Fresh off a victory over the Green Bay Packers, the Atlanta Falcons sit at the top of the NFC with a record of 9-2. As of right now, Atlanta is the best team in the NFC as Chicago and New Orleans are the only other teams with eight wins.
The Falcons deserve to be mentioned not only as the class of the NFC but also as the top overall team in the NFL.
Those in New England and New York will have a lot to say about their respective teams, but first, let's go through 10 reasons the Falcons are No. 1.
There are three 9-2 teams in the NFL, and the Falcons are one of them.
This automatically puts them in the discussion for best team, doesn't it?
Atlanta has a distinct home-field advantage, where they are 6-0 this year and 19-1 with Matt Ryan as their quarterback. The team is 6-1 against conference opponents and unbeaten within their division—marks exceeded by no other NFL team.
In a year where the AFC's dominance over the NFC has been a hot topic, the Falcons are 3-1 in intraconference games.
True, they had a poor performance against Philadelphia, but every team has bad games, and that loss was not as bad as the Jets' losses to Baltimore and Green Bay (teams Atlanta beat) or the stinker the Patriots threw out there against Cleveland (whom the Falcons also beat).
That's good enough to be considered the best team in my book.
In an overtime contest that was an early favorite for Game of the Year, the Falcons went into New Orleans and handed the defending Super Bowl champs their first loss of the season.
Yes, it took them until overtime to do so, but Atlanta really took it to the Saints in that game.
Consider that the Falcons had a 45:50-to-27:15 time of possession advantage, gained more yards than the vaunted Saints offense, rushed the ball 50 times (50!) for 202 yards and forced three New Orleans turnovers including two interceptions from Drew Brees.
The national media and one ESPN analyst in particular (this one's for you, Trent) have reveled in pointing out the Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley missed a short field goal in overtime, allowing the Falcons to attempt a successful game-winning field goal of their own.
What they fail to point out, though, is that New Orleans would not have even been in that position if not for a fluke punt that hit the foot of an Atlanta player and gave the Saints a short field for a go-ahead third quarter touchdown.
The New Orleans' defense could not stop the Falcons late in the game. If not for that play, Atlanta would likely have gone on to score another touchdown and put the game away early
Sometimes the things they don't show you are the most important.
The Falcons' biggest weakness is in their pass coverage. They give up a lot of yards and have been prone at times to allowing big plays.
Yards don't win you anything, however. Points are what matter and the defense is stingy when it comes to those.
Atlanta's defense allows just 19 points per game, good for seventh in the NFL.
When you have an offense that scores just over 25 points a game, that's generally good enough to get it done.
Teams may be able to move the ball against the Falcons, but they have a hard time finding the end zone.
Atlanta's coach preaches smart, opportunistic football. He believes the trademarks of a good team are consistently winning the time of possession and turnover battle, committing very few penalties and fourth quarter scoring.
The team is certainly responding to his message.
They dominate time of possession, are plus-11 in turnover differential, are among the least penalized teams in the league and are a near lock to win any game that is close in the fourth quarter.
Never satisfied with just winning, Smith constantly tells his team they can be better, and the players believe it.
They may not have even peaked yet, which is a scary though for the rest of the NFL.
Granted, the Falcons lost to the Eagles in what was supposed to be a statement game, but as I said before, you can chalk that one up to simply a bad game. They happen.
Three of Atlanta's last four victories have come over teams that many picked to take down the Falcons.
They beat the self-proclaimed best team in the NFC, followed that up by beating Baltimore and then took out Green Bay over the weekend. A win over the upstart Rams was mixed in there.
What else does this team have to do?
Coming into this season, I dreaded the thought of Michael Turner being held in check and Matt Ryan being forced to throw the ball too often.
My fears have now been put to rest.
When the Falcons beat the Ravens, the team got nothing out of Turner and the running game with Ryan throwing the ball 50 times. If someone told me that was the case and I did not know the score, I would have assumed the Falcons lost.
Well, Ryan was spectacular, and the Falcons won that game. They now have the type of offensive balance that gives defensive coordinators nightmares.
Frankly, if the offense plays the way it has the past two weeks for the rest of the season, it will be nearly unstoppable.
Remember that Green Bay had allowed a total of 10 points in its three games leading up to the showdown with Atlanta. The Falcons scored 20 in that game, as Ryan was at his most efficient, and Turner gashed the Packers' D.
I'm not quite sure how you game plan against that type of balance.
White has been relatively held in check the past two games (14 catches for 132 yards), but he has been nearly unguardable for much of the season and has made several plays to win games.
The Packers did everything they could to stop him with double coverage in Week 12, yet he still found a way to make a clutch nine-yard reception that helped the Falcons get into position for their winning field goal.
Many have talked about how Tony Gonzalez opens up the field for White, but what about the reverse?
If teams are committing two defenders to White that frees up more space for Gonzalez, as well as the Falcons' other receivers.
Gonzalez caught six balls for 51 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay and had a similar stat line against St. Louis.
With defenses paying so much attention to White, others are being allowed to step up. Michael Jenkins appears to have found a cure for the dropsies, and Harry Douglas even got involved last week when he caught two passes on Atlanta's game-winning drive.
Statistics do not always tell the true measure of a player's value. White's fantastic play this season is making everyone around him better, and it's only a matter of time before he explodes for another big game.
During the offseason, the Falcons became the first NFL franchise to include MMA-style training in addition to their normal regiment.
The workouts were designed to increase core strength and flexibility, endurance and overall mental toughness.
So far the hard work is paying off.
It's very common to see defenses completely gassed by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, worn out by a physical offensive line, a mauling lead-blocker in Ovie Mughelli and two bruising backs in Turner and Jason Snelling.
The wearing down process helps open up running room late in games when the Falcons are trying to put games away.
Defensive players took part in the training as well, evident in their hard-hitting and swarming nature.
The Falcons might just be in better shape than