Garafolo’s Sunday Wrap: How the Falcons find themsleves atop NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons’ record is not what you thought it was Sunday afternoon, nor is it what you think it is right now.

Allow Matt Ryan to explain.

"We’ve had this mantra the last two or three weeks to just take it one week at a time and go 1-0. That was (coach Mike Smith’s) message in the locker room," Ryan told FOX Sports by phone about an hour after the Falcons finished off a 19-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. "We went 1-0 this week. We’ll enjoy it tonight. (Monday), when we get back to Flowery Branch, it’s back to 0-0 and time to work on going 1-0 next week."

The 1-0 record is Smith’s way of trying to put a unique spin on the one-game-at-a-time adage. It was also the beleaguered coach’s way of telling his team after the bye week to forget about their 2-6 start, and that if they could string a few wins together they might find themselves in contention once again.

After posting a pair of 1-0 records in the past two weeks, in contention is exactly where they are. First place, to be exact.

In an ugly NFC South, the Falcons are winning the games that matter — the divisional ones. They’re on top, even if they’re far from being in top form.

"It’s huge. As you come down the stretch of the season and come to November and December, you want to be relevant," Ryan said, realizing that word hasn’t been used in association with the Falcons since they lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers almost 22 months ago. "As differently as this year has shaken out across our division, we’re relevant. We’ve got everything we want still right in front of us."

Behind them is some bad football. Their defense has given up a league-high 403.4 yards per game, their running game is ranked 25th in the NFL and they blew a 21-0 halftime lead against the Detroit Lions in London last month.

Fortunately for the Falcons, they play in the NFC South, where the New Orleans Saints are refusing to take control of things, the Panthers can’t keep Cam Newton upright long enough to string a few plays together and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dug themselves so deep of a hole that they’re buried in last place and … actually, as bad as they’ve been, they’re only two games out of first.

Don’t expect Atlanta to apologize for being atop this dreadful division right now. But to stay there, they’re going to have to start winning some non-NFC South games. Their next four games — vs. the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals, at the Green Bay Packers and then back at home to face the Pittsburgh Steelers — will test their ability to do so.

"I feel like our best football is in front of us," Ryan said. "The last two weeks, across the board, we haven’t played perfect but we’ve played well situationally. When we’ve had to make plays in the fourth quarter the last two weeks, we’ve done it. In order to win football games, that’s critical."

On Sunday, that meant hitting Harry Douglas three times for 29 yards on the game-winning drive, including an 8-yarder to extend the drive and help turn what would’ve been a 53-yard field-goal attempt for Matt Bryant into a 44-yarder he made. It also meant cornerback Robert McClain stopping Jonathan Stewart for a 1-yard loss on third-and-5 with 1:31 to play. Graham Gano missed a 46-yard field goal on the next snap and Falcons rookie Ra’Shede Hageman blocked Gano’s 63-yard attempt at the end of regulation.

Small signs of progress. Baby steps. Or, to put it another way …

"1-0," Ryan said.

RAMS D GETS PHYSICAL

The St. Louis Rams showed on Sunday you can still play good, physical pass defense in this league — most of the time.

The Rams’ defensive backs were hammering the Denver Broncos’ wide receivers every chance they could get, and Peyton Manning provided plenty of those chances with some floating passes that left his wide receivers as targets to get whacked as they were making the catch.

"That’s our goal every week, to be physical. Peyton was able to give us some opportunities," Rams safety T.J. McDonald said by phone after St. Louis’ stunning upset of the defending AFC champs. "When the ball was in the air, we were going after it. I feel like dudes started hearing footsteps for a while. Once you get that going and get that momentum rolling as a defense, that physicality brings a lot of juice."

McDonald, who has been playing very good football of late, was in on plenty of plays late. His shot to the midsection of leaping Broncos wide receiver Andre Caldwell was one of the biggest hits in any game all weekend.

But the biggest might have been the blow Rams safety Rodney McLeod laid on Emmanuel Sanders on a deep ball from Manning early in the third quarter. McLeod was penalized for the hit, though replays showed it was shoulder-to-shoulder contact. FOX rules expert Mike Pereira deemed it a "mean hit, but not illegal."

Sanders left the game with a concussion and didn’t return.

"I saw the hit, I loved the hit," McDonald said. "Nobody’s trying to hurt anybody out here. Rod knows that. He’s just going out there trying to make a play. Unfortunately it didn’t go his way, but that sent a message to them regardless."

And it sent a message to the rest of the league to be as physical with Denver’s receivers as possible. Manning knows he’ll have to be more careful with the football, especially since Sanders will be coming back from a concussion and Wes Welker has had plenty of them.

Meanwhile, the Rams (4-6) are putting together another frustrating season in that they’re showing they have the talent to beat three of the last four Super Bowl participants yet not enough consistent quarterback play to compete.

If only Sam Bradford had been healthy the past two seasons.

"You can’t really think about that," McDonald said. "Once we’re in the season, you just ride with the guys you ride with. Shaun (Hill) did a great job today, Austin (Davis) did a great job when he was in there. … We ride with whoever is out there and we’re behind them."

QUICK THOUGHTS

1. The kind of stories swirling around the 49ers are usually what hovers over a team fighting for the worst record in the league. The latest issue is linebacker Ahmad Brooks pulling himself from Sunday’s game after the coaches had him as part of a rotation. But they are the Niners, 6-4 and only one game out of a playoff spot despite all of the talk about how the players are losing patience with Jim Harbaugh. For all of his faults, Harbaugh has shown he doesn’t need all 53 guys to like him, or even the majority of them to be a fan of his tactics. Somehow, he’s keeping it all together. And frankly, the Niners have been at their best when it seems like they’re going to come apart at the seams. Give Harbaugh and his staff credit for maneuvering through the chaos, even if they seem to invite it upon themselves sometimes.

