53-man roster Wednesday.
Also, LB Robert James was added to the active roster. The Falcons had room after placing LB Mike Peterson (torn triceps) and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (dislocated toe/turf toe) on injured reserved.
The Falcons also added LB Matt Hansen to the practice squad. He played strong safety while he was with the team in training camp, but he was a linebacker in college at Rhode Island.
"We anticipate (Thursday) that the majority of those players that were limited will be back," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
He also said he's hopeful the Falcons will get LB Stephen Nicholas back for the playoffs.
--TE Tony Gonzalez was the only player on the team to make the Pro Bowl. WR Roddy White and special teams player Eric Weems were first-team alternates.
LB Curtis Lofton felt that he and Sean Weatherspoon had a shot to make the NFC all-star team. Gonzalez said QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner were snubbed.
"If it's based on how you play and your stats, me and Spoon should have been in there," Lofton said. "I guess that I'm on the London Fletcher plan. He didn't make it (until his 12th season)."
Lofton felt that with the Falcons winning that they are clearly under-represented.
"It was a little bit strange," Lofton said. "Anytime that you're having success and making it to the playoffs, you figure that you'd have more than one guy go. That just didn't happen and I'm disappointed."
--Because the Falcons play at 4:15 p.m., they will know the outcome of the Detroit at Green Bay game when they take the field. The outcome of that game will dictate if the Falcons can move up to the No. 5 seed.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton doesn't plan to watch the game.
"We still have to go out and take care of business," Lofton said. "I want to go out, win this game and get to 10-6."
TE Tony Gonzalez plans to watch.
"Yeah, I'll pay attention to it because you want to know who we need to get ready for," Gonzalez said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 10-2 -- Saints coach Sean Payton's record against the Falcons.
373 -- Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for a season-high 373 yards. His previous high this season was 351 yards against the Saints on Nov. 13.
255 -- The combined yardage total for wide receivers Roddy White (127) and Julio Jones (128) against the Saints.
13 -- Matt Ryan has thrown at least one touchdown in 13 straight games and in 29 of his last 30 games.
145 -- Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton leads the team with 145 tackles, according to the coaches' stats after film review.
178 -- Tight end Tony Gonzalez has caught at least one pass in 178 straight games.
117 -- Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, despite missing three games and major parts of two others, could hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark with 117 yards over the last two games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's going to be some weeks where you don't play as well as you would like and don't have the outcome that you expect to have. But part of being a professional is putting it behind you, focusing in on the next opponent." -- QB Matt Ryan on rebounding from the 45-16 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
In both games against the Saints, the Falcons have moved the ball well, but have not been able to turn the yards into points. Matt Ryan passed for 351 and 373 against the Saints, but in both games the Falcons were 0 for 3 on trips inside the red zone.
They must rediscover their red zone offense before going to the playoffs or they'll suffer another early exit.
"I think we've got to have a great week of preparation, we've got to prepare well and then we've got to play well and try to carry that over," Ryan said.
--WR Julio Jones has six touchdown receptions this season, including four in the last three games. He has also hauled in a touchdown in three consecutive games. He has had five 100-yard games this season. The rookie out of Alabama has posted 317 yards on 16 receptions with four touchdowns in his last three games.
--QB Matt Ryan became just the second quarterback in franchise history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season after posting a career-high with 373 passing yards. This season, Ryan has thrown for 4,065 yards, which trails QB Jeff George's club record of 4,143 yards, set in 1995, by just 78 yards. Ryan has thrown for 300-or-more yards in six games this season breaking George's team record of four 300 yard games in 1995.
--PK Matt Bryant has converted 26 of 28 field goal attempts this season and his 51-yard kick at New Orleans was the longest road field goal of his career and tied for his second longest kick overall. Bryant's previous road long field goal came in Week 4 at Seattle when he put a 50 yarder through the uprights.
--WR Roddy White caught a season-high 11 passes for 127 yards. White has recorded back-to-back games with 10-plus catches and has caught 10-or-more passes in three of the last five games. White, a first alternate for the Pro Bowl, has totaled 96 receptions for 1,227 yards and is closing in on his second consecutive 100 catch season.
--TE Reggie Kelly who took a vicious hit to the back in the Saints' game was limited in practice on Wednesday.
--WR Kerry Meier (groin) did not practice and is unlikely to play against Tampa Bay.
--DE Ray Edwards (knee) missed practice on Wednesday. He has not missed a game all season.
--LB Stephen Nicholas (toe) did not practice, but could return for the playoffs.
--WR Harry Douglas (groin and shoulder) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Tampa.
--CB Brent Grimes (knee) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Tampa.
--WR Julio Jones (ankle) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Tampa.
--MLB Curtis Lofton (ankle) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Tampa.
--RB Michael Turner (groin) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Tampa.
--TE Michael Palmer (knee) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Tampa.
GAME PLAN: The Falcons plan to review their rushing attack. They know they'll need to run the ball much better if the plan to make a run in the playoffs.
RB Michael Turner has not rushed for more than 76 yards over the past five games and has averaged just 3.1 yards per carry
They will try to get things rolling against Tampa Bay, which held them to 30 yards rushing on 15 carries, their lowest output of the season.
They should be able to get rolling against the Bucs who gave up 270 yards rushing to Carolina and appear to be mailing it in.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Buccaneers RG Davin Joseph vs. Falcons DT Corey Peters -- Through the Bucs' difficult season, Joseph has continued to play at a high level and was rewarded with his second Pro Bowl selection. Peters, a second-year player, is having a fine season with 30 tackles, six tackles for losses, three sacks and one interceptions.
Buccaneers CB Ronde Barber, who's in his 15th season, vs. Falcons WR Roddy White, who's closing in on 100 catches for the second consecutive year -- Since the Bucs placed Aqib Talib on injured reserve, Barber had taken over his role in the secondary. He did a good job on Carolina's Steve Smith last week, holding him to one reception for nine yards. White has finished the season strong and needs four catches to reach 100.
Buccaneers WR Kellen Winslow, who leads the team in receptions with 68, vs. Falcons SLB Spencer Adkins, who will be making his first NFL start -- Winslow has 707 yards and two touchdowns. He only caught two passes for 20 yards in the 16-13 win over the Falcons on Sept. 25. Adkins, primarily a special teams player, will start because of injuries to Stephen Nicholas (toe) and Mike Peterson, who was placed on injured reserve with a torn triceps.