Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan (2) throws a pass against the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
ATLANTA -- The guys who currently play for the Atlanta Falcons find it a little hard to believe.
Nine wins used to be a big deal for this franchise?
"Really? I never knew that," said defensive end Ray Edwards, who signed with the Falcons before this season. "I guess times have changed."
Indeed, they have.The Falcons (8-5) are on the verge of their fourth straight winning season heading into Thursday night's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9). Not so long ago, that sort of sustained success would've seemed unimaginable.Remember, this was a team that went through its first four decades in the NFL without so much as back-to-back winning seasons.
"That's crazy," said defensive tackle Corey Peters, who's in his second season with the Falcons. "Since I've been here, it's all about winning. The attitude is a winning one."
Owner Arthur Blank brought a higher level of professionalism to the Falcons when he purchased the team nine years ago, but things really turned around in 2008 when he hired Thomas Dimitroff as general manager and Mike Smith as coach.
Reeling from a dismal season in which franchise quarterback Michael Vick went to prison, Atlanta quickly turned things around under its new regime with a surprising run to the playoffs. After going 9-7 in 2009 but missing the postseason, the Falcons soared to 13 wins and the NFC South championship a year ago.
Now, anything less than a Super Bowl championship would be considered a disappointment.
Quarterback Matt Ryan said the expectations "have changed, certainly, from where we were four years ago. That's what you want. You want to be moving in the right direction. You want expectations to be high."
Smith barely acknowledged the chance to wrap up another winning mark in prime time. He's clearly got bigger goals in his sights.
"I haven't even thought about that," the coach said, chuckling. "The significance of this game is we're continuing to be in the conversation to be a relevant team here in December. We want to have sustainability, and I guess one of the measuring sticks of sustainability -- maybe at the low end -- is winning seasons. But there's other things on the high end in terms of how you measure your successes."
In a sign of how much the expectations have changed, the Falcons actually consider this season a bit of a disappointment, even though they're leading the NFC wild-card race and can wrap up another trip to the playoffs by winning their final three games.
Atlanta came into the season rated as one of the leading Super Bowl contenders, especially after making a blockbuster trade on draft day to land receiver Julio Jones.
But the Falcons are unlikely to win another division title -- New Orleans has a two-game lead with only four weeks remaining -- and have yet to play with the sort of consistency they showed in 2010.
In a sense, last week's victory over Carolina epitomized the entire season.
The Panthers raced to a 23-7 halftime lead, but the Falcons were a different team after the break. Ryan threw three touchdown passes, the defense came up with two huge interceptions and Atlanta rallied for a 31-23 victory.
"We've been trying to do that all season long," Smith said. "We would like to continue to play with the consistency we played with in the second half of the ballgame in Charlotte. It was obviously much better than the first half. That's something we've been striving for. Unfortunately, we're still having to have a conversation about it."
The Jaguars would love to have Atlanta's problems. Jacksonville cut veteran quarterback David Garrard less than a week before the season opener, coach Jack Del Rio was fired after a 3-8 start, and original owner Wayne Weaver sold the small-market franchise to Illinois businessman Shahid Khan. The $760 million deal was approved Wednesday, giving the NFL its first minority owner.
"It's a business. That's what guys have to understand," star running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. "You have to produce. If you don't, they'll get someone who will."
Jones-Drew and the Jaguars certainly produced last week, putting together their best effort of the season for interim coach Mel Tucker. After falling behind to Tampa Bay, they ripped off 41 straight points for a 41-14 victory, scoring on offense, defense and special teams.
For one week, at least, all the problems were put on the back burner.
"A lot of things we worked on in practice panned out in the game," said Jones-Drew, who set a franchise record with four touchdowns. "It was a great step forward for what we want to become in the future."
Injuries have been a prime culprit in the disappointing season. Jacksonville has 27 players on injured reserve, more than any other team, and the situation is so dire at some positions that receiver Taylor Price and safeties Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Darcel McBath -- all signed in the past 10 days -- could play significant roles against the Falcons.
The schedule isn't doing the Jaguars any favors, either. This will be their third game in 11 days, a brutal stretch that led Jones-Drew to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber, hoping it would help his body bounce back quicker than normal.
"I don't know if you ever prepare for something like this," Tucker said. "But the clock is ticking. We're just doing the best we can with these guys to keep focus on coaching, teaching and motivating."
Like everyone in Jacksonville, Tucker is essentially auditioning for next season. He's tried to keep those thoughts out of his mind.
"We want to get better. That's where our focus is," the interim coach said. "I'm not sure how things will end up for me personally. But that's not a concern right now."
Smith gave the Falcons a scare after the victory over Carolina. The coach experienced some sort of medical problem and was hustled to a hospital in Charlotte. After being examined for a few hours, he flew back to Atlanta in the middle of the night on the owner's private jet.Smith declined to give specifics on his illness, other than to say it was nothing serious and he was feeling fine.
The players are relieved he's OK.
"It's scary because, before anything, we're all people," Ryan said. "You develop relationships and you get to know somebody and you really care about them."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963