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A Little Love


helmsman
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ATLANTA -- After dispatching the Dallas Cowboys with the nation watching, after earning their eighth victory in eight tries during a stunningly ho-hum 2012 season, the Atlanta Falcons had plenty to celebrate. How did star tight end and elder statesman Tony Gonzalez plan to live it up into the wee hours Monday morning? By watching highlights on "all the outlets." And by keeping score.

He pondered the possible topics.

"If they're just going to talk about the Cowboys, (debate if) they aren't that good of a team, underachieving," Gonzalez said. "Or are they going to say, 'The Falcons are a good team?' Eventually, they're going to have to."

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Perhaps now is the time. The Falcons outlasted the Dallas Cowboys, 19-13, in a slugfest of a game between one desperate team and another that played like it was in front of a raucous crowd of 70,840 at the Georgia Dome. It came down to the perfect drive at the perfect time, with quarterback Matt Ryan and Atlanta taking possession with 5:21 left in the fourth quarter and holding the ball until a mere 17 seconds remained. When they had to play keep-away, the Falcons rose up, converted three third downs and marched 66 yards, highlighted by Jacquizz Rodgers' back-breaking 31-yard catch-and-run that left Orlando Scandrick lying on the turf, later saying, "It's going to kill me for a while."

It was as the Falcons have been: perfect. When Matt Bryant kicked it through the uprights to make it a six-point game with 17 ticks on the clock, it was all but over. In front of America, Atlanta took down America's Team. And the Falcons even taught us a thing or two, unleashing running back Michael Turner for 102 yards when it seemed almost evident they didn't run it well enough to be balanced. One by one, the questions were answered -- even before we knew we were supposed to be asking them of the Falcons, as opposed to the other teams that decorate our TV screens and websites.

"We know what we got in this locker room," cornerback Asante Samuel said. "Forget the outside world. Who cares, right?"

Well, right. Inside a brash, confident, "we're all we got" locker room, the inside world is more important than the outside world. Yet, they know. When they turn on their TVs and see NFL soap operas like those about the Cowboys, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles occupying the screens, they take note.

As of right now, the Falcons don't have much to talk about. No drama here. The only hole they had as a team was the lack of a running game, and the buoyant Turner filled that on Sunday night. Star receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White compete for the ball, but not for Ryan's attention. Instead, both thrive, as they did Sunday with 129 yards for Jones and 118 for White.

Will the Falcons grab the nation's attention after a big win on a big stage?

"The more we win, yeah," said Gonzalez, who had four catches for 36 yards. "It's gotta change. They gotta take notice, if we keep doing what we've been doing. I made reference to it because I was a little frustrated the last week. We beat Philly, a very good Philly team, out there; everyone knew their record, and after the highlights were done, everything was about Philly. Honestly, I understand why. We haven't done anything. We get to the playoffs and we've lost. I understand why they're not making that big of a deal. But we go out there and keep doing what we're doing, eventually, they will take notice."

Gonzalez hit it on the head. The Falcons rolled to a 13-3 record in 2010, only to fall on their faces against the Green Bay Packers in the postseason. Last January brought a 24-2 skunking at the hands of the New York Giants. How do we know if the 2012 Falcons are those guys or something new? Maybe it's the attitude.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that we're 8-0," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "But I think we can play better. That's my honest opinion."

Robinson said this week he believes the 2012 edition is far more postseason-ready than those past teams. But until they prove that, it's just talk. What we can focus on is why the Falcons are where they are: Because Ryan is savvy and efficient, constantly allowing Jones and White to go up and get it. He threw for 342 yards and no interceptions against a vaunted Dallas pass defense, yet it all seemed so, to borrow a nickname from Rich Eisen, "Mattural."

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Consider the end of the first half. The Cowboys had marched from the shadow of their own end zone, eating the clock. When they finally punted, there was 1:03 left and the Falcons had the ball on their own 12. Ryan got to work. A 20-yarder to White. An eight-yard scramble. A 12-yarder to Gonzalez. A 15-yarder, again to Gonzalez, to set up a field goal. Free points, thanks to flawless execution. In a six-point win, those matter. Yet few will likely notice today, which is characteristic.

"Sometimes, it's a little bit better to fly under the radar," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But our record speaks for itself. People are going to be trying to gun for us and give us their best shot. You can't be mad at flying under the radar."

OK, Falcons, you won more than a game on the Sunday night stage. We're paying attention now.

When the game ended, White was asked how long the winning streak can continue. He said he aimed for 16-0, then corrected himself. "Well, 19-0," he told NFL.com.

What's next for the Falcons?

"New Orleans next, baby," Samuel said.

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