Mike Smith had a simple question for his Atlanta Falcons as they looked ahead to the playoffs: “Why not us?”
The Falcons, who held off the St Louis Rams 31-27 on Sunday to clinch the No. 5 seed in the NFC, may believe anything is possible in the playoffs after their improbable regular season.
In his first year as coach, Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan led the Falcons to an 11-5 record one season after a 4-12 finish.
“We came a long way,” said Jerious Norwood, who ran for two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 45-yard run with 3:41 left. “Whoever would have thought we’d be in the playoffs?”
Atlanta’s hopes of winning the NFC South and gaining a first-round bye ended with Carolina’s 33-31 win at New Orleans.
The Falcons hoped for a home game but instead will travel to NFC West champion Arizona for a wild-card game next week.
Michael Turner added 208 yards rushing with a touchdown to counter Steven Jackson’s 30 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns for St Louis.
Soon after Norwood’s go-ahead touchdown late in the game, the video board posted a score that showed New Orleans leading Carolina 31-30. Wins by the Falcons and Saints would have given Atlanta the division championship.
Some players thought the Falcons won the division as Carolina’s late game-winning field goal was lost in the celebration of the win over the Rams.
“Until the game was over, I thought the Saints had won,” said offensive tackle Todd Weiner. “It was a little bit of a letdown, but we’re still in the playoffs and we have momentum going.”
The Falcons will take their first three-game winning streak of the season to Arizona.
Atlanta gave the Rams (2-14) their 10th straight loss.
“I thought we played about as well as we could play,” Rams coach Jim Haslett said. “Our guys played their hearts out. We just didn’t get it done. I was proud of the way we played. I think that the way that they played will define who they are next year.”
Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan after an 0-4 start, said he didn’t know if he would have an opportunity to return next year.
When asked if he’ll have an interview for the job, Haslett said: “I have no idea.”