Why people have a hard time believing that the Falcons are the best team in the NFC

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 11: Quarterback Matt Ryan  and Roddy White  of the Atlanta Falcons react after White's touchdown reception in the final seconds against the Baltimore Ravens at Georgia Dome on November 11, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The 2010 Atlanta Falcons can thank the 2009 New Orleans Saints for why people aren’t completely sold on their status as best team in the NFC, even though they currently own the best record in the conference.

Fans like it when one team blows its opponents out every week. The Saints led the league and/or NFC last year in passing yards, passing yards per game, rushing yards, rushing yards per game and points scored. It was easy to make claims that they were the best in the NFC (if not the league) when they were routing teams 38-7.

Points and big win margins make people feel all warm inside. But the Falcons don’t win big. In fact, three of their games came down to the final seconds and countless others came down to the fourth quarter before they were able to secure victory.

The Falcons aren’t the 2009 Saints. They don’t put up absurd offensive numbers and their only win by more than 10 points came in a 41-7 rout of the hapless Cardinals in Week 2. They lost to the Big Ben-less Steelers in the opening week of the season and were crushed by the Michael Vick-less Eagles in Week 6. They also were incredibly fortunate to beat the Saints in Week 3 after Garrett Hartley missed a field goal in overtime that would have won the game, as well as when Roddy White stripped Nate Clements when the cornerback was heading for the end zone after picking off Matt Ryan in the closing minutes of a Week 4 game against the 49ers. (In both cases, the Falcons took the gifts and drove down the field to win both games.)

But how many times do you hear someone ask, “Who have they beaten?” Well, the Falcons have already beaten playoff contenders like the Saints (on the road), Bucs, Ravens, Rams (on the road) and Packers, as well as everyone’s underdog of the year, the Browns (also on the road). They didn’t blow any of those teams out and they’re certainly not the most talented squad in the league, but they know how to win.

The Falcons limit their mistakes every week. They wait for their opponent to shoot themselves in the foot and then they take advantage by putting points on the board. They also know how to force turnovers (second in the league with +1 per game), they’re the least penalized team in the league and they can wear opponents down with Michael Turner and their running game. They have a quarterback in Ryan who is playing the best football of his career (he may be at his best when the Falcons are running the no-huddle), a receiver in White who may be the most underrated weapon in the league, a veteran tight end in Tony Gonzalez and an offensive line that isn’t overly talented but they play extremely well as a cohesive unit.

Defensively, Atlanta isn’t going to blow you away statically. In fact, outside of their run defense (which ranks sixth in the league), they’re a very average to even below-average defense at best. But they’re aggressive, fast and opportunistic. Their linebacker corps, led by Curtis Lofton, is extremely physical and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is one of the many unsung heroes on the Falcons’ defense that doesn’t get enough credit for how good of a player he is.

And that’s just the thing: the Falcons are flying under the radar. Nobody is really quite sure how good this team is because they never blow anyone out. But that will serve them well come playoff time, because they’ll be used to facing adversity and rising to the challenge. This isn’t a team you want to leave with any time on the clock because Ryan thrives in clutch situations. (Just ask the Ravens and Packers.)

The Falcons look extremely beatable, but that’s part of what makes them so dangerous. They’re not the 2009 Saints, but they don’t have to be either in order to succeed.

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