Behind Enemy Lines: Falcons are 6-2, but how good are they?

They'd just won a game against a team that arrived being billed -- actually, billing itself -- as the NFC's best. And yet Mike Smith, the head coach, characterized the Falcons' mood thusly:

"We're 6-2, but there's some guys in that locker room who are ticked off because they know we haven't put together 60 minutes of football."

The good news is that the Falcons lead the NFC South and hold the best record in their conference. The better news is that they've done this much while working hard not to make the opponent feel bad about itself. On Sunday they got the fourth-down stop they needed to hold off Tampa Bay. What failed to compute was how a game so lopsided -- the Falcons had 26 first downs to the Bucs' 14 and didn't turn the ball over -- came down to a fourth-and-1 inside the final three minutes.

Said Dunta Robinson, the cornerback: "We made a lot of mistakes. We kept them in the game."

The Falcons couldn't have made a brighter start. They led 14-0 after 16-plus minutes. Then they got benevolent. They yielded the 66-yard kickoff return that gave the visitors hope. By halftime the margin was down to a field goal. Over the final quarter the Bucs were never more than one play from stealing the lead, and if not for a reviewed reversal of a recovered onside kick they might have stolen the game.

To the credit, the Falcons never let that one play happen. But three breakdowns -- two on kickoff returns, a third when Robinson allowed Mike Williams to turn a short pass into a 58-yard touchdown -- nearly overrode all their good work. And there was much good work: Matt Ryan was clinical, Michael Turner irresistible, Roddy White inspirational after getting his knee taped and returning to the fray.

And with all that, it was 27-21 with the Bucs at the 2-yard line with 2:44 to play.

Said Smith: "There's a sense of relief. But I'll get frustrated when I watch the tape tonight."

This isn't to suggest the Falcons should be beating everybody by Boise State margins. The NFL doesn't function that way. (Smith again: "In this league, every game is going to come down to four or five plays.") But the Falcons have fallen into the habit of winning at home without dominating.

They let then-winless San Francisco take and hold the lead until the final play. They let the sub-.500 Bengals surge from 21 points down to one point ahead in 8 1/2 minutes. On Sunday they led by 14 points early and by 13 later and still couldn't relax until the clock hit triple zeroes.

"We've been good," said Thomas DeCoud, the safety who made the fourth-down tackle on LeGarrette Blount. "We haven't been perfect."

But that's not quite it. With the exception of the '72 Dolphins, no NFL team has been perfect. What's nettling about these Falcons is that they can look like -- all together now -- the NFC's best team for a good long while and then you glance at the scoreboard and wonder, "How in the world is this game so close?"

Robinson: "That's what the good teams do -- they look at themselves in the mirror and figure out how to tighten things up. The team that's coming in here Thursday night [Baltimore, which is likewise 6-2] will capitalize. We've got to learn how to finish."

The Ravens' visit seems nicely timed. The Falcons have shown enough over the season's first half to stamp themselves as dangerous, but they haven't yet had the comprehensive victory that would make you say, "That team right there? It's going to the Super Bowl."

Tampa Bay came to town tied with the Falcons atop the division, but the Bucs are more a gifted young nuisance than a real threat. The Falcons are a team of talent and seasoning; the Falcons' time is, or at least should be, now. These first eight games have dropped enough hints. Thursday night would be fitting venue to make a real Statement.

Said DeCoud: "We've still yet to play our best. Once we do that, we're going to be a very, very hard team to beat. And it's coming."

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