ATLANTA -- The most important lesson the Atlanta Falcons likely learned from last season was on display during their 22-10 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The Falcons didn't produce the prettiest of efforts, and there were plenty of moments when their playoff hopes seemed very much in danger. But after last year's devastating Super Bowl loss to New England, the Falcons know all too well that how you start means nothing. What a team does at the finish is the only thing that matters in the end.
Atlanta has another shot at a Super Bowl after qualifying for the last NFC wild-card spot with Sunday's win. The Falcons are back in the playoffs because they ended their regular season by handling what was well within their control. Atlanta came into this game knowing it could still reach the postseason with a defeat and a loss by Seattle. Rather than test that scenario, the Falcons made things much simpler on themselves by beating up on a Panthers team that had a shot to still win the NFC South.
It's hard to look at this year's Falcons and see the same dynamic squad that won the NFC last season with a prolific offense. What they do have is more maturity, more experience and more reason to enjoy a second shot at chasing a championship.
"We played good," Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. "That was one of our better games. We came together and we played like a whole group. We knew everything was on the line and we came into this game saying that we wanted no 'except fors.' We didn't want to say, 'Except for this or except for that.' Everybody had pride in doing their jobs to the best of their abilities and that's what we did tonight."
The most impressive aspect of Atlanta's victory was that it followed a script more familiar to those who know the Panthers well. The Falcons' defense dominated Carolina, containing star quarterback Cam Newton and limiting the Panthers to just 248 total yards. Atlanta's offense received key production in the passing game (quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 317 yards and one touchdown), while kicker Matt Bryant connected on all five of his field goals (including a 56-yarder). In a game when nothing came easily, the Falcons discovered more ways to find what they needed.
That's basically what Atlanta has been doing for most of the second half of this season. As close as the Falcons were to missing the playoffs, they also had been one of the more underrated teams in the league over the last few weeks. They responded to a disheartening slump -- losing four out of five games at one point -- by winning six of their last eight. Their two losses in that final stretch came against Minnesotaand New Orleans (by a combined 15 points), both of whom have been among the hottest teams in the league all year.
There was a point when the Falcons looked to be suffering from the same Super Bowl hangover that has plagued plenty of losing teams in the past. They deserve credit for vanquishing whatever issues led to their demise and finding new ways to thrive. Atlanta won't have the league's best offense this time around and the Falcons can deal with that. Their defense has grown to the point that it's plenty comfortable winning games as it did against Carolina.
"Tackling was really going to have to be on point in this game," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said after his team improved to 10-6. "Not just with the quarterback, but the running backs, receivers and tight ends. They have a full complement of guys, and they make you go through the whole process. ... The challenge was there for the D, and it was certainly one of [that unit's] better performances this year."
That defense will have to be even more on point when the Falcons travel to play the Los Angeles Rams next weekend. The Rams essentially have evolved into what Atlanta was last season, owning the highest-scoring offense in the league this year (29.9 points per game). The Rams have dangerous receivers, a versatile Pro Bowl running back in Todd Gurley and a rapidly maturing second-year quarterback in Jared Goff. Whereas everything Carolina does offensively stems from the brilliance of Newton, the Rams can sting an opponent through various methods.
The upside for the Falcons is that they realize how little flashiness means at this stage of the game. They had similar dynamic elements in 2016 -- along with a 28-3 lead over New England in the Super Bowl -- only to see all their hopes dashed in the end. The Falcons have gone a long way toward putting that pain in their rearview mirror. What they haven't done is forget the valuable experience they gained from going that far in the first place.
The Atlanta players already know enough about the postseason to keep their excitement in perspective. They did what they had to do to get in, but this is only the start.
"We just want to take it one game at a time," center Alex Mack said. "We don't have a bye this time and we're going on the road, but that's fine. I know it's a cliche, but it really does come down to us taking this thing one play at a time."
No offense taken here. The Falcons spent their entire offseason exorcising demons and most of this year reinventing themselves. They hired a new offensive coordinator, battled through their share of adversity and held their own in the toughest division in football. It might not have been the year they anticipated, but it's something far more important: It's the opportunity they've been looking for since their last football season ended.