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2. I mentioned on "FOX NFL Kickoff" on Sunday morning the relationship between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith is as strained as it’s been in a while, according to sources. The two men personally hammered out the agreement to put Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy on the commissioner’s exempt list in an effort to eliminate the distractions of having both players on the field. But now, there’s skepticism on both sides, as each believes the other has reneged on promises in recent weeks. The union claims Goodell and the league violated the terms of the exempt-list agreement by leaving Peterson on the list after his legal situation was complete. Goodell thought he had a scheduled meeting with Peterson last Friday, only to learn the union advised him to bail out. Usually, when Smith and Goodell are at odds, compromises don’t happen. So that could mean the league is planning to come down hard on Peterson as soon as Monday.

3. I’m glad I don’t have to turn in my MVP vote for six more weeks because I would have a seriously tough time deciding whether to give it to J.J. Watt or Aaron Rodgers right now. Watt is a half-sack away from his third straight season of double-digit sacks, added his second receiving touchdown with a beautiful catch on a fade route befitting the tight end he used to be, has an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 55-yard fumble recovery and has been a terror to block in the running game. Rodgers, meanwhile, is at the top of his game right now and might be playing even better than he did in 2011, when he threw 45 touchdowns to only six interceptions. Watt is playing for a .500 club, while Rodgers might be leading the best team in the NFC. (They’re barking at me from Arizona right now.) Still, when it comes to value to a team, Watt is making quite the case right now in a quarterback’s league. Hopefully, one of these two will separate themselves in the coming weeks enough for me to place my vote with a clear conscience. (And no, I haven’t discounted Peyton Manning, though he’s lagging right now.)

4. Since Tom Brady’s dreadful game in Kansas City in Week 4, he’s thrown 20 touchdowns to only three interceptions. He is not, by any stretch, losing his ability to be a franchise quarterback. And so, as we head toward Week 17 when the remaining $24 million over the final three years of Brady’s contract becomes guaranteed, it’s about to get interesting regarding his future with the New England Patriots. This was the supposedly team-friendly portion of the contract, where Brady’s average per year would be less than half of the going rate for elite quarterbacks. But with that final chunk of money guaranteed, Brady could use that as a starting point in asking for the contract to be redone. He’s got as good of a case as any quarterback in this league to ask for a renegotiation. It could get interesting.

5. It’s officially time to start worrying about the Seattle Seahawks. Their offense isn’t good enough right now and their defense isn’t nearly as dominant as it was last season. They now head into a brutal stretch of games that could end their title defense early. Seattle has two games against the Cardinals and two against the Niners wrapped around a game against the Eagles in Philly. A good record in those five games would be 3-2, which might not be good enough to pick up a game in the playoff race. And considering they’re currently a game out of a postseason berth, it’s possible they’ll need a win against the dangerous Rams (see above) and some help in Week 17. If Seattle doesn’t nab a postseason berth, it will mark the first time back-to-back champs missed the playoffs since the 2002 Patriots and the 2003 Buccaneers.

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TEN EVEN QUICKER THOUGHTS

1. Jonas Gray: Just another example of how Bill Belichick and his coaching staff can continue to find running backs. Over the past 10 seasons, the Patriots have now had 10 running backs rush for 100 yards or more in a game. Gray’s four rushing touchdowns were the most in a regular-season game in franchise history.

2. Rob Gronkowski: Have fun, big guy. You continue to earn it.

3. Patrick Peterson: After holding Dez Bryant in check a few weeks ago, he clamped down on Calvin Johnson on Sunday. The Cards’ cornerback said he would elevate his play after struggling a bit early in the season, and he has.

4. Mike Evans: The Bucs’ rookie is now the youngest player with a 200-yard receiving game. Imagine what a weapon he will be for the Bucs’ franchise quarterback of the future, whoever that may be.

5. Eli Manning: He made some incredibly baffling throws to players who were not only covered by a cornerback but also a safety who came over the top to make a play on the ball. Five deserved interceptions for Manning on Sunday.

6. A.J. Green: Want to see how good he can be when he’s on? Go back and watch the Cincinnati Bengals’ drive to start the fourth quarter. He had catches for 38 yards, 18 yards and 24 yards, with the last one being a touchdown that put the game away.

7. Robert Griffin III: His comments about how "the Peytons and the Aaron Rodgers … don’t play well if their guys don’t play well" won’t go over very well in the Washington Redskins’ locker room. Look out for more drama out of there.

8. Oakland Raiders: It’s not showing in the results, but those guys are playing hard as they try to get their first win. It’s coming. 

9. Mike Priefer: The Minnesota Vikings’ special-teams coordinator had a rough offseason, as he was accused by former Vikes punter Chris Kluwe of making homophobic remarks. Back on the sideline, Priefer dialed up a gorgeous mini-reverse on a fake punt that went for 48 yards and set up Minnesota’s first touchdown.

10. Josh Brown: Speaking of special teams, kudos to the Giants’ kicker for wrestling the ball away from 49ers safety Bubba Ventrone on an onside kick. Too bad for the Giants they couldn’t turn that play into points in another wasted opportunity on Sunday.