FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Rarely at a loss for words, Atlanta Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud doesn't seem the least bit nervous that his football team is 60 minutes from reaching the Super Bowl for the second time in the franchise's 47-year history.
"Everything is clicking for us," he said when asked about this afternoon's NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers in the Georgia Dome.
"Sometimes you fly under the radar, surprise some teams. I think that's what's happened to us. We're coming off such a high after the Seattle game. We're relaxed. We're ready."
If Thursday's media opportunity was any indication, they certainly seem ready. Ready to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season. Ready to win it for the first time ever.
"I'd lose every playoff game [in my past] to win a Super Bowl," said 36-year-old tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was 0-5 in playoff games for his 16-year career before last Sunday's NFC divisional win over Seattle.
"But that's in the future. We've got a tough team to prepare for right now."
The Niners are tough. While Atlanta has posted the best record in the NFC this season (14-3), San Fran isn't far behind at 12-4-1.
In second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick the 49ers have a bigger, faster version of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for more playoff yards against Atlanta (385) than any rookie since Sammy Baugh in 1937.
"I'd say Russell Wilson is quicker," Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said, "but Colin's faster. He's more like [Carolina QB] Cam Newton."
For the record, Newton's Panthers soundly whipped Atlanta at home and nearly beat them in the Dome in late September.
"But I think facing Cam will help us against Colin," Weatherspoon said. "I think having played against Wilson will help us. I think we're ready."
Atlanta receiver Harry Douglas grew up 25 minutes south of the Georgia Dome in Jonesboro. When he was 14, his father drove him and his brother Toney -- now a guard on the NBA's Houston Rockets -- to Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII.
"The year the Falcons were in it," he said. "I don't remember much about the game, other than being sad the Falcons didn't win [against Denver]. I think I was just happy to go the Super Bowl with my family."
You get the sense that Atlanta wouldn't just be happy to be there this time. Coach Mike Smith's team knows its window to win it all may be small and shrinking.
Gonzalez is expected to retire at the close of this season. Though he isn't saying anything, center Todd McClure could as well.
"Right now I'm having fun," McClure said. "This team is having fun. This game is so hard -- it takes so much hard work -- that if it's not fun to come to work, you really have to think about how much longer you want to do it."
McClure faced such a decision in 2007, the autumn of Bobby Petrino running the club for 13 of the Falcons' 16 games before he ran off to the University of Arkansas.
"I was miserable," McClure said. "You couldn't even talk while eating. I remember telling my wife, 'I don't know if I can do this again under Petrino.'"
But then the franchise hired Smith. The first year produced a playoff berth. So have three of the four seasons since. And now the Falcons are 60 minutes from a Super Bowl, thanks to their first playoff win since 2004.
"We've pointed to this all year, since the first workouts last winter," said McClure, who's wrapping up his 14th season. "We know the 49ers are a great team, but we're a really good team, too. Let's see what happens."
So what will happen? As Gonzalez said of the Seattle win, "We got the monkey off our backs." Freed of that pressure, energized by a rabid fan base inside their dome sweet home, the Falcons will win 28-24.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...