BY Doug Farrar 08:46AM 12/16/2010

Falcons do the little things right

The Atlanta Falcons read like a perfect Football 101 primer, but is anyone really paying attention?

The Seahawks will have to line up in lockstep to match Atlanta's synchronized execution (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

They are the unsexiest 11-2 team you will ever see. They block and tackle exceedingly well, but they do so with precious little fanfare. Even young quarterback Matt Ryan, who has become one of the NFL’s best in just his third season, has a nickname (“Matty Ice”) more representative of his glacial cool under pressure than anything based on flash.

The Atlanta Falcons aren’t boring, really – just the most fundamentally sound team in the league – but such positives don’t make for good copy. When the NFC’s best teams are discussed, the Falcons are often mentioned with a cursory namecheck, and it’s then on to whichever NFC East entrant currently has the best record. But it’s this supposed Little Team That Could, which its piecemeal offensive line, underrated defense, and painstakingly built roster of young talent, that poses the biggest threat to anyone claiming a conference championship as a beacon of hope.

These Falcons will throw pass after pass from Ryan to receiver Roddy White, bash running back Michael Turner up the middle over and over, and trot their bend-but-don’t-break defense out on close win after close win. Then, they’ll wrap it up and go home, as quietly as they came.

But those in the know, starting with Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, have seen enough to understand just how deadly this group can be – especially to a Seattle defense that has been springing too many leaks over the last few games.

“Boy, this is a really good group,” Carroll said of Atlanta’s offense on Wednesday. “They have the right make-up, with the tight end as well. Tony Gonzalez is still a big factor. There is a huge difference, though, when you see that Roddy White’s got 99 catches, Tony’s the next guy at 58, and the next guy (receiver Michael Jenkins) has 28. So, they really feature those two guys, and you can see why (on film). Michael Turner is a tremendous player for an offense, and (they have) a quarterback who’s efficient. That’s why they are as they are – they’ve got all the guys in the right places.”

Carroll also understands that, just as he’s trying to piece together an offensive line out of high high draft picks and spare parts, the Falcons have established a line through the time-tested methods of coaching and continuity. Line coach Paul Boudreau is one of the most respected at his position in the game, and he worked under Carroll in New England in 1997 and 1998. Nobody knows better the challenge Seattle’s defense will face.

“They are a really good unit,” he said. “They formation you and try to get you in bad positions. They hunt and peck, and when (offensive coordinator) Mike (Mularkey) finally figured out what you are doing, he is going to hammer it home if you can’t adjust. It’s a really good challenge for (Seahawks defensive coordinator) Gus (Bradley), and myself, and the guys on defense to try and figure out the best way to try and figure out the best way to minimize and offset the things they do well.”

Atlanta head coach Mike Smith, like most main men with a defensive background, preaches fundamentals above all, and that’s been passed on through the organization since he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff took over a very dysfunctional team and penned a worst-to-first story in 2008.

“We know that about half the games (in the NFL) are going to be decided by eight points or less, and about 25 percent are going to be decided by three points or less,” Smith said. “There are a couple of tenets we’ve talked about from the very beginning about what kind of football team we want to be. I mentioned being a physical team. The other one is playing smart. We try to play penalty-free football if we possibly can … we try to put a lot of emphasis on what takes place in the fourth quarter. Fourth-quarter penalties are more (troublesome) because the majority of games are going to come down to the fourth quarter. We talk about fourth-quarter sacks because those are game-changing plays. I think our guys have really bought into this – regardless of what happens, if we’re resilient and keep our heads down and play hard – I know it sounds simplistic, but you’ll like where you are at the end of the ballgame.”

Simplistic it may be, but these things are not simple to execute on a regular, repeatable, consistent basis. The Falcons had the league’s fewest penalties through the season’s first 12 weeks with just 53, they’re converting 48 percent of their third down chances (second in the league to New Orleans’ 50 percent), and they’re +11 in turnover differential – only three teams are better, and all three (New England, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) are high in the playoff hunt.

The Atlanta Falcons are most dangerous precisely because they fly under the radar, with perfect tactical and technical support. This is the kind of team that could win a Super Bowl before anyone even notices. And if the Seahawks aren’t very, very careful, these Falcons will take Seattle’s playoff hopes with them when they leave town.