ATLANTA -- After dispatching the Dallas Cowboys with the nation watching, after earning their eighth victory in eight tries during a stunningly ho-hum 2012 season, the Atlanta Falcons had plenty to celebrate. How did star tight end and elder statesman Tony Gonzalez plan to live it up into the wee hours Monday morning? By watching highlights on "all the outlets." And by keeping score.
He pondered the possible topics.
Perhaps now is the time. The Falcons outlasted the Dallas Cowboys, 19-13, in a slugfest of a game between one desperate team and another that played like it was in front of a raucous crowd of 70,840 at the Georgia Dome. It came down to the perfect drive at the perfect time, with quarterback Matt Ryan and Atlanta taking possession with 5:21 left in the fourth quarter and holding the ball until a mere 17 seconds remained. When they had to play keep-away, the Falcons rose up, converted three third downs and marched 66 yards, highlighted by Jacquizz Rodgers' back-breaking 31-yard catch-and-run that left Orlando Scandrick lying on the turf, later saying, "It's going to kill me for a while."
It was as the Falcons have been: perfect. When Matt Bryant kicked it through the uprights to make it a six-point game with 17 ticks on the clock, it was all but over. In front of America, Atlanta took down America's Team. And the Falcons even taught us a thing or two, unleashing running back Michael Turner for 102 yards when it seemed almost evident they didn't run it well enough to be balanced. One by one, the questions were answered -- even before we knew we were supposed to be asking them of the Falcons, as opposed to the other teams that decorate our TV screens and websites.
"We know what we got in this locker room," cornerback Asante Samuel said. "Forget the outside world. Who cares, right?"
Well, right. Inside a brash, confident, "we're all we got" locker room, the inside world is more important than the outside world. Yet, they know. When they turn on their TVs and see NFL soap operas like those about the Cowboys, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles occupying the screens, they take note.
As of right now, the Falcons don't have much to talk about. No drama here. The only hole they had as a team was the lack of a running game, and the buoyant Turner filled that on Sunday night. Star receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White compete for the ball, but not for Ryan's attention. Instead, both thrive, as they did Sunday with 129 yards for Jones and 118 for White.
"The more we win, yeah," said Gonzalez, who had four catches for 36 yards. "It's gotta change. They gotta take notice, if we keep doing what we've been doing. I made reference to it because I was a little frustrated the last week. We beat Philly, a very good Philly team, out there; everyone knew their record, and after the highlights were done, everything was about Philly. Honestly, I understand why. We haven't done anything. We get to the playoffs and we've lost. I understand why they're not making that big of a deal. But we go out there and keep doing what we're doing, eventually, they will take notice."
Gonzalez hit it on the head. The Falcons rolled to a 13-3 record in 2010, only to fall on their faces against the Green Bay Packers in the postseason. Last January brought a 24-2 skunking at the hands of the New York Giants. How do we know if the 2012 Falcons are those guys or something new? Maybe it's the attitude.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that we're 8-0," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "But I think we can play better. That's my honest opinion."
Robinson said this week he believes the 2012 edition is far more postseason-ready than those past teams. But until they prove that, it's just talk. What we can focus on is why the Falcons are where they are: Because Ryan is savvy and efficient, constantly allowing Jones and White to go up and get it. He threw for 342 yards and no interceptions against a vaunted Dallas pass defense, yet it all seemed so, to borrow a nickname from Rich Eisen, "Mattural."
Consider the end of the first half. The Cowboys had marched from the shadow of their own end zone, eating the clock. When they finally punted, there was 1:03 left and the Falcons had the ball on their own 12. Ryan got to work. A 20-yarder to White. An eight-yard scramble. A 12-yarder to Gonzalez. A 15-yarder, again to Gonzalez, to set up a field goal. Free points, thanks to flawless execution. In a six-point win, those matter. Yet few will likely notice today, which is characteristic.
"Sometimes, it's a little bit better to fly under the radar," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But our record speaks for itself. People are going to be trying to gun for us and give us their best shot. You can't be mad at flying under the radar."
When the game ended, White was asked how long the winning streak can continue. He said he aimed for 16-0, then corrected himself. "Well, 19-0," he told NFL.com.
"New Orleans next, baby," Samuel said.
What else is going on? Here's a rundown:
Are the Redskins really improving?
It's easy to see that the Washington Redskins are headed in the right direction. They have a flashy, dynamic rookie quarterback in Robert Griffin III, an impressive first-year running back in Alfred Morris, and a defense that would be promising if not for a few injuries. Of course, Mike and Kyle Shanahan have done a fantastic job making life easier for RG3.
Except one can't help but wonder if that's reality. A wise man once said, you are what your record says you are. Shanahan's record is 3-6 after a 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. In two-plus years, Shanahan is 14-27 (.341). As Bart Hubbuch from the New York Post pointed out, even Steve Spurrier (.375) had a better winning percentage with the team. So did Jim Zorn (also .375).
Both Cam Newton and RG3 sidestepped being compared to one another the week before the game. But as rookies, they were the same: electric talents on bad teams. It's hard for a coach to win big in two different cities. And thus far, despite all his credentials, Shanahan hasn't come close in Washington. To make matters worse, he pointed to next year after Sunday's game.
"Now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come," Shanahan said.
The caveat Shanahan added was, "Obviously, we're not out of it statistically," but he was trying to be realistic. If realism is the objective, the coach might not like what he sees.
