ATLANTA -- A look around the NFL this weekend validated a lot of the trends that have been developing in the preceding weeks: The Saints are a force, the Vikings are the team to beat in the NFC North, the idle Colts remain the best team in the AFC, the Titans are falling apart faster than a satellite upon re-entry into the atmosphere -- and the Atlanta Falcons might be the team to fear the most down the stretch.
Offensively, they are a load to handle, although Matt Ryan and company were put through some tough sledding in Sunday night's 21-14 victory over Chicago to improve to 10-1 at home since Ryan stepped on the field as the starter in Week 1, 2008. Defensively, though, Atlanta rebuilt itself and continues to morph, staying in games with heart and strategy for the most part -- until Sunday night.
Ryan used this same stage against the same team to post his breakthrough moment in a comeback victory last season. This time, the breakthrough moment belonged to the defense, as second-year defenders Curtis Lofton and Thomas DeCoud parlayed unyielding efforts by veterans John Abraham and Mike Peterson to lead a unit to three red-zone stands against the Bears.
That included a denial in the final minute, when they kept Chicago out of the end zone -- the Bears didn't help their cause with three penalties once they reached Atlanta's 14 -- to improve to 4-1 and stay within shouting distance of NFC South rival New Orleans. It was the only time the Falcons didn't force a turnover when stopping Chicago deep in their territory.
"We're coming together," said outside linebacker Mike Peterson, who joined the Falcons from Jacksonville and is one of five new starters for Atlanta's defense. "Together we're slowly getting to that point where guys are trusting each other. It feels good to go out and know the game is on your shoulders."
It feels good knowing the game is on your shoulders when you win.
There were so many times when the defense was teetering on the verge of caving. Chicago gained 373 yards to Atlanta's 253, with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler throwing for 300. Yet, Atlanta's defense, which was on the field for 15 more snaps and eight more minutes than the offense came up with plays to save an offense that turned the ball over twice on interceptions, but scored when the lights were brightest.
"A lot of the younger guys grew up tonight," Peterson said.
On Chicago's first drive, it drove to Atlanta's 12 after taking possession on its 38. DeCoud, a safety that defensive-back savvy general manager Thomas Dimitroff nabbed in the third-round last year from Cal -- even though his play-making skills were questionable -- made the first of his two interceptions.
"It's good to see the young guys continue to progress and start making plays for us," coach Mike Smith said.
In the third quarter, the Bears got down to Atlanta's 1. Lofton forced a fumble with a wallop of Matt Forte on a dive play up the middle but Forte recovered and Chicago had another life. One play later, linebacker Coy Wire recovered another Forte fumble after he was rocked again, this time by defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
Finally, trying to preserve the seven-point lead, heavy pressure and tight coverage forced Cutler to miss on four straight passes.
"It was just gut-wrenching when it comes down like that," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "I see the defense play unbelievable getting all those turnovers and coming up with the big stops when they had to. You can't say enough about it. They won the game for us."
Each week, Atlanta has gone into games wondering if the spit, glue and hope they've built this defense with will hold. Against Miami, San Francisco and Chicago, it allowed 7, 10 and 14 points, so they're working with something here. The tests will keep getting more difficult, with upcoming road games at Dallas and New Orleans; a home game against Washington, then two more road games against Carolina and the Giants.
"You're going to get tried," said Gonzalez. "This league is too good to just go out there and beat everybody handily. Even New England, when they went 16-0 they got tested a few times. It's good to see how you respond to that because it might come up later on down the line in a real crucial game, maybe the playoffs or even further maybe even the Super Bowl."
Atlanta's defense, as well as it played in the red zone -- played with fire throughout the game. It allowed the Bears to constantly threaten and Cutler took advantage of the Falcons' smallish cornerbacks, who will continue to be targeted. Even so, Atlanta's run defense is starting to come together, something that was an area of concern when it lost first-round draft pick Peria Jerry, its gap-closing nose tackle, to a season-ending knee injury.
Thomas Johnson filled in and the Falcons have started to get some production inside from Jamaal Anderson, after the former first-round pick failed to deliver much at his natural position of defensive end. Lofton, the middle linebacker, is starting to come into his own and Peterson provides leadership, toughness and hustle.
Atlanta feels its defense could rapidly evolve into one like the Saints. That it could become a hard-hitting, turnover-inducing unit that continues to be overlooked because of its potent offense. It is a work in progress, that's for sure, but it is progressing. That is why, by the time the season gets to its red zone in December, the Falcons feel they will be in the mix and ready to stand on their own.
"Personally," Peterson said. "I think it's in our hands."