ATLANTA - With an unexpected prize already in hand, the Atlanta Falcons have even more within grasp when they meet the St. Louis Rams today.
The Falcons (10-5) can't wait for the playoffs after clinching their spot in the postseason last week, quite an achievement for a team that finished 4-12 in 2007.
'It's huge for us,' guard Justin Blalock said. 'To come from the beginning of this year, the negative expectations, the negative talk around our camp, it feels pretty good to be here.'
Everything fell into place for the Falcons to clinch their playoff spot last weekend: Atlanta won at Minnesota while NFC rivals Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina all lost.
There is more at stake this week. If Atlanta beats St. Louis and Carolina loses at New Orleans, the Falcons will win the NFC South and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said his players won't be celebrating their playoff berth when there is more to gain this week.
'I don't think our guys will be complacent,' Smith said. 'I think they understand this will be a 16-game regular season. I think the guys will be up for the challenge. They know if we play well and get the outcome we desire, there's a lot out there that can change.'
The end of the season is relief for the 2-13 Rams.
The Rams' nine-game losing streak is the longest for the franchise since its move to St. Louis in 1995.
But the Rams can look to the Falcons as a reason to envision better times in 2009. The Falcons were similarly dreadful only a year ago, finishing last in the NFC South in a season packed with controversy: Michael Vick's incarceration, Bobb Petrino's desertion. But rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has been the new figurehead for a brilliant turnaround.
Almost everything has come faster than expected for Atlanta, including the development and maturation of Ryan, who has passed for 3,280 yards with 15 touchdowns despite leading an offense that emphasizes the run.
'He is competitive, loves to compete, and goes hard,' said receiver Roddy White, who has 85 catches for 1,334 yards as Ryan's top target. 'He does everything to be great, and has been a great player this year.'
White could pass Alfred Jenkins' team record of 1,358 yards receiving set in 1981.
Michael Turner, a full-time starter for the first time in his first season in Atlanta, has 1,491 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. Turner already has the fourth-highest rushing total in team history.
The Falcons, who haven't lost back-to-back games all season, have won six of eight.
Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff talked so much of the long-term building process that they seemed almost reluctant to embrace the idea of making the playoffs this season.
'It's been accelerated,' Smith said of his team's stunning rush to the playoffs. 'I'm very excited about the direction this football team is going and the way this team has worked.'
Jim Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan as coach after the Rams' 0-4 start, says evidence of his team's refusal to quit has come in close losses the last two weeks.
The Rams fell 23-20 to Seattle on Dec. 13 before last week's 17-16 loss to San Francisco.
'We are what we are, but I will say this, they played their hearts out, every single guy on that team,' Haslett said. 'I didn't see one guy not playing hard to try to win the game.'