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Senior NFL Columnist

Impressive Falcons take apart Giants and legion of non-believers


ATLANTA -- Still think the Atlanta Falcons aren't a good football team despite their lofty record and their closing in on the top seed in the NFC?

If so, you are wrong.

Here's proof: Falcons 34, New York Giants 0.

That's the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, the team most experts have pegged to go on a late-season roll to again be a factor in the postseason, the same Giants who blew out the Falcons in the playoffs last January. Atlanta made them look like a league bottom-feeder Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

The critics, and they are many, especially after Atlanta lost to the Carolina Panthers last week, kept saying how the Falcons don't blow teams out. They said they were winning, but not impressively. On and on it went.

All of last week, on all the networks, on all the websites, it was talk of how the Atlanta Falcons weren't any good.

Now what? After handling the Giants in every way possible, shutting out the Giants for the first time in the regular season since 1996, the Falcons are 12-2 and one victory away from clinching the top seed in the NFC. It was the first shutout for Atlanta since 2008.

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"You are what your record says you are, and we're a good football team," Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We're not going to let anybody mess with our focus and our psyche."

Maybe not, but the underlying feeling in the locker room, one not aired publicly, was this was a game the Falcons had to have. Not just to keep pace for the top seed, but for validation of this as a good football team.

"The haters keep us going," Falcons corner Asante Samuel said. "Keep hating."

The 34-0 score doesn't tell the entire story. The Falcons had 22 first downs to 10 for the Giants. They held the ball for 38 minutes, 57 seconds to 21:03 for the Giants. Atlanta had 394 yards of total offense to 256 yards for the Giants. The Giants had three turnovers and the Falcons none.

"Atlanta was very, very good and we were very, very bad," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

He was being kind.

If the Falcons seemed to play angry, it's because they did. Gonzalez said the team was embarrassed by what happened last week at Carolina. And they took that anger to the practice field last week. Gonzalez said the Falcons had their best week of practice this season.

"We knew we had to change it up," Gonzalez said. "We had to focus. When we focus, we're tough to beat."

What was lost was how the Carolina game was a classic NFL sandwich game, a road game in between two big games -- Falcons had beaten rival New Orleans the week before.

OK, so maybe it looked like a crap sandwich last week, but now not so much.

"From the outhouse to the penthouse in a week," Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said.

It helped that the Falcons started the game by forcing a turnover -- Samuel jumped a route and picked off Eli Manning to set up Atlanta's first touchdown. From there, it was all Falcons.

Manning threw for 161 yards as the Giants had a tough time getting anything going. It was the first regular-season shutout of his career. He joined brother, Peyton, of the Broncos and Drew Brees of the Saints as big-time passers who have struggled inside the Georgia Dome against the Falcons.

The Falcons beat all three teams at home, collecting 10 interceptions.

The key: Getting those quarterbacks in third-and-long. The Giants were 4 of 10 on third down Sunday. Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is one of the best at confusing quarterbacks on third down with his exotic looks.

"We made a collective effort as a defensive unit to keep the score at zero," Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.

The Falcons are a speed defense, one built to play with the lead. That's why getting off to the fast start was so important Sunday. They run and fly to the football, but they aren't big and stout, even though they had two fourth-and-short stops against the Giants.

The Atlanta offense was balanced with 129 rushing yards and quarterback Matt Ryan throwing for 270 yards and three scores. The big play was a 40-yard touchdown throw to Julio Jones to open the second half and make the score 24-0.

"It's a good win for us," Falcons defensive end John Abraham said. "But by no means is this team satisfied."

Most players downplayed talk of this as a validation victory. That's for us in the media to decide, they said.

Some, though, are sick of hearing how they aren't any good.

"Yeah, I'm tired of that," Weatherspoon said. "That's why we played like this tonight and we're going to play that way the rest of the year."

Others waved me away when I tried to get them to talk validation.

"You're not going to get me to say those words," Abraham said.

Gonzalez, the veteran tight end likely in his final year and hopeful his career ends with a Super Bowl, was more diplomatic.

"The national validation will come when we get to the playoffs," Gonzalez said. "I understand why the media doesn't have the stomach to pick us and get on that bandwagon. We control our own destiny. It's about winning in the playoffs."

This group is 0-3 in the playoffs the past four years. That's why there doubts remain. But some of those should subside after the beating they gave the Giants. If not, some players privately had a message for those doubters.

"[Expletive] them," one Falcons player said. "We don't have to prove anything to anybody. We're a good football team."

It's hard to argue that now after what we saw Sunday.

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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