ATLANTA - It's not often when pitching a shutout is met with a shrug, when thumping the defending Super Bowl champions elicits a yawn, when rolling through the season and getting nothing more serious than a few knee scrapes causes a massive breakout of sarcastic and hysterical snickering.
Welcome to the world the Falcons created for themselves, for better and also for worse.
They awaken Monday tied for the best record in football. Their quarterback has all but secured a top-five finish in the MVP voting, and their defense, led by a sticky-fingered cornerback who's starring right now in Eli Manning's nightmare, is a good reason why the Georgia Dome is tough on tourists from the NFL.
"We feel we're a dominant football team," said cornerback Asante Samuel.
Oh, a good segment of football feels that way about Atlanta right now. The film and the standings, they don't lie. Just the same, the idea of the Falcons being the team to beat next month is welcomed with arms folded, not open. There's a let's-wait-until-the-playoffs reaction to any good the Falcons might do these days, a sentiment that was likely heightened, not squelched, after the 34-0 pasting they just put on the Giants.
Ask yourself which is fresher in your memory: This game against the Giants, or the previous one last January? The one where the Falcons couldn't crack the end zone or even the first-down marker when it counted? The one where the Falcons simply continued a disturbing trend in the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era of being one-and-done in the playoffs?
See, fair or not, that's what the 12-2 Falcons are up against. This franchise hasn't won a playoff game since 2004 and only two since the Dirty Bird Super Bowl season of 1998. There's this thick wall of suspicion surrounding everything they do right now, which is sad, since a lot of what they're doing is impressive. Ryan can outplay Manning, as he did Sunday, and the Falcons can dominate at the Dome and still not convince most everyone that the road to the Super Bowl will travel through Atlanta.
"We haven't gotten it done," Samuel admitted.
Well, there's really nothing they can do except wait. But it would certainly help if they grabbed home-field advantage in the next few weeks, given that they've won 11 straight at the Dome. And punish teams as they did the Giants to at least raise the possibility of a Super Bowl appearance if all goes right.
Last January in the Meadowlands they didn't even compete, losing 24-2 and serving no purpose except to launch the Giants' journey to the Super Bowl. In that game, Ryan was invisible, Smith failed on a critical fourth-and-short and, for the third time under Smith, Atlanta had nothing to show for a season's worth of hard work. That's why Sunday was important, if only to put some distance between then and now, if Week 15 can actually do that.
Ryan threw three touchdowns and watched his defense pick Manning twice and keep the Giants no closer to scoring than a missed 30-yard field goal. It was about as clean and thorough a game the Falcons or any team can play against another playoff contender, in such dominating fashion, too.
"The good thing is we don't beat ourselves up when we lose, and we won't celebrate too much after this," said tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons are all but assured home field, except that didn't work out so well two years ago, when the Packers rolled up 442 yards and Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdowns. That's when the seed of doubt was planted about this team and coach and quarterback, who did themselves no favors by following one flop with another.
So now they'll go into the playoffs lumped with everyone else, with the Packers and 49ers and maybe even the Giants, if New York can recover the next few weeks and catch fire like last year after a 7-7 start. Besides, the Falcons are hardly a perfect team anyway; their running game is woefully average because Michael Turner looks slow and old most Sundays and had his carries cut in half lately. Also, Atlanta did lose last week to the Panthers, further calling into question its dominance. But the string of playoff losses and the perceived disrespect has hardened them and forced them to pull off what they did to the Giants. They never really had much of a choice.
"After what we went through in the playoffs," said Gonzalez, "we had to do this. It was the type of situation where a lot of questions were going to be asked, win or lose. Well, we answered questions being asked by ourselves and the league."
Well, yes. But not quite. Gonzalez has been around a few years. He's smart enough to know that you don't prove a point in December, not with the Falcons' history, not with a team that's built to go deeper than Julio Jones on a fly pattern. They know, and we know, that wait-and-see is the best and safest approach to take with the Falcons, and you know what? They're OK with that.
"People don't remember what you do in October and November," said Smith. "It's all about what happens in December and January."
It's a very tired theme, but a necessary one, attached to the Falcons. Might as well make it their 2012 slogan. At least give them props for taking it in stride and taking it out on all but two teams this season. Give them the regular-season respect earned by a team that just delivered what might be the most impressive game of the year in the NFL, considering the opponent and the stakes and the memory of a disastrous game last January.
"For us it's always been, do you play hungry or do you fall back? I think we'll go in a positive direction," said Samuel. "This is what we needed to take care of at this time. We wanted another opportunity at the team that eliminated us and got our shot. Now we go from here."
The Falcons would love to get the next few weeks over with and get to the good part. You might say they're in a hurry to rush past the snickers and snide remarks, reach the playoffs and this time, earn the opportunity to laugh at the team they used to be.