FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Among the final four teams, it's the Atlanta Falcons that are doubted, disrespected and dismissed.
And, yes, the Falcons will use the perceived season-long slight to stoke their fire prior to Sunday's NFC Championship battle against the San Francisco 49ers. Heck, ESPN didn't even send a camera crew to the top-seed Falcons' headquarters this week.
"I turn ESPN or the NFL Network on and they're not talking about us -- everybody's talking about San Fran's quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, Tom Brady or Joe Flacco,'' veteran linebacker Mike Peterson told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday.
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"We're the No. 1 seed in our conference. So I'll remind the guys on Sunday when we're getting ready to go out on that field, I'll be the one reminding them in my pre-game speech that in our biggest games, we're the team nobody is talking about.
''We're the underdog -- we're all we got, that's all we need.''
It's a belief that in the nation's consciousness, the Falcons have already been eliminated and the second-seed 49ers have been given a bye to Super Bowl XLVII.
"We've had that (expletive) from Day 1," said Peterson, a 14th-year veteran.
"I don't think me or anybody in this locker room has a problem with playing the underdog role -- being the team that everybody is doubting."
It is quite the opposite, actually. They are embracing their lack of recognition as a sexy team lacking sizzle as they fly well below the radar.
"We've been underestimated and called over-rated throughout the whole course of the season,'' safety Thomas DeCoud says. "That's nothing new to us. We're just going to attack this week like we have every other week up to this point to make sure we're prepared on Sunday.''
One sure way to get everyone's respect -- win two more games and hoist a Lombardi Trophy inside the Mercedes Benz Superdome on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
"We can't listen too much to what's said outside the locker room,'' veteran center Todd McClure said. "At the end of this season, we want to be the team that everyone is talking about.''.
Running back Michael Turner said the 14-3 Falcons have played with a chip on their collective shoulder pads since they were knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Giants, 24-2 last January.
"We haven't been getting respect all year,'' he said. "We've got all of us 53 in this locker room. That's all we need. And we know to get respect, we have to earn it. We're not expecting any handouts.''
One thing is certain: Quarterback Matt Ryan will continue ignoring the negativity as he did by changing the channel from ESPN's criticism of his team to watching reality television with his wife.
"I'm not going to change anything I've done the last couple of weeks and that's been to try and keep everything quiet and not worry about what's being said and what's being written,'' Ryan said. "I just want to focus on what I can control and that's just having myself well prepared, being on top of our game plan and trying to have a really good understanding of the defense that I'm going against.
"Beyond that, I don't really worry about what other people think.''
It sure can't hurt their quest for respect that first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is scheming a way to stop the team that fired him four years ago.
"I wouldn't doubt that he has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder,'' DeCoud said. "It's the NFC Championship game and everybody wants to go out and play well. But there's a little extra oomph to it.
"We've been the underdogs, the team that's not as good as everyone thinks we are the whole season,'' DeCoud says. "We're just going to continue to ride that wave.''
How far can they ride it?
"The main thing is that we go out there and win, whether we're respected or not,'' kicker Matt Bryant said. "It's about getting that win and going and getting that trophy.''
By Jim Corbett