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The contenders
Falcons making surprise push for playoff spot

ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons are becoming more than a feel-good comeback story.

With wins in six of their last eight games, the Falcons are an unlikely playoff contender one year after their 4-12 finish.

Sunday's 22-16 win at San Diego gave the surging Falcons (8-4) more momentum.

Hang on, first-year coach Mike Smith said Monday. The last four games of the regular season should be fun.

'If we'll work the process and if the players continue to mature like the young guys are and the old guys keep leading, we're going to like the outcome of these last four football games,' Smith said.

The Falcons showed strong balance in the win over San Diego. Former Chargers backup Michael Turner, making the most of his first year as a starter, had 120 yards rushing in his return to San Diego. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan completed 17 of 23 passes for 207 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the win.

Ryan has 13 touchdown passes with only six interceptions while completing 61 percent of his passes. Turner has 1,208 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. Roddy White has 1,085 yards receiving and six touchdowns.

Ryan quickly shifted his thoughts to what he called the 'last quarter' of the season.

'We're certainly in good position and we've got an opportunity, so we're excited about that,' Ryan said.

The Falcons, who visit New Orleans on Sunday, are third in the tough NFC South, one game behind Carolina and Tampa Bay.

The Falcons cleaned house in the offseason, trading or releasing such veterans as Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn, Rod Coleman and DeAngelo Hall. The stated plan from the new management team was to build for the future.

That plan seemed clear when Smith named Ryan the starter in the preseason: The Falcons were prepared for growing pains.

As the organization moved past the Michael Vick era, Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff talked before the season of changing the culture and keeping their focus on the future.

'I get excited when I see some of the talent here and I think some of the pieces are falling into place, but as we know with any rebuild, there are going to be some hard knocks and some tough shots along the way,' Dimitroff said in August.

The new-look Falcons have delivered more tough shots than they've received.

Atlanta's defense held two-time defending NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson to 24 yards on 14 carries, the second-lowest total of his career.

'I have to give credit to them,' Tomlinson said Sunday. 'We have been moving the ball pretty effectively on everybody. Today we couldn't move the ball, couldn't get first downs, couldn't run the ball and couldn't throw. Anytime that happens, that defense must be playing pretty good.'

Smith, the former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, bragged on Monday about 'a great job by our defense.'

'I thought they went in there with the right mind-set to stop the run,' Smith said.

The strong play by the defense helped Atlanta overcome three lost fumbles.

Smith said management's focus hasn't changed as the playoff chances have improved.

An example of the team's long-term emphasis has been the handling of rookie starting left tackle Sam Baker, who was not placed on IR after having back surgery on Oct. 30. Baker has remained on the active roster despite missing six games.

Were the Falcons thinking about possibly advancing to the playoffs when they decided against placing Baker on IR?

'We weren't looking that far ahead,' Smith said Monday. '... It would be best for Sam to play as many games as he can for us. This is a long-term process for the Atlanta Falcons and Sam Baker. We want to get Sam as much experience as we can.'

Baker will 'increase his activity' this week, according to Smith, who stopped short of saying he hoped to have the rookie back against the Saints.

'Hopefully he can come back as soon as possible,' Smith said.

The Falcons believe having Baker back for two or three games would be more important to the long-term plan than signing another lineman to give this team a boost in the push for a playoff spot.

'We try not to change,' Smith said. 'We try not to change how we do things from week to week. I think from the very beginning we said we were going to be systematic in how we approach everything that we do.'

SideBar: Falcons at Saints

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: New Orleans

TV/Radio: Fox, 92.9-FM