After coming tantalizingly close to playing in Super Bowl XLVII in the New Orleans Saints’ home stadium — which would have been satisfying to say the least, considering the teams’ long-standing rivalry — the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday won’t be thinking about what might have been.
When the Falcons stroll into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the season opener with the Saints, there will be no time to look back and think about the 10 yards — just 30 feet — that separated them from a spot in the NFL title game seven months ago. Since the game is a early showdown of the teams that split the past four NFC South titles, the Falcons know nothing that happened last season will have a bearing on this game.
“Our approach doesn’t change,” coach Mike Smith said Wednesday on a conference call with Louisiana reporters. “It was tough the way our season ended. There is only one team that is happy at the end of the year. I told our guys when we came back (in April) that we are not 10 yards away from the Super Bowl — we are however many days we had from then to the next Super Bowl.”
Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan agreed that what happened to the Falcons — they were stopped on fourth down just 10 yards from San Francisco’s goal line in the NFC Championship game — will be used as a learning experience.
That’s important, Smith said, even though the Falcons were 13-3, won the division title by six games and earned NFC home-field advantage for their playoff run.
“I reiterate it to the guys all the time (that) you learn from things that go well for you ... and things that go poorly,” said Smith, who begins his sixth season as the Falcons’ coach with a 57-28 record. “There is positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. We’ve got to learn from it and make sure, when we’re in that position again, we do everything in our power to have a different outcome.”
Ryan, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, said the 28-24 setback to the 49ers provided the motivation to get them through a long offseason. But now, he said, they have to do something about it.
“You don’t want to be consumed with what we did last year because, obviously, it has no bearing on what’s going to happen this season,” said Ryan, who threw for 4,719 yards and 32 TDs a year ago. “The exciting part is what’s in front of us, the opportunity that’s in front of us this season. I think we learned from it. We used it as motivation, but I think we’re on to what we need to do now.”
The season opener provides a challenge for the Falcons on many fronts. In addition to playing their longtime rivals on the road, the Falcons will be facing a new-look Saints 3-4 defense installed by new coordinator Rob Ryan this spring.
They’re also venturing into the Superdome, which will be filled with Saints fans ready to wipe away memories of the miserable 7-9 season in coach Sean Payton’s first real game since the 2011 playoffs following his season-long suspension last year.
The different defensive challenge isn’t daunting to Ryan and his potent offense, which includes receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez and a top newcomer — perennial 1,000-yard rusher Steven Jackson.
“Rob does an outstanding job with his defenses everywhere he’s been,” Smith said. “He will create some issues for offenses. In the first week, it’s a little more extenuated because you won’t have film and you’re going to have to make adjustments on the sideline.”
Added Ryan: “It’s always a little more difficult when you’re going against a new coordinator (early in the year). We’ve played against Rob Ryan before and know the challenges his scheme presents. There are some, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
“We’ll have to make adjustments as we see during the game and get a feel for what they are trying to do and who’s going to be out there. But that’s the case for everybody this time of the year.”