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Falcons prep for - playoffs?

Surprising Atlanta can even earn a bye.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Mike Smith says it's too early for the Atlanta Falcons to reflect on defying expectations and making the playoffs.

The first-year head coach wants his players satisfied only with improving each week and taking incremental steps toward accomplishing the goal of winning Atlanta's first Super Bowl.

"I don't think the season's come to an end yet, and you're really judged on the whole piece of work," Smith said this week. "I'm very pleased with the way we've played up to this point, and we hope that it goes a few more weeks."

The Falcons (10-5) still have a chance to earn the NFC's No. 2 seed with a win Sunday over St. Louis (2-13) and a loss by Carolina at New Orleans. If the outcome of each game is favorable, Atlanta will have a bye and host a game in the NFC's divisional round on Jan. 10 or 11.

A potentially impressionable rookie such as quarterback Matt Ryan, a Penn Charter graduate, or linebacker Curtis Lofton might have developed a winning mind-set in a shorter time than a longtime veteran such as Keith Brooking, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker who has played under four full-time coaches in Atlanta (Dan Reeves, Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino and Smith), as well as two interim coaches (Wade Phillips and Emmitt Thomas) since 2003.

Nobody could have prepared for last year, which began with a federal indictment of Michael Vick and ended with the quarterback's incarceration and Petrino's coaching at Arkansas.

Petrino routinely made no eye contact with players in the hallways of the team complex. Smith's hiring changed player-coach relationships for the better. Smith meets weekly with players 30 and older so the coaching staff can keep open lines of communication.

Ryan's composure, on and off the field, might have meant more to the Falcons than any other windfall realized in 2008. The No. 3 overall draft pick seemed to learn quickly from every mistake he made.

"Obviously, the big question was how well Matt would perform as a rookie quarterback," Brooking said. "We knew there'd be bumps in the road, but it's unbelievable what he's done in such a short period of time with the guys on our offense."