Falcons play we've-got-nothing-to-lose role to hilt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - The dateline says it all.

What is a team from a place like this, deep in the distant Atlanta suburbs, doing in a rough neighborhood like this season's NFL final four?

The Steelers, Patriots and Eagles all have lost three or fewer games, the Falcons five. The others play home games outdoors, the Falcons in a warm, comfy dome.

The others have long, proud histories and have at least sporadically enjoyed great success; the Falcons have won six playoff games in 39 seasons.

The others have coaches with extensive playoff resumes; the Falcons' Jim Mora is 43, a rookie head coach and the son of a guy who was 0-6 in playoff games.

Here the Falcons are, though, and they appear to be enjoying their outsider status immensely. Players all but grabbed cameras and notepads at their training facility here yesterday to ensure reporters were clear on which team faced the pressure in Sunday's NFC championship Game against the Eagles.

Hint: Not them.

"We were only expected to win five or six games, so we're just going out having fun," said defensive tackle Rod Coleman, who grew up in Philadelphia (as a New York Giants fan) and knows precisely what the Eagles are facing. "They have a tremendous amount of pressure on their shoulders, man."

The Falcons are more than just a happy-to-be-here X-factor, though. In his post-game exuberance after a divisional-round rout of the St. Louis Rams on Saturday, Mora said his team was playing with "house money."

On Monday, he clarified that remark, saying, "I use that term, but house money is earned money. ... You earned that money; now you have to make the right bets."

The Falcons are unusually well-equipped to do so for a dome team playing in January. Since the 1970 merger, teams with indoor homes are 0-8 on the road against outdoor teams in conference finals, but most of the losers did not have the kind of rushing game Atlanta does.

The Falcons ranked first in the NFL and thus insist they are unconcerned about the forecast for snow in Philadelphia.

That includes quarterback Michael Vick, who has rushed for 1,021 yards (including last weekend) and relies on quick cuts.

Asked about the effect an off track might have on Vick, injured safety Keion Carpenter, his best friend on the team, said, "Did you see the Green Bay game two years ago in the snow?" That would be the 27-7 playoff victory at Lambeau Field in which Vick ran for 64 yards and threw for 117.

The Falcons would rather not rely on their mediocre passing game, especially in bad weather, but will do so if they must. "If it comes down to the left arm, we'll be ready," Vick said. "Trust me. If it boils down to we've got to throw the ball 50 times, then I'm ready for it."

If they do have to pass, they can find comfort in the fact their top receiver, tight end Alge Crumpler, is 6 feet 2 and 262 pounds and should be able to plow through snow.

The Falcons' other strengths are special teams play - they ranked first in both punt returns and coverage - and a defense that led the league in sacks and features one of the league's best front fours.

It sounds like the makings of a legitimate Super Bowl team. But the Falcons would just as soon not no one knows that.

"The pressure's on [the Eagles]," said fullback Fred McCrary, a member of last season's Super Bowl-champion Patriots. "They have to win."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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