Falcons coach Mike Smith has learned that little credit is given for regular-season success when it is followed by postseason flops.
Smith is hoping the Falcons' impressive 34-0 shutout of the New York Giants on Sunday generates momentum to end the streak of disappointments in the playoffs.
The Falcons (12-2) need one win to secure home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. Atlanta has five straight winning seasons but is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith.
The Falcons have had better regular-season records than the Super Bowl winner in two straight seasons. That meant little as they lost to the eventual champion each year in the playoffs.
The Falcons were 10-6 last season before losing to the 9-7 Giants in the playoffs. The 2010 Falcons were 13-3 before losing to 10-6 Green Bay. The Giants and Packers were the hot teams that went all the way.
The lesson for Atlanta is obvious: Late-season momentum matters the most.
"I think it's important that you're playing efficiently and effectively in December and January, and I think that's what every team is striving for," Smith said Monday. "I think over the last two seasons, the teams that were playing well in December and got really rolling were the teams that had the most success and the teams that ultimately were the world champions. So I think momentum is very important."
Impressive regular-season records can be quickly forgotten.
"People don't remember what you do in September and October," he said. "It's all about December and January."
Atlanta plays Saturday night at Detroit before closing its regular season at home against Tampa Bay.
Quarterback Matt Ryan dismissed the notion that the surprising shutout of the Giants was Atlanta's long-awaited statement game to boost public perception of the team.
"That's not something that I think about, or worry about," Ryan said. "We still have some things in front of us, in terms of the regular season, that we want to accomplish and get done. That's what I spend my time thinking about."
Ryan outplayed New York's Eli Manning, who threw two interceptions. Ryan completed 28 of 33 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and broke his own franchise records for completions and passing yards in a season.
"I thought Matt had one of his best games since he's been here," Smith said. "He ran the offense extremely well. He exuded a lot of confidence. I think that permeated around the team."
Ryan threw two touchdown passes to Julio Jones and one to Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons' running game enjoyed a revival. Running backs Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for 33 carries for 116 yards. Turner had 52 yards rushing with a touchdown.
"It was nice to get it going," Smith said. "I thought we set the tempo early with our running game. It goes hand in hand. When you're able to start running the football, they have to devote more resources to stopping the run and it opens up the pass game."
Atlanta gave the Giants their first regular-season shutout loss since 1996. The Falcons held the Giants to 256 total yards.
"Shutouts are very hard to come by in the NFL," Smith said. "They don't come along very often. When you do accomplish it for your football team, it's not just the defense. The offense and special teams were contributing to that outcome as well. It's a sense of accomplishment because they don't happen very often."
It's difficult to do better than a December shutout against the team that beat Atlanta in last season's playoffs.
"It was an important game for our football team for the next three weeks," Smith said. "We're playing for a whole lot. There are still a lot of things that have to be determined in terms of seeding for the playoffs. That to me was two teams that were playing for a whole lot."
NOTES: Due to the Saturday game at Detroit, the Falcons will practice on Tuesday, normally an off day. Smith said it will be an important day for S William Moore, who missed Sunday's game with injured ribs. "We're hoping to get him back out there as quickly as possible," Smith said. "It's going to really be determined how his rehab goes tomorrow." ... The Falcons expect the league to review S Chris Hope's third-quarter hit on Giants receiver Victor Cruz that drew an unnecessary roughness penalty.