ATLANTA -- With nearly four decades on the books, the Atlanta Falcons are seriously lacking when it comes to a playoff pedigree.
Oh sure, they've had a moment here and there -- most notably, an improbable run to the Super Bowl during the 1998 season. But they'll never be mistaken for the Green Bay Packers or some other franchise with glorious lineage.
Well, the Packers are done for this season. And Jim Mora couldn't care less about the past.
Atlanta's rookie coach guided his team to the NFC South championship, only the third division title in the franchise's 39-year history. Tonight, the Falcons will be at home in the playoffs for just the fourth time, when they host the St. Louis Rams.
"I didn't pay attention to what had been," Mora said. "Let's create an environment, a culture, that we believe will help us be a team that can win consistently through the years. And we're off to a good start."
Granted, there have been a few false starts over the years.
In 1980, the Falcons were the top-seeded team in the NFC and hosted Dallas on a frigid day at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. With a 10-point lead and just five minutes to play, they gave up a pair of Danny White-to-Drew Pearson touchdown passes for a 30-27 loss.
During the '98 season, Atlanta won a team-record 14 games and pulled off the biggest victory in franchise history, a 30-27 overtime upset of the Minnesota Vikings to win the NFC Championship. Order was restored two weeks later -- team leader Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the Super Bowl, and the Falcons were blown out by Denver, 34-19, in John Elway's finale.
Two seasons ago, Michael Vick guided the Falcons to a stunning victory at Green Bay, the first time a visiting team had won a playoff game at Lambeau Field. But the Falcons lost in the second round at Philadelphia, then plunged to 5-11 last season after Vick broke his leg.
Now, as one of eight teams still alive, the Falcons are a bit out of place. The Vikings are the only other survivor that has yet to win an NFL championship, but at least they have played in four Super Bowls. While the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl, they did capture three league titles before the NFL-AFL merger.
"It's just a start," Mora conceded. "All these other teams that we're competing against in the playoffs have had their programs in place for a long, long time. We're just the new kids on the block, just trying to make a little headway."
If the Falcons are going to make any headway in this postseason, look for Vick to lead the way. The league's most unique weapon rushed for 902 yards and led the league at 7 1/2 yards per carry.
The Falcons also have Warrick Dunn (1,106 yards, nine touchdowns) and battering ram T.J. Duckett (509 yards, eight touchdowns), but Vick is the most integral part of the league's top running game. Only two other quarterbacks in NFL history have rushed for more yards in a season.
"Defending them is like defending the option," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "That's something the NFL has not seen before."
The Falcons rolled up 2,672 yards on the ground, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. The Rams rushed for 1,624 yards -- a staggering 1,048-yard gap.
Of course, the St. Louis offense is built around the deep pass. The Rams have a dynamic group of receivers, led by Torry Holt (94 receptions, 1,372 yards, 10 TDs) and Isaac Bruce (89 catches, 1,292 yards, 6 TDs). In fact, running back Marshall Faulk caught 50 passes -- two more than Atlanta's leading receiver, tight end Alge Crumpler.
"It's so much fun to watch their offense click," said DeAngelo Hall, the Falcons' rookie cornerback. "It's a shame we've got to go out there and try to stop them, because they're really a work of art."
Atlanta is likely to control the clock, but the Rams aren't worries about time of possession.
"If we can score quick, we will," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "If we can turn this game into a track meet, that will be fine with us."
St. Louis, wracked by injuries and infighting much of the season, has essentially been dealing with a playoff-type atmosphere for the past month.
With two weeks to go, the Rams were 6-8 and couldn't afford another loss. They beat Philadelphia and the New York Jets to sneak in as a wild-card team, then went on the road to beat NFC West champion Seattle in the opening round of the playoffs.
"This is like our fourth week in the playoffs," Bulger said. "It takes a toll on you."
The Falcons have essentially been off for the past month, their playoff positioning and first-round bye assured before the final two games of the regular season. They rested Vick and many of the regulars, lost both games, but come into the playoffs as the only team with no injuries to report.
From the enviable position, the Falcons hope this is start of a new era.
"Either we prove we're for real or we don't," Hall said. "If we don't, we're going home."