CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Falcons put lie to denials, display stuff of NFC's best

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ATLANTA -- If being 6-2, tied for the best record in the league, and sitting alone atop the NFC South is cause for some real celebration, you would never know it by talking to Atlanta Falcons coaches or players.

Halfway home to possible home-field advantage in the playoffs, and at a time they certainly can start to stake a claim as one of the NFC's elite, the Falcons are talking like they are stinking up the place.

Matt Ryan says 'I don't think we've played our best yet,' after watching Michael Turner rush for two scores. (Getty Images)  
Matt Ryan says 'I don't think we've played our best yet,' after watching Michael Turner rush for two scores. (Getty Images)  
What they don't want to hear, and a phrase guaranteed to drive them nuts and get you a wave of the hand just for mentioning it, is this one:

Best team in the NFC.

The New York Giants, who have the same 6-2 record after their blowout victory over the Seahawks, might object, but it's hard to argue with the Falcons being mentioned with the elite, even though they are winning close games.

They did so again Sunday thanks to a goal-line stand in the closing minutes to hang on for a 27-21 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome. It was a game the Falcons made much harder than they should have thanks to two long kickoff returns by Tampa Bay's Micheal Spurlock, one for a touchdown.

Strangely, you had Falcons coach Mike Smith talking about how he had a locker room of guys still "pissed" about being 6-2, a half game ahead of the Saints and a full game up on Tampa Bay.

"They know that we haven't put together the type of football game for 60 minutes in all three phases that we can play," Smith.

The players agreed.

"I don't think we've played our best yet," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I think it's still coming."

I agree, but the postgame locker room felt like one you would walk into after practice. That business-like approach might be what is driving this talented, young team. They are good -- and they will only get better. One might look to the close games they've played and say it has been a fortunate team, but isn't that the NFL? Win 12 or 13 or those and you will be a playoff host for the entire party.

The Falcons easily could have put the feisty Bucs away early, but a kickoff return for a touchdown by Spurlock in the third quarter turned a 13-point lead into a six-point spread in 16 seconds.

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Neither team scored in the fourth quarter, although the Bucs had their chances to win. After moving from their own 9 to the Atlanta 2, the Bucs faced fourth-and-inches with 2:44 left in the game.

You would think a quarterback sneak with 6-foot-4, 250-pound Josh Freeman would be in order. Or maybe even a pass-run option for Freeman? After being forced to use his last timeout to prevent the play clock from running out, Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris and his staff opted for a run.

That run by rookie LeGarrette Blount was stuffed for no gain and, after one first down, Atlanta had its sixth victory. Those six inches might be the difference in being the division champ -- and more.

"We're just the best today," Falcons running back Michael Turner said. "We're not worried about being the best in the NFC, or anything like that. We want to be considered, when it's all said and done, the best in the NFL. That happens in February."

Atlanta outgained Tampa Bay 365 to 278 and had 26 first downs to 14 for the Bucs. Yet it came down to the goal-line stop.

Amazingly, that was just the second goal-line play for the Falcons this season. The other came in Week 3 in a victory over the New Orleans Saints. That day the Saints scored on a pass.

This time, the run was stuffed. Before the play, Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said he gave the defensive linemen a message.

"If you get penetration, we're downhill," Peterson told them.

CBSSports.com Grades
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
B+
The Buccaneers were dominated in almost every statistical category possible except the score. Even though Atlanta held the ball longer, gained more yards and appeared more physical, Tampa Bay stayed with the Falcons and was in the contest until the end.
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
B+
Atlanta looked like a premier team for a total of about three quarters. But the Falcons disappeared at times and almost cost itself the game with woeful special teams. But kudos to the defense which stopped Buccaneers RB LeGarrette Blount on fourth-and-1 to keep Tampa Bay from completing yet another fourth quarter comeback.
By Jason Butt
RapidReports Correspondent

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They got penetration and the linebackers and safeties were downhill right into Blount. The play appeared to be designed to go behind guard Davin Joseph, but Blount bounced it some to the outside behind the tackle. That's where the penetration came and safety Thomas DeCoud and linebacker Stephen Nicholas were able to knife through to make the play.

"I'm on the weak-side tight end," DeCoud said. "If he blocks down, I shoot my guns and get the run. My number was called and I made the play."

DeCoud said the Falcons hadn't seen that play out of that formation on film. Others said they practiced it during the week.

"Coach let us know during the week when we were going over the goal-line package that we'd only been in it [goal-line defense] one time during the season," Peterson said. "I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

The Falcons have now won four games decided in the fourth quarter. They've been in two overtime games, winning one. They've been a team that seems to find a way.

"It shows the character in this locker room," Peterson said. "We're set up for 12-round or 15-round battles. We don't go in thinking if we jump on them and get up 21 the game's over. We go in thinking this team is going to fight us to the end. We're ready for that."

They need to get ready quickly. The Baltimore Ravens, who just might be the class of the AFC, come to Atlanta in four days for a Thursday night game.

A midseason Super Bowl, perhaps? That might be pushing it, but there's no doubt both teams are more than capable of making it to Dallas in February for the big game.

Maybe with the short week and a physical team like the Ravens coming for a visit, the Falcons had reason to be low-key.

"We're going to break our 24-hour rule this week and basically in about two hours we're going to be on to the Baltimore Ravens," Smith said.

Peterson had him beat.

"I'll enjoy it for 20 minutes," he said.

At least somebody was enjoying it. Then again, it could be the never-look-ahead drive that will make this the NFC team to beat.

"We're the best in the NFC South right now," receiver Roddy White said. "That's all we can say. Nobody here is saying we're the best in the NFC or the league."

They wouldn't be far off if they did.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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