FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The music was blaring in the Atlanta Falcons locker room Tuesday, which made it seem like old times.
The Falcons (2-8) are mired in a four-game losing streak and all but assured of their first losing season since 2007 heading into Thursday's prime-time game against the first-place New Orleans Saints.
For players such as quarterback Matt Ryan, these are the strangest of times.
"It's certainly not fun when you're not in the mix," Ryan said. "That's part of this league. There are times when it can be humbling. You've got to keep you head down and keep going. I think you learn from everything, the good and the bad, and sometime you learn more from the bad than the good. I think everybody is trying to learn from it, apply it to themselves and find ways to get better, find ways to use it as motivation."
The Falcons' last losing season came before Ryan, coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and nearly everyone on the roster arrived in Atlanta.
Beginning in 2008, that nucleus put together five straight winning records, four trips to the playoffs, two division titles and an oh-so-close run for the Super Bowl that came up 10 yards short last season.
"If you had told me in training camp this would be going on," strong safety William Moore said, "I wouldn't have believed it."
The Falcons started the season with a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality, but that quickly fell apart as the team was hit by devastating string of injuries — star receiver Julio Jones is among four starters out for the year, while others have missed extensive time — and couldn't overcome poor performances by the offensive line and several players who were key to a 13-3 record in 2012.
While the early losses were close, the Falcons have been thoroughly embarrassed during their current skid, getting outscored 135-61. Really, it hasn't even been that close. Last Sunday, Atlanta fell behind 38-6 to lowly Tampa Bay before making the final look a bit more respectable, 41-28.
Not surprisingly, coach Mike Smith is pondering more lineup changes after shaking things up against the Buccaneers. He moved center Peter Konz to guard, then yanked him from the game after he struggled at the new position. Also, rookie Zeke Motta took over for free safety Thomas DeCoud, a Pro Bowler last season who hasn't come close to matching that level of play.
"The snap count will change," Smith said after practice. "There are some guys that deserve the opportunity to go out and play. They've been working extremely hard. We will let those guys that have had some production in limited snaps have an opportunity to go out and take more significant snaps."
The most obvious choice to get more playing time is running back Antone Smith, who's in his fifth season with the Falcons but has gotten most of his playing time on special teams. Finally, with the Falcons ranked last in the league in rushing and hopelessly behind against the Bucs, Smith got a chance to run the ball. He accounted for 88 yards on two carries, including a 50-yard touchdown.
Astonishingly, that was a season high by any Falcons' back.
"If the opportunity presents itself, I'll be ready for it," Smith said.
In essence, everyone is getting a head start on next season. The Falcons will surely spend these last six weeks — which are essentially meaningless in the short term — to get an idea of who can help turn things around over the long haul.
For a player such as DeCoud, it's a chance to show this season is just a nightmarish aberration.
"You definitely want to finish strong," he said. "As a professional, this is our business. We own our brand. You've got to make sure you put the best foot forward for your brand."
NOTES: The Falcons were stunned by the news that LB Thomas Howard, who spent three weeks with the team before being released last week, was killed Monday in a high-speed car crash in California. "It's crazy just to think about it," LB Akeem Dent said. "Having a guy here last (week), and now he's gone. It just puts things in prospective. Life is short." The 30-year-old Howard played sparingly during his time with the Falcons and was cut when Sean Weatherspoon was activated from the injured list. ... TE Tony Gonzalez (toe) and DE Malliciah Goodman (calf) did not practice Tuesday. Gonzalez sat out some practices last week with the same injury, but played against the Bucs.
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