New England (3-0) at Atlanta Falcons (1-2)
Radio: 1240 AM
FLOWERY BRANCH — Key players are hurting. Close games aren't going their way. Practices are now closed.
The Atlanta Falcons weren't counting on a start like this.
Surely no one is hitting the panic button — after all, the Falcons haven't lost back-to-back games since 2009 — but there are sure signs of a team feeling a bit of desperation.
Most noticeably, the Falcons (1-2) announced Wednesday the media would be largely barred from watching practices the rest of the season — a first in Mike Smith's six years as coach.
"I don't want to get into the details," Smith said, "but any decision we make is a football decision and what we feel like is in the best interest of our football team. We simply made an organizational decision."
The Falcons head into Sunday's prime-time game against Tom Brady and the unbeaten New England Patriots already two games behind in the NFC South and trying to avoid falling two games under .500 for the first time since Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived on the scene in unison, transforming a once-moribund franchise into one of the NFL's best.
The players, as one might expect, kept insisting there's no greater sense of urgency than any other week.
"I wouldn't say there's any real panic," free safety Thomas DeCoud said. "If you start getting into panic mode or desperation mode, that's when it can be kind of hindering to what you're trying to do."
Coming into this season, the Falcons had spent a total of 35 days under .500 during Smith's first five years as coach — a span that included five straight winning seasons, four playoff appearances, two division titles, and a heartbreaking loss in last season's NFC championship game.
Not surprisingly, there's a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality in Atlanta — especially since Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez put off retirement specifically to take one more shot at a ring.
It's early, but the Falcons are off to a shaky start.
They opened with a 23-17 loss at New Orleans, getting stopped on fourth-and-goal in the final minute. Last week, Atlanta blew a pair of 10-point leads before giving up a late touchdown in a 27-23 setback at Miami.
Injuries have further dampened the team's mood.
The Falcons were missing five starters in the loss to the Dolphins, all hurt in a Week 2 victory over the St. Louis Rams. Defensive end Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing are done for the year, while linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is out for at least another seven weeks with a foot injury, costing the defense its emotional leader. Running back Stephen Jackson (hamstring) and offensive tackle Sam Baker (foot and knee) didn't play at Miami, either.
Jackson and Baker are still hurting and skipped practice Wednesday. So did star receiver Roddy White, who has played in all three games but continues to be slowed by a high ankle sprain he sustained almost six weeks ago in a preseason game.
The injury report was the main source of information after a two-hour practice, held in the team's indoor facility on a rainy afternoon. The Falcons changed their policy of allowing local reporters to watch workouts, barring the media from all but the first 30 minutes while the team was working on special teams — the minimum requirement under NFL rules. As soon as the team drills began, reporters were escorted back to the media room in a separate building.
On the field, strong safety William Moore feels like a bit of karma is at work.
A year ago, the Falcons went 13-3 while winning seven games by seven points or less — not to mention an improbable comeback in the playoffs to beat Seattle on the final play.
So far, largely due to a maddening inability to finish strong, the Falcons have twice come out on the wrong end of those sort of games.
"I hate to bring up last year," Moore said, "but when you go 13-3, think about all the games we won on those last-second touchdowns. That's all it's coming down to. You fall short sometimes. That's what's happening with us."
Under Smith, the Falcons have been able to avoid the sort of extended slumps that can ruin a season. They face the Patriots having won 14 straight after losses. It's been nearly four years since their last losing streak.
"It's very early in the season," the coach said. "Our sense of urgency is the same each and every week. You put the previous game behind you and move on to the next one."