Falcons win should cement spot as NFL’s best

The Falcons loomed as the only unbeaten team remaining in the NFL, but they entered Sunday’s game at Philadelphia as an underdog.

Perception lurked greater than reality: The Eagles as NFC heavyweight, having gained a berth to the conference championship game five times in head coach Andy Reid’s first 13 seasons; the Falcons as pretender, having gone 0-3 in the playoffs in Mike Smith’s first four seasons.

It remains to be seen if the Falcons’ 30-17 dismantling of the Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field changes those perceptions, but Atlanta, at 7-0, has the look of a team turning the corner — even if only a playoff win ultimately proves that.

For one, the Falcons in recent seasons had struggled with the Eagles, losing three straight until last year. Even in their 13-3 season of 2010, they got hammered in Philly, 31-17.

But in the aftermath of Sunday’s game, the Falcons have put some dents in the Eagles’ armor when it comes to head-to-head play. For one, they became the first team to beat one of Reid’s Eagles squads in a bye week in 14 years. For himself, Smith, who took sole possession of the Falcons’ all-time wins list, 50-49 over Dan Reeves with the win, is now 4-1 after the bye, having won his last four. Coming out of a bye week strong is often seen as a measure of a coach’s effectiveness, as more time to prepare seemingly favors the better coach.

Now, even though the Falcons defeated yet another team with a losing record (3-4), they at least have bested a team with a pedigree. Previously, the Falcons had scored some impressive wins in their first three games — over Peyton Manning and Denver at home; in a short week on the road at San Diego — but the idea that they had struggled in their previous three against lesser competition, Carolina, Washington and Oakland had dogged them.

In Philadelphia, the Falcons faced a test against a desperate team that had fired its defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, during the bye. From the start, the Falcons seemed to underscore that Castillo might not have been the issue.

The Falcons made a few changes of their own during the bye but it came more in the form of tinkering. Rookie Peter Konz took over in place of Garrett Reynolds at right guard. The sluggish running game got a boost from more touches by Jacquizz Rogers, who ripped off a 43-yarder and lead the team with 60 yards on eight carries.

From the start, the Falcons’ offense was almost flawless and quarterback Matt Ryan again looked like a leading MVP candidate. By halftime, Ryan had completed 17 of 20 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. The Falcons scored on all four first-half possessions, taking a 24-7 lead into halftime. Overall, Ryan led the Falcons to scores on the Falcons’ first six possessions with the Falcons’ first punt not coming until 5:24 remained in the game.

Ryan finished with a 137.4 rating — his highest of the season in the city where he played his high school ball. He posted a rating of 100 or higher for the fifth time in seven games. On the season, Ryan has 17 touchdowns to six interceptions (three of which came in an ugly win over the Raiders, giving him one or zero in the other six games).

Defensively, the Falcons held the Eagles to 270 yards, but some of those came in garbage time, as the Eagles trailed by 20 until 7:18 left in the game when LeSean McCoy caught a seven-yard touchdown pass. Despite recording 17 turnovers in their first six games, the Falcons did not force any against turnover-prone quarterback Michael Vick, but they did sack him three times and hit him hard often, officially five times.

Overall, the performance had few, if any, warts. If it were not already the case, this game should have cemented the idea that right now the Falcons are the NFL’s best team — possibly even one that might change perceptions come playoff time.