Stress levels rise for coaches, players and fans over the course of an NFL season, and it could become worse when playoffs enter the equation.
The Atlanta Falcons are now one of only a few NFC teams focused on extending the season, and the probability of that happening is still in question with three games remaining on the schedule. If the season concluded this past Sunday, the 8-5 Falcons would be in the playoffs for the second straight year and third time in the past four, but are still currently jockeying with the likes of Chicago, Detroit, the New York Giants and Dallas for a postseason spot.
The Falcons now have more on their minds, however, with the health of head coach Mike Smith now a concern.
Smith complained of chest pains following Atlanta's come-from-behind 31-23 victory at Carolina Sunday afternoon, forcing the team's charter flight to return to the gates after a lengthy delay on the tarmac. The team released a statement regarding the head coach's condition:
"Following the Falcons game vs. Carolina [Sunday], head coach Mike Smith was transported to a hospital in Charlotte for a non-emergency matter. Coach Smith is resting comfortably, his tests reaffirmed his health, and he is expected to be in Atlanta on Monday. The Falcons will provide further information as it becomes available."
Smith's health scare drew back memories of the Falcons' 1998 campaign, when then-head coach Dan Reeves was hospitalized a few days after undergoing surgery to clear three blocked arteries during that season. The Falcons were sizzling at the time and made it all the way to the Super Bowl that year, as star players such as quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Jamal Anderson vehemently stated how they weren't going to let Reeves down and were playing for him and his family at that juncture. The players kept their word before eventually dropping a tough one to a red-hot Denver team for the sport's ultimate prize.
Fast forward to today, and you couldn't find a soul in Atlanta's locker room that wouldn't go to war for Smith, and it's not only because of his recent health issue. It's due in part to Smith's belief in his players and how the Falcons in turn trust the philosophy of the coaching staff.
Smith can dial up the heat when he has to, but listening to his calm approach on a weekly basis draws the attention of coaches, players and fans. Coaches want to teach with him, players want to compete for him, while fans have adored him even when things aren't going so smoothly.
The Falcons expect their boss back in the Peach State on Monday and will get to work on a short week with a home game versus a confusing Jacksonville squad slated for Thursday. Atlanta is two games behind New Orleans for the NFC South lead with three contests remaining in the regular season, so the chances of winning the division for a second straight year seem slim with how well the Saints are playing. Therefore, it's beneficial for Atlanta to finish its own business and gear up for a Wild Card spot.
Atlanta enters this coming week tied with Detroit and one game ahead of Chicago and Dallas in the standings. The Falcons lost to the Bears in Week 1, a setback that could haunt them down the road, but their defeat of the Lions in Week 7 could work in their favor.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a plan for the regular season's last month of action and shared it after Atlanta overcame a 23-7 halftime deficit to beat the Panthers.
"The way I approached it was [Sunday's game was] the first of four legs," Ryan said after rallying his team past the Panthers. "We've knocked that first one out and now we've gotta move on. Regardless of what we thought coming in doesn't really make a difference. We were able to kind of pull it out, move on, and so for that I'm happy."
Much like his coach, Ryan was especially intrigued with rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, who hauled in two of the quarterback's four touchdown passes against Carolina, including a 75-yard catch-and-run score that put the Falcons ahead to stay with less than five minutes to go. Ryan said Jones' contributions doesn't surprise him, because he's witnessed it all year and has been impressed with the rookie's maturity and ability to respond when things don't go quite as planned.
That happens rather frequently at this level, and Ryan even added that on a week-to-week basis you're going to face tough teams and even harder situations. Sunday's comeback was just another example of that for an Atlanta squad that plays two of the three remaining games at home versus the Jaguars and Tampa Bay, with a road bout in New Orleans sandwiched in between.
Atlanta has an added incentive with Smith's health a hot topic, but the head coach won't be on the field with taped ankles and a helmet. Having won three of four and six of the past eight games, the Falcons still have some areas of concern moving forward. Pass defense and the defense's overall performance have been problems at times, and those issues must be addressed immediately.
The Falcons have been solid against the run, however, and will have a chance to prove that with Jaguars All-Pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew headed to the Georgia Dome later this week. Atlanta was able to successfully bottle up Panthers strong-running quarterback Cam Newton, holding the rookie to 36 yards rushing, but wide receiver Steve Smith caught six passes for 125 yards. Taking care of one problem usually leaves the door open for other malfunctions, as Sunday's result showed.
Smith usually has his players prepared and in position to contribute, as evidenced by a 17-3 record in games played after a loss under the current regime. Since 2008, the Falcons own an .850 winning percentage in games following a loss -- the second best percentage in the NFL behind only New England (.867). The Falcons hope they won't have to improve on that mark the rest of the season, however, since a chance for a playoff spot dwindles with each loss over the coming weeks.
One number the team can look forward to is Ryan hitting 100 or better in passer rating, with Atlanta a dominating 21-0 when "Matty Ice" reaches the century mark.
Smith and any other coach would take that in a heartbeat.