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Senior NFL Columnist

Past playoff failures tempering enthusiasm for Falcons' 8-0 start

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ATLANTA -- Halfway to perfection, and nobody is noticing.

Talk about an inferiority complex.

That's how some of the Atlanta Falcons see their 8-0 start, which included a tough 19-13 victory Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys at the Georgia Dome.

There is one NFL team left undefeated, but you would hardly know it.

Here's why: Until this team and this regime can show it can win a playoff game, none of it will matter.

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That's cruel for a team playing at such a high level, but reality isn't always nice.

November is for becoming a legitimate contender.

January is for showing it's real.

"I understand why," Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "I'm not stupid. I've been around a while. We haven't won a playoff game. We've been bounced every time we've been in the playoffs. I understand why nobody is going to be convinced about us. Everybody is skeptical about us. If I were in the media, I'd be skeptical, too. Playoffs are a long way away."

Yet it was Gonzalez who expressed his frustration last week because the Falcons were playing so well and getting so little attention.

"It was frustrating," he said. "We went up and beat Philly and after the game it was all about Philly. But when I sit down and think about it, who cares?"

The frustration is understandable. Hell, wouldn't you be upset if your team were perfect and some left-handed, backup quarterback who barely sees the field received 10 times the airtime?

"None of that stuff matters," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We just have to go out and play football. We can be hungry for that attention, but if we don't get it, we have to be happy as well."

That doesn't mean they all wouldn't like a few more accolades than what they are getting. Can you imagine if the Jets or Steelers or Patriots were undefeated?

This is a team that essentially has the division title over with half of the season left, a team that does a lot of things right, and yet few are watching.

For those who aren't paying attention, they're missing a pretty good show. The Falcons are good -- really good.

Atlanta has been bounced from the playoffs the past three years because of their inability to throw the ball down the field. They were a fast team, playing on a fast track that played slow.

They were predictable on both sides of the ball. They are now more aggressive on offense, and will attack on defense.

Atlanta only scored 19 points against the Cowboys, but the Falcons rolled up 453 yards of offense, including 342 passing yards by quarterback Matt Ryan. Roddy White had seven catches for 118 yards and Julio Jones had five for 129 yards. That's chunk yardage, which their three playoff teams in this regime rarely achieved.

"We've got some playmakers, and I'm lucky to have them around me," Ryan said.

Hiring two new coordinators helps, but so has Ryan's improvement and the increase in talent on defense.

The Cowboys came in and gave the Falcons their best shot. At 3-4, you could tell they were playing for their season. The intensity on both sides made it feel like a playoff game.

"They gave us their best shot," one Falcons player said. "You could sense the desperation."

Said Jones: "They beat us up a little bit in the first half."

The Atlanta defense limited the Cowboys to two field goals until a touchdown with 5:21 left cut the Atlanta lead to 16-13 before the Falcons got a Matt Bryant field goal to ice it with 17 seconds left. The Falcons slowed the Cowboys by choking off their running game and pressuring Romo, even though they had only one sack.

The lone Dallas touchdown came when Romo went to the no-huddle and seemed to get into a groove. Romo threw for 321 yards and a touchdown, but the Cowboys had trouble early with two point-blank scoring chances and coming away with two field goals.

Still, that touchdown seemed to annoy the Atlanta defenders.

"We can't allow that to happen," Falcons corner Dunta Robinson said. "That's the type of things we have to clean up."

Atlanta heads to New Orleans next week to try and put a stake in the hearts of their hated rivals. You know the Saints would love to be the team that ruins the Falcons' chance at perfection.

"You think they're not going to give us their best shot," Gonzalez said. "You don't think Drew Brees is going to try and come out on fire and try to prove a point? This team won't have a problem with being content. We know we're going to get everybody's best shot."

Dallas gave it to them Sunday night. But the Falcons were able to find a way to win what felt like a playoff game. That's a sign of a good team.

Maybe it's time for people to pay attention.

Don't you think a lot of what will be written from Sunday's game will be what's-wrong-with-the-Cowboys fodder?

"It will probably be the same way," Gonzalez said. "That's fine. Let it be. Who cares, really?"

We do.

"You guys are the ones who can change it," Gonzalez said.

Perfection halfway means nothing. Even if the Falcons go 16-0, there will still be doubters. That's what losing three times in the playoffs -- including two years ago as the No. 1 seed -- will do to a team.

But give the Falcons their due. They at least have those old codgers from the 1972 Dolphins sweating a little bit.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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