ATLANTA -- For the past couple of weeks, there has been a lot of talk about “the best team in the National Football Conference." Largely on orders from coach Mike Smith, the Atlanta Falcons have stayed out of the argument.
Now, they can talk -- just a little.
“We’re the best team in the NFC South right now,’’ Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White said. “That’s all we want to be right now.’’
White limited the field to the NFC South and, at last, there is tangible evidence he’s right. After Sunday’s 27-21 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons are 6-2 and in sole possession of first place in the division.
Atlanta has defeated New Orleans and Tampa Bay, which each have three losses. But the Falcons weren’t celebrating or talking big after the game. That’s simply because they don’t have time to settle for leading the division at the halfway point of the season.
They’ve got a quick turnaround as the Baltimore Ravens come to town Thursday night. If that’s not reason enough to curb the party, there’s one more game with New Orleans and one more with Tampa Bay.
Several reporters asked who is the best team in the NFC after the game, but the Falcons weren’t really biting. The claim first was made by Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris two weeks ago, and it drew plenty of attention around the Falcons’ practice facility.
That left the door wide open for the Falcons to fire back at Morris. But even the most vocal players on the team weren’t slamming the Bucs.
“I don’t know,’’ linebacker Mike Peterson said when asked to name the best team in the NFC. “We had a chance to play the best team in the NFC and we came out on top. I’ll let you figure it out.’’
Part of the reason the Falcons weren’t slamming the Bucs was because it would have been ridiculous. In a game they lost, the Buccaneers gained respect.
“That’s a good young football team,’’ Peterson said. “We had our hands full.’’
You can say Atlanta was six points better than Tampa Bay. But it would be more accurate to say the Falcons only defeated the Bucs by a single yard.
That’s really what the game came down to. Atlanta, a team not exactly known for having a stout defense in recent years, made a goal-line stand that could end up winning the Falcons an NFC South title.
With just under four minutes left in the game, the Bucs moved dangerously close to the end zone. On a third-and-3 at the Atlanta 4-yard line, LeGarrette Blount ran for two yards. That set up a fourth-and-1 at the 2.
“We knew they’d try running the big back to the right,’’ middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “We knew we had to get some penetration because, let’s face it, if he just moves it enough to get a first down, they’ve got four more plays and they probably score.’’
The Bucs ran Blount to the right and a couple of things happened. Defensive tackle Jamaal Anderson, maligned for much of his career, and linebacker Stephen Nicholas each got penetration and that allowed safety Thomas DeCoud to come up and tackle Blount for no gain.
“I just saw a swarm of buzzards going at [Blount] and they went over and ate him up,’’ Lofton said.
It was a huge play that could have huge implications on the season. But the goal-line stand masked a lot of other flaws. Atlanta’s secondary gave up touchdown passes from second-year quarterback Josh Freeman to rookie receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, and the special teams were dismal for much of the day.
Micheal Spurlock returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter and also had a 68-yard return in the second quarter to set up a touchdown and put the Bucs back in the game after they had fallen behind 14-0.
But that has been the story of the half-season for the Falcons, and that’s another reason there wasn’t a lot of celebrating in the locker room.
“I’m proud of where we are, but I’ll tell you what; we're 6-2 and there are some guys in that room that are [mad] about it,’’ Smith said. “They know we haven't put together the type of football game for 60 minutes in all three phases that we could play.’’
That’s very true. The Falcons have been very good at times on offense, defense and special teams. But they haven’t truly had a game where all three units clicked.
“We still haven’t played a good Falcon football game,’’ Peterson said.
Are the Falcons the best team in the NFC?
Does it really matter at this point? They’re 6-2 and no one in the NFC has a better record. More important, the Falcons know they haven’t played their best football yet.
They’ve got half a season left and they haven’t played worse than anyone in the NFC. It’s November.
If the Falcons can put it all together in the second half of the season, they will be the NFC’s best team -- when it matters.
"We want to be considered, when it is all said and done, the best in the NFL,'' Turner said. "That happens in February.''