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Falcons won't say it, but NFC South might be shifting


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NEW ORLEANS -- They were the same goalposts, less pressure and a shorter distance. Who didn't think New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley would make his 29-yard field goal Sunday to give the Saints an overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons?

Here's who: Falcons coach Mike Smith. As Hartley, who banged home a 40-yard field goal seven months ago to put the Saints in the Super Bowl, readied for his kick, Smith walked up and down the sidelines with a message for his players.

He's going to miss.

"Smitty kept saying we will be playing on," Falcons corner Dunta Robinson said. "I guess he just knew. I guess he had a feeling."

Hartley jerked his kick wide -- even though the PA announcer said the kick was good, to the delight of the crowd -- and the Falcons said shank-you very much. They then took the ball and drove to a winning 46-yard field goal by Matt Bryant for a 27-24 victory that is huge for a lot of reasons.

It's only three weeks into the season, so trying to get any member of the Falcons to say that the victory over the Super Bowl champions is anything bigger than just another game was tough going.

"There's no reason to start printing T-shirts or organizing a parade or anything like that," Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said.

Maybe not, but it might be time to do this: Start considering that there might be a new best team in the NFC South. Maybe the power is shifting. Both the Saints and Falcons are 2-1, atop the division with Tampa Bay, but this road victory is like having an extra chip in the pocket.

The Falcons went to the Superdome with two things on their minds, exorcising some demons from this building -- where they hadn't won since 2002 -- and showing their physical, never-back-down style is the perfect tonic for the Saints' always-looking-pretty offense.

A scan of the stat sheet shows they did just that. The Falcons ran for 202 yards on 50 carries while holding the Saints to 43 on the ground. The way to beat the Saints is to keep that offense off the field. Atlanta held the ball for 45 minutes, 40 seconds compared to New Orleans' 27:15.

The possession numbers don't always tell the story, but they do here. This was a big-boy beating by the Falcons. To be frank, it shouldn't have been as close as it was.

The better team won this game. That might be surprising considering who has the rings, but I really believe that. The amazing thing is the Falcons almost didn't win. In a game that featured a ton of twists and turns, overturned calls, coaches making decisions to go for it on fourth down and plenty of big plays, the Falcons would have been beside themselves if they had lost this one.

"This is a huge confidence builder for us," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.

The Falcons are a young team building for something. General manager Thomas Dimtroff is putting together a talented young roster led by Ryan that could be competing for titles for the next half a decade.

The Falcons lost two tough games to the Saints last season, one without Ryan, and they know that to win the division you have to take down the champs. In the summer, Falcons players I talked to all relished the idea of being in the same division with the champions. Now we know why.

They know now they can beat them. In fairness to the Saints, they were coming off a Monday night game at San Francisco, didn't get back until 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and had their physical rivals coming to town.

"This is a momentum game for us," Peterson said. "Something to propel us."

They should thank the offensive line. The five guys up front owned the afternoon. Sitting on their chairs at their lockers after the game, they looked like they could hardly move. They looked exhausted, still in their uniforms, aside from shoulder pads.

"You guys can't move, can you?" I asked.

"No, we're just waiting for some of these people to get out of here before we get dressed," tackle Sam Baker said.

OK, if you say so. Baker, fellow tackle Tyson Clabo, guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock and center Todd McClure aren't the best individual players. But get them on the field together and they work well and they are downright nasty.

Led by Dahl, the player I anointed the dirtiest, nastiest player in the league (an honor he relishes), the Falcons offensive line doesn't back down from anybody. It took a while to get the running game going Sunday, but the Falcons stuck with it and eventually it paid off in a big way.

They had a 19-play, 72-yard drive to a touchdown in the second quarter, but the line really took over in overtime. After Hartley's miss, they ran it right at the Saints to the game-winning field goal. They had 10 runs on the 12-play drive.

"That's what we do," Dahl said. "We pound it and try and control the time of possession. We wore them down some at the end."

Michael Turner pounded the Saints for 114 yards on 30 carries, growing stronger as the game moved on.

"We took control of the line of scrimmage," Smith said. "Ultimately, that's at the core of what we want to be as a football team."

The Falcons have all the components. They have a coach in Smith who isn't afraid to take chances -- three times he went for it on fourth down Sunday -- a quarterback in Ryan who is growing into a special player and that running game led by the line and Turner.

The defense is the question mark, but they showed up and played well Sunday. They had three takeaways, two picks of Drew Brees, and they also sacked him twice. They got hit by an 80-yard touchdown throw from Brees to Lance Moore, but for the most part did a solid job on one of the league's best offenses.

It is a fast defense that starts two rookies in tackle Corey Peters and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. So if you're going to get them, now is the time.

Beating the Saints in their building the way they did speaks volumes for the Falcons, and a shift in power in the division.

"It's too early for that," Robinson said. "We have a lot of football left and we see those guys down the road."

They play the Saints on Dec. 27 on a Monday night in Atlanta. I can't wait to see the rematch. If it comes close to this one, it will be a classic.

Between now and then, there's a lot of football. But for one day, the Falcons served notice that they might be the best team in the NFC South -- and maybe even more.

There will be no parades, but just this message to Hartley: Shank-you very much.


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