The Atlanta Falcons have a record that puts them among the NFL’s elite.
Even so, they’re viewed as something of an interloper among teams such as New England and Philadelphia.
The Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions. The Eagles are generally considered the best team in the NFC. Then there’s the Falcons, still trying to convince skeptics they’re worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.
“We think those teams are at the same level we are,” cornerback Kevin Mathis said. “But a lot of people aren’t giving us the respect that we think we deserve.”
Indeed, the Falcons (8-2) have to prove they’re not the latest one-year wonder in the NFL. This team won only five games in 2003 -- granted, Michael Vick was out much of the season -- and has never even had consecutive winning seasons in its 39-year history.
Atlanta can take a major step toward winning its third division title by beating the New Orleans Saints (4-6) today. The Falcons have a commanding four-game lead in the NFC South and are poised to raise another banner to the Georgia Dome roof.
“We know we can play with any team in this league,” defensive tackle Chad Lavalais said. “Reporters make their decisions, and the fans say this team or that team is the best. But this is football. This isn’t basketball or baseball, where it’s a best-of-seven. In one game, we can beat anybody.”
The Falcons haven’t earned as many style points as, say, Indianapolis. They had to thwart a 2-point conversion to beat woeful San Francisco. They failed to score a touchdown in a victory over Arizona. And they held on for dear life in a 14-10 triumph over the New York Giants last weekend.
First-year coach Jim Mora couldn’t care less if his team appears to be winning ugly. To him, every victory as a thing of beauty.
“It shows true resolve that we’ve been able to hold on,” he said. “You’d like to go for 14 points every quarter, but it just doesn’t happen against the defenses we’re playing now.”
The Saints are a team in disarray, coming off a 34-13 home loss to Denver that drew a harsh assessment from owner Tom Benson. He called it the worst performance he’d seen and compared his players to a high school team.
Even so, New Orleans is still right in the thick of the playoff race. Thanks to parity, the Saints are only one game out of an NFC wild-card berth.
“We are not down and out,” quarterback Aaron Brooks insisted. “Our heart is still beating a little.”
It won’t be for long if the Saints keep playing like they did a week ago. They got off to another slow start, trailing 14-0 after Denver had run only four offensive plays.
New Orleans has scored only 10 first-quarter points this season, all in a Week 2 victory over the 49ers.
“If you look at all the teams that have a chance to be in the playoffs, we’re all the same,” coach Jim Haslett said. “We’re all inconsistent. The team that puts together three or four wins in a row is going to be the team that makes the playoffs.”