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"How high can these Falcons soar?"

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I didn't see this posted. I wonder if we can say butt in the title (it is his real last name). Anyway, good article:


How high can these Falcons soar?

By Jason Butt

Special to CBSSports.com

Dec. 1, 2010

As far as Falcons running back Michael Turner is concerned, Atlanta's franchise is in its infancy: Three years old with a winning history.

A quick look at the record books indicates otherwise. You can't discount 32 losing seasons through 45 years. You can't ignore the awful 1980s, including a wretched 38-88 stretch from 1983-1990. And you can't forget about 2007, when Atlanta lost its then-franchise quarterback Michael Vick and was later abandoned by coach Bobby Petrino after 13 games.

No, you can't overlook the dark days attached to the Falcons. But Turner claims to know nothing about Atlanta's history before he came to town in 2008. He doesn't want to learn about it either.

"We've only been together three years," Turner said following Atlanta's 20-17 win over Green Bay. "We're used to winning. We're not the Falcons of old."

Ronde Barber and the Buccaneers are in the thick of the NFC South race. (Getty Images)

Ronde Barber and the Buccaneers are in the thick of the NFC South race. (Getty Images)

Turner's got a point. The Falcons have now posted three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. In 2008, Atlanta reached the playoffs when it was deemed impossible for a franchise that was perceived to be in disarray to win so soon. Through 11 games in 2010, Atlanta is tied for the NFL's best record at 9-2, a feat few predicted at the beginning of the season.

Coach Mike Smith has undoubtedly changed the culture in Atlanta's locker room. After 13 games in 2007 a quitter left. When the new year rolled around, a winner arrived. Beginning with a solid, foundation-building 2008 draft class, the Falcons have constructed this team into a unit that's finding ways to win games.

"We have our own internal goals and I can ensure you they were more than just having a winning season," Smith said. "It's good for us, in terms of knowing we're in the right direction. But I can assure you it's more than just having winning seasons. We want to be a team that can sustain a level of play where we're going to be a relevant team late in December and into January."

Atlanta has a large target on its back, which places it in unfamiliar territory. Smith has repeatedly downplayed the significance of its record among the best. But other teams have taken notice. Tampa Bay, which plays Atlanta this week, is aware of where the Falcons stand among the rest of the league.

You'll recall that Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris proclaimed his team as the best in the NFC earlier this year. But Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber shifted that recognition Atlanta's way on Wednesday.

"We're playing against the best team in the NFL," Barber said. "Their record says that, their play says that. If we're not geared up to play this game we won't be geared up to play anybody. … If we can't peak against the best team in the NFL then we have other issues to worry about, other than getting into the playoffs."

And it's not like the Buccaneers are a bunch of slouches. At 7-4, they're in the thick of the NFC South race, arguably the best and most competitive division in the NFL. An Atlanta win would be a huge blow to Tampa Bay's postseason pursuit, a fate that would be tough for the Bucs to swallow in a season that could see a barely .500 NFC West squad rewarded with a playoff berth.

"My feeling is two teams that we have to play, in my division, to get to the postseason are the toughest we're going to play the rest of the year," Barber said.

If the Bucs are to win on Sunday, they'll need some of the good fortune that the Falcons have received in spades. Early in the year, Atlanta watched New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley miss a chip shot from 29 yards out that helped the Falcons extend and eventually win the game.

They saw 49ers cornerback Nate Clements attempt to run a potential game-ending interception for a touchdown instead of falling down. Falcons receiver Roddy White tracked Clements down and forced a fumble, giving the Falcons another chance. Matt Ryan capitalized by leading a game-winning field goal drive.

This past Sunday, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was looking to punch in a touchdown from the 1 yard line. Atlanta wouldn't let it happen, forcing a fumble that rolled into the end zone. The Falcons recovered.

Sure, Lady Luck has befriended the Falcons this season at times. But more often than not they've benefited from smart play and solid execution. Atlanta is tied for second in turnover differential at plus-11. The Falcons have sustained long, drawn-out drives all season. They lead the NFL in time of possession at 33:24 per contest while completing 48 percent of their third down attempts (second only to New Orleans).

There's no coincidence the Falcons have found themselves standing next to the Jets and the Patriots as the NFL's hunted. And the Falcons have jumped out to this record with eight starters boasting there years of experience of fewer.

"The veterans are doing a good job keeping these guys level headed," White said. "It's a really good thing for us. We have veterans on this team that can control the young guys, keep them in the right direction and keep them working."

The Falcons haven't won nine games by luck or chance. They've changed their attitude, which has led to this quick turnaround. No longer are they applauding mediocrity.

"It's changing the culture, changing the mentality of a team and bringing the organization a winning football team," Turner said. "Once you get rolling and keep winning, you get used to winning, and you expect to win each week."

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Ain't that the truth. This franchise ingrained a doubt/pessimism in me over the years. It's funny how only a few short years (it had to be more than one year) is clearing away that doubt.

It's still not completely gone for me, yet... I've been burned one too many times. But, with every victory, I inch closer and closer to the other side. This team is most definitely headed in the right direction, and the arrow is undoubtedly pointed upward.

But, I'm still waiting for the day that the team is truly elite. The defense is still a work in progress -- probably only a year away of offseason acquisitions from being complete -- and the offense is in dire need of an explosive gamebreaker (Norwood has been sorely missed).

Then I think, if I'm a fan and even I'm still afraid of the proverbial shoe eventually dropping on our entire season, how can I blame people in the media if they're still slow to come around.

But then again, the proof is in the pudding with the Falcons. They continue to play sound football and force other teams to beat them, as opposed to making fatal mistakes to cost them games. Thus far, only two teams have been up to the task of taking the game away from the Falcons b/c they don't give it.

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