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Streaking Falcons already thinking about playoffs

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Fullback Ovie Mughelli says the Atlanta Falcons want to graduate from the regular season at the top of the NFC's class.

"We're trying to get summa cum laude and graduate from the regular season with high honors," Mughelli said Thursday.

The Falcons (9-2) are on track for straight A's. Their five-game winning streak is the team's longest since its 1998 Super Bowl season. They will try to protect the NFC's best record Sunday at Tampa Bay (7-4).

The Falcons could lock up home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs by finishing 14-2 with five more wins. That's a lofty goal, but the schedule is manageable.

Atlanta's only other remaining test against a team with a winning record is a Dec. 27 home game against New Orleans (8-3), now one game behind the Falcons in the NFC South. The Falcons have two games remaining against Carolina (1-10) and a visit to Seattle (5-6).

The visit to Tampa Bay begins a stretch of three consecutive road games for the Falcons, including games at Carolina and Seattle.

If the Falcons can keep stretching their winning streak in the regular season and then take advantage of home-field advantage in the playoffs, their next road trip could be to Dallas for the Super Bowl.

Most Falcons are following coach Mike Smith's mandate of focusing on one game at a time, but tight end Tony Gonzalez acknowledged he has looked ahead to that possible trip to Dallas.

"I have ran that over in my mind," Gonzalez said. "We're trying to stay focused in the moment, but it's human nature. You start to think about what could be, and there's nothing wrong with that because you've set your goals to get there, if you set high goals."

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The Falcons are peaking on offense just in time for the December stretch. Their 10 turnovers are the fewest in the NFC, including no turnovers in the last four games -- a franchise record.

The Falcons are protecting the ball during time-consuming drives. Their 24 drives lasting 5 minutes or longer are the most in the NFL.

Michael Turner ranks fifth in the league with 974 rushing yards, and Matt Ryan is having his best season with 19 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.

But Mughelli said the Falcons can play better on offense.

"The one thing we haven't done is put teams away," Mughelli said. "We've got to do that with bad teams, we've got to do it with good teams. We've got to do it anytime we have the opportunity, to put that nail in the coffin.

"In a couple of games as you look through the season, we haven't done that and we've had to just hope and pray our defense holds onto our lead. We have to learn to get that killer instinct. We have it, we just need to work on it a little more and execute a little more to enforce it."

The Falcons beat Arizona 41-7 in Week 2 and have only one other win by more than 10 points, a 34-17 victory at St. Louis on Nov. 21.

The five-game winning streak also includes narrow wins over Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Green Bay.

Wide receiver Roddy White said the Falcons, who have losses at Pittsburgh and at Philadelphia, also have to disprove doubters who say they're a top team only at the Georgia Dome.

"Everybody knows we're tough at home, but they question us on the road and things like that," White said. "We just have to continue to work hard and get better each week.

"The expectation is to win, to win every game from here on out and put ourselves in a good position at the end of the season."

Notes: RB Jason Snelling (hamstring) was held out of practice for the second consecutive day. Smith said he hopes Snelling is ready for "limited snaps" in Friday's practice. Snelling is second on the team with 300 rushing yards and two touchdowns and third with 35 catches for 239 yards and two touchdowns. ... Another backup running back, Antone Smith, also was held out with a hamstring injury.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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