ATLANTA — Several times this season the Atlanta Falcons have found themselves on the national stage and faced a test of their mettle. Every time, they have proven themselves.
With many wondering if this team — whose core group has remained roughly the same over the last four-and-a-half seasons during which the Falcons have earned three playoff berths but never won a postseason game — truly is as good as its unbeaten record, the Falcons passed their latest test with a 19-13 win over Dallas at the Georgia Dome to improve to 8-0 on Sunday night.
On Monday night in Week 2, they intercepted Peyton Manning three times in his first eight passes to defeat the Broncos 27-21. Last week at Philadelphia coming off a bye against a desperate Eagles team, they dominated 30-17. And on Sunday night with Dallas and its requisite circus coming to town, the Falcons posted their best defensive performance of the season — minus their top linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who sat with an injured ankle — building a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and finishing off the Cowboys (3-5) before the 70,840 in attendance with little of the drama the Falcons needed to dispatch lesser opponents earlier this season.
“Yeah, well, that’s a sign of a good team,” said Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez of shining under the brightest spotlight. “We missed a couple of (field goals) today, we didn’t put the ball in the end zone, even though we had all these big stats” — 453 yards offense but only one touchdown — “we weren’t able to put the ball in the end zone, and that’s the sign of a really good team because imagine when we do put it all together. . . .
“We look at the film, we know there’s room for improvement.”
The win gives the Falcons a four-game lead in the NFC South, the largest of any team in the league. In addition, it improves them to 3-0 against the NFC East — considered, perhaps on reputation, even if not in reality, the league’s toughest division — with the biggest game looming large on the schedule: the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants visit here on Dec. 16.
As head coach Mike Smith noted on Sunday, his Falcons keep finding new ways to win. Through the first six weeks they did it with 17 takeaways and a plus-10 turnover differential. However, they have neither created a single turnover in the last two weeks nor yielded one.
Last week against Philadelphia, the Falcons held an opponent to its second- lowest yardage total of the season (270). With Sunday’s win over Dallas, they held an opponent to its second-lowest point total of the season.
The Cowboys entered with the NFL’s No. 7-ranked offense and third-ranked passing offense. The Falcons bent but didn’t break, holding Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to one touchdown despite no interceptions, even though Romo had thrown 13 INTs entering the game.
“I mean, Romo’s a great quarterback,” said Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, who admitted that he struggled in the first half, getting beaten for a 65-yard pass that helped Dallas build a 6-0 lead and committing two penalties, including one that negated an interception. “They have an explosive offense. I don’t care what their record shows, this is a very good football team and we knew that coming into the game. We never underestimated this football team and they came out and played well, especially after a tough loss last week (to the Giants), we knew we were going to get their absolute best shot and we still found a way to win and I think that’s what’s important.”
Among the Falcons’ biggest successes was limiting Dallas to field goals. The Cowboys’ only touchdown came when the Falcons were playing a soft zone in the fourth quarter after building a 16-6 lead. The Cowboys drew within 16-13 on Kevin Ogletree’s 21-yard touchdown reception with 5:21 left, then the Falcons slammed the door.
The Falcons converted some huge third downs on the ensuing drive, including two on receptions by running back Jacquizz Rodgers. They ran the clock down and Matt Bryant made his fourth field goal with 17 seconds left, preventing Dallas from having enough time to mount a touchdown drive.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan might have had a streak of 22 straight games with a touchdown pass snapped but he finished with 102.8 quarterback rating, his sixth time this season eclipsing 100, continuing an MVP-caliber season.
“Any way you can find a way to win in this league is a positive,” Ryan said. “I think that’s a very good football team we played against tonight and a very good defense . . . but at the end of the day it’s about finding ways to win and I thought our team did a great job of that tonight.”