Falcons' investment in center Alex Mack paying big dividends

The Atlanta Falcons' investment in Alex Mack is paying off in a big way.

Nobody knew exactly what would transpire 10 months ago when Atlanta made Mack the NFL's highest-paid center.

He had spent his first seven years with little chance of going to the playoffs in Cleveland. The Browns, who drafted him in the first round in 2009 out of Cal, was 33-79 during his tenure.

But the Falcons' offensive line had been largely unproductive for three years. If the team was going to keep quarterback Matt Ryan upright and healthy, adding Mack seemed the best place to start.

Signing Mack to a five-year, $45 million contract has helped Atlanta build the league's highest-scoring offense. He's a Pro Bowl selection for the fourth time, and the Falcons are NFC South champions.

A victory Sunday over New Orleans will secure a No. 2 playoff seed, a bye and a home game in two weeks.

''It's been a very fun year but it was nerve-wracking at first,'' Mack said. ''Switch teams, new place, be in a new building. I think I hit the ground running pretty fast. I really wanted to see that team success, and we've done a good job of that.''

When Mack visited the Falcons on the first day of free agency, the team made sure he didn't leave without a record deal. The offense had top playmakers in Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman, but it needed an elite center to solidify the line.

''To get a guy who you know is a good player and you know the type of person he is, sometimes you have to do a lot to get that guy,'' offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. ''But if you're getting a good player who's that type of a person, to me it's usually a slam dunk. They're only going to help you.''

Shanahan was the Browns' offensive coordinator in 2014, and knew Mack was a rarity.

''In Cleveland, it didn't matter if we were winning or losing,'' Shanahan said. ''The guy acted like every single moment, every single practice, every single game was for the Super Bowl. He takes a lot of pride in it. The game is important to him. He doesn't want to let anyone down.''

If that sounds like hyperbole, Ryan said it's not. The ninth-year quarterback, now a league MVP candidate, has never had a teammate like Mack.

Ryan marvels at how hard he practices, how calm he is on game day, and how much the offense feeds off his hustle.

''I can think of so many pass plays we've had when the protection's been really good and you're running through the play on film and he's finishing somebody off 25 yards down the field,'' Ryan said. ''You're like, `How did Alex get there?' To me that's the thing that jumps off the table with Alex. Week after week, play after play, his finish is as good as it gets.''

In Thursday's film session for the entire team, head coach Dan Quinn zeroed in on Mack stuffing a linebacker near the sideline on a wide-zone run. It's the kind of block that goes unnoticed on television.

Quinn told his team that no center in the league gets to the second level of a defense and sustains a block like Mack, who's up to the ball quickly out of the huddle, makes his call to the rest of the line and pushes the tempo.

Atlanta uses a lot of combination blocks, giving Mack plenty of responsibility, but he handles it so well that Ryan and Shanahan have expanded the playbook this year.

Mack takes a lot of satisfaction in that.

''Every once in a while the defense lines up in things you weren't expecting and you've got to make really quick decisions,'' Mack said. ''You do the best you can. You think you see it one way, but you come to the sideline and look at the pictures and it wasn't quite that right. You've got to adjust. I think we're pretty good at fixing things on the fly.''

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Follow George Henry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/georgehenryAP . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/george-henry .

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