Next year in fantasy, I'll take the Bears defense
I remember talking to Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin before his team played the Chicago Bears in Week 4. Austin emphasized how seriously Dallas took Chicago's propensity for taking the ball away. It was a nonstop focus all week at practice -- and all Chicago did in response was force five interceptions.
Nothing has changed for Chicago. As solid as the Bears' offense can be, Chicago might have the scariest defense around. In Chicago's 51-20 win over the teetering Tennessee Titans, cornerback Charles Tillman caused four fumbles alone. The defense forced five turnovers total. Even Brian Urlacher got a pick-six, a lumbering effort that proved instincts never grow old.
After the game, Tillman was asked how he causes so many fumbles, even when everyone knows he's going for the ball.
"It's always on my mind," the still-underrated Tillman said. "I'm very conscious of it. I speak it. I believe it. I practice it. It happens."
Now, when opponents catch anything on the Bears, they'll be thinking about securing the football rather than running after the catch. It's shaping up to be a big year in Chicago.
Peyton Manning is human, but just for a minute
Now that we've all realized Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is back to his inhuman self, the expectations have changed. He can talk it down all he wants, but Denver is playing like a Super Bowl contender and will be judged like one. So when Manning reminded us he's fallible and threw back-to-back picks to Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Terence Newman, it was noteworthy. How Manning responded made me think the Broncos are in it for the long haul, no matter the circumstances. Playing in a hostile environment, in a game in which they showed serious weakness, they still won convincingly.
First, after he drove the Broncos 74 yards, Manning threw a pass to Eric Decker that was picked in the end zone midway through the third quarter. Cincinnati turned that into a field goal. On the next possession, Manning tried to evade trouble by throwing deep. Nope; Newman outran Decker for a pick that eventually led to a Bengals touchdown. Suddenly, it was 20-17, Cincy. How did Manning handle it? By being his robotic self.
"My dad always talked about, 'You got to get back to zero. Get back to level zero,' " Manning said.
Check out this on-field answer: Following his two interceptions, Manning was 6 of 6 for 69 yards with two touchdown passes. In other words, he was flawless.
Some rapid fire takes:
» I'll never make fun of a player for finding motivation and using it to his advantage. That said, it's kind of hilarious that the Carolina Panthers were so offended by being the "homecoming" game on the Washington Redskins' schedule. Quarterback Cam Newton said it was "kind of embarrassing for us to be in." Not really. The Redskins just had some alumni in attendance. That was it. But hey, if it works for you, why not imagine you're everyone's homecoming opponent?
» Bad situation brewing in Tennessee, especially after that embarrassing 31-point loss to the Bears. But in my view, it's not symptomatic of major problems. The defense is terrible, and it wouldn't be shocking to see the Titans make changes there. But remember that Jake Locker has barely played. That said, any time owner Bud Adams is telling The Tennessean, "I am at a loss to recall a regular-season home game that was such a disappointment," you can be sure change is on the way in some form or fashion.
» Speaking of the Texans, looks like receiver Andre Johnson is finally over that groin injury that had plagued him. I thought that, with age, he was turning into more of a possession receiver. Not according to the way he played Sunday. Eight catches, 118 yards (including a 34-yarder) and lots of explosiveness. He's getting stronger.
» I know Russell Wilson is efficient, and he scored three touchdowns in a win over the Minnesota Vikings, but the Seattle Seahawks quarterback is more than that. And it should be mentioned that the Seahawks have handled him perfectly by providing balance. Marshawn Lynchpail had 26 carries for 124 yards, while Wilson threw 24 passes. His life is so much easier because opponents have to defend the run. It's the ideal situation.
» Have you ever seen Reggie Bush's high-school highlight tape? Remember watching him play at USC? That darting and dancing, stop-on-a-dime 18-yard touchdown run against the Indianapolis Colts brought me back. Guess he's still got it. So why did the Miami Dolphins hand it to him just nine other times?
» It's a rivalry that isn't mentioned much, but don't think the Baltimore Ravens' win over the Cleveland Browns -- ugly as it was -- wasn't meaningful. How do I know? Coach John Harbaugh told running back Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco that they have a 10-0 record against the team they used to be. They were keeping track.
» The New York Giants have jumped out to fast starts before ... only to come back to Earth. With that in mind, after the 24-20 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Justin Tuck issued a reminder to his teammates. "Let's not (repeat) history, unless it's going to end up how it did last year," Tuck told Newsday. Um ... good point? The Giants will be fine. They always are.
» Did my eyes deceive me, or, given the ridiculous number of injuries at wide receiver, are the Green Bay Packers learning to run the ball? No Jordy Nelson on Sunday? No worries. Twenty-eight carries for 114 yards combined from James Starks and Alex Green. This experience is making them well-rounded.
» If you didn't cry watching cancer-fighting Chuck Pagano make his emotional return to the Colts' locker room, well, you're stronger than I am. Just hearing him describe his goals of dancing at his daughters' weddings and hoisting a Lombardi Trophy? Yeah, it got dusty.
» Why did we waste our time wondering if Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson would play? Injured knee? Whatever. Seven catches, 129 yards -- most of which came in a dominating offensive performance in the first half of the Lions' win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. If only we had a nickname for him to properly describe his machine-like ways.... Oh, right.
» When I visited Tampa Bay this summer, I was struck by the oohs and ahhs over Doug Martin. Buccaneers evaluators felt they'd found a gem. Two-hundred and fifty-one rushing yards later, I think they are right. And the Bucs got a big-time 42-32 road victory over the Oakland Raiders to get back to .500 at 4-4.