The Atlanta Falcons are in the playoffs, which is something even their owner didn't believe would happen so soon after last year's well-publicized debacle.
"No, never. ... It really didn't cross my mind," Arthur Blank said outside a delirious visitors locker room after Sunday's 24-17 upset of the Vikings.
"This really is the season of miracles."
Last year was the season of unprecedented nightmares. The Falcons finished 4-12 while losing their franchise quarterback and coach in bizarre fashion. The quarterback, Michael Vick, the face of the NFL, was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring. The coach, Bobby Petrino, flat-out quit on his team after 13 games and crawled back to the college ranks at Arkansas.
"If you would have told me at the end of last season that 12 months later we'd be standing here with 10 wins and having clinched a playoff spot, I'd have said you're nuts," 10-year veteran center Todd McClure said. "But we had an awesome offseason. You could tell when we got to minicamp and OTAs [Organized Team Activities] that we had put some pretty competitive pieces together."
The Falcons hired Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff as general manager. Dimitroff hired Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith as head coach. And together they did just about everything right. Three of the highlights were hiring former Vikings tight end and Bills head coach Mike Mularkey as offensive coordinator, signing running back Michael Turner in free agency and drafting Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan third overall.
"Getting to the playoffs is a process you go through," said Turner, who ran for 70 yards and a touchdown Sunday. "I didn't know what to expect when I got here. I can't predict an NFL season. Nobody can."
The last time we saw the Falcons at the Metrodome was the season opener a year ago. They also had a quarterback who had entered the NFL as the third overall draft pick. But that's the only thing the well-composed Ryan has in common with twitchy Joey Harrington, the monumental draft bust by the Lions in 2002.
Harrington was a desperate signing made in the aftermath of the Vick fiasco a year ago. In his seventh snap with the Falcons, he threw a ball right to Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who returned it 54 yards for a touchdown. Harrington threw another interception that was returned for a touchdown by Antoine Winfield in the Vikings' 24-7 victory.
Sunday, Mularkey decided to open with a no-huddle attack. It was the perfect jump on the Vikings' pass rush. Ryan went 3-for-4 for 32 yards, including a 13-yard pass that set up Turner's 1-yard touchdown run. His poise in the face of a strong pass rush and a hostile crowd wouldn't end there.
In fact, it was the 23-year-old rookie who feasted on the Vikings' mistakes, leading Atlanta to 17 points off four fumbles and a short field created by a botched shotgun snap. Ryan didn't turn the ball over and took only two sacks when he could have taken many more.
"He's the most impressive rookie that I've ever played against," Vikings 12-year veteran safety Darren Sharper said.
Sharper might see him again in the playoffs, assuming the Vikings can do their part and win the NFC North.
"I don't know where the Vikings stand in their playoff hunt," said Blank, "but I wouldn't be shocked if we're back up here in a few weeks."
How could he? After all, the Atlanta Falcons are in the playoffs.
Mark Craig • firstname.lastname@example.org