FLOWERY BRANCH - Keith Brooking will be in the Georgia Dome several hours before the Falcons' 1 p.m. kickoff with St. Louis, so the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker won't see all the fans flocking to his team's regular season finale.
Suffice it to say that Atlanta's sudden rise from the wreckage of last year hardly looked like a sellout when the NFL released the 2008 schedule eight months ago.
And it doesn't seem that long ago to Brooking that he would look into the dome crowd and see several hundred Rams jerseys worn by fans of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
'We're back where we're supposed to be, in the playoffs,' Brooking said this week. 'I never stopped believing we could get this thing turned around, and it's great all the hard work we've done since coach (Mike) Smith got here has paid off.'
The Falcons' long-suffering history is well-documented.
Since their first game in 1966, the team has never managed consecutive winning seasons. It has just three division titles and nine playoff appearances in 43 years.
The all-time franchise record is 112 games under .500, a remarkably poor
winning percentage that would take the equivalent of seven consecutive unbeaten seasons with a pair of additional wins to even out.
'Nobody has seen more than I have in this locker room,' said Brooking, the longest-tenured Falcon at 11 years. 'What's so great is that we've come a long way in getting things corrected this year.'
In Brooking's rookie year of 1998, Atlanta won its only NFC championship, causing the former Georgia Tech standout to believe the franchise had turned itself in a new direction.
Brooking would know. He grew up in Senoia, starred at East Coweta High School and became leader of Tech's defense under coach George O'Leary.
During most of Brooking's life, the Falcons were a perennial NFL doormat, so it came as no surprise when they bottomed over the next three years with a combined 16-32 record.
The No. 1 overall drafting of Michael Vick briefly gave the team new life with playoff appearances in 2002 and '04, but the league's richest contract soon enabled the Atlanta quarterback to invest heavily in criminal dogfighting.
Vick landed in federal prison last year, and Brooking's third head coach since 2003, Bobby Petrino, quit without notice after losing 10 of his first 13 games.
'It's been such a blessing to come here every day and know that we're all on the same page,' Brooking said. 'That doesn't mean everyone in here is best friends with everyone else, but we all come to work for a common purpose, and that's to win football games.'
Close to the vest
Rookie Matt Ryan has thrown just nine interceptions in 413 attempts, giving the No. 3 overall draft pick a 2.18 interception percentage that ranks sixth-best in single-season franchise history among quarterbacks who threw at least 300 passes.
Steve Bartkowski's Pro Bowl season of 1983 resulted in just five picks and an Atlanta-best interception percentage of 1.16.
Predictably low-key, Ryan shrugged off the possibility of being named the league's rookie of the year. His primary competition is from Tennessee running back Chris Johnson and Baltimore QB Joe Flacco.
'It's something that I haven't really given much thought to,' said Ryan.