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Known for home dominance, Falcons can also win on the road

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons have added a new twist to their image as a team that is difficult to beat in Atlanta.

Suddenly coach Mike Smith's team also is winning consistently away from the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons' 31-10 win at Carolina on Sunday was the team's third straight road victory and seventh straight overall. The Falcons are 5-2 on the road to lock up their first winning road record since 2002.

Smith says teams must win on the road in the regular season to be in position for postseason success. The Falcons, who take their NFC-leading 11-2 record to Seattle Sunday, are in position to have home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez says one difference on the road this year is the added maturity of key players, including quarterback Matt Ryan.

"Maybe there's a little bit better focus this year," Gonzalez said Monday. "I think honestly with our team it's just guys are more mature. We have guys who are into year three and year four, and I've always talked about that as the time you come into your own as a player, both mentally and physically and you start to understand what it takes to win games, whether you are at home or away."

The Falcons already have locked up their third straight winning season under Smith, a first for the franchise. They were 11-5 overall, but only 4-4 on the road, in Ryan's rookie season in 2008. They were 9-7 overall and 3-5 on the road last season.

Overall under Smith, the Falcons are 19-3 at home. They earned a reputation the last two years as a dangerous home team that couldn't win the big road game. Suddenly, that is changing.

The Falcons' road schedule includes an overtime loss at Pittsburgh to open the season and an overtime win at New Orleans. They have beaten two playoff contenders, St. Louis and Tampa Bay, in their current streak of three straight road wins.

Atlanta's last loss came at Philadelphia on Oct. 17. Then came the seven-game winning streak that includes home wins over Baltimore and Green Bay.

This week's game at Seattle completes the team's road schedule. It also completes a stretch of four road games in five weeks.

Smith prepared his players for the stretch of road games by cutting back on his practice schedule. He even reduced the normal time reserved for meetings in hopes his players would be fresh for the travel.

"It gives the guys some rest but I think when you don't have as many snaps, you've got to have a little bit more focus, with what we wanted to get accomplished," Smith said.

"I think the maturity level of this football team, they're able to handle it."

Fast starts on the road are a big help. The Falcons forced a turnover on Carolina's first possession, setting up Ryan's touchdown pass to Gonzalez. They led 14-0 with almost 7 minutes remaining in the first period.

"Once we threw that first punch, they were a little woozy after that and we were able to play the type of game we wanted with pretty good balance offensively," Gonzalez said.

After this week's visit to Seattle, the Falcons close the regular season with home games against New Orleans and Carolina.

The Falcons can clinch home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs by winning two of their last three games. If they beat Seattle and Carolina, they could lose to New Orleans and still win the NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs through tiebreakers.

The Falcons are 6-0 at home this season and finally are meeting Smith's mandate for winning more than half their road games.

"We talk to our players all the time about the plan for success and it does involve making sure you win games on the road," Smith said. "You've got to make sure you do that to have the opportunity to play on."

Notes: Smith said linebacker Coy Wire (concussion) and running back Jason Snelling (hamstring) should return to practice on Wednesday. ... Smith said running back Michael Turner did not need stitches and had no vision problems after he was scratched above his left eye in the first half against Carolina.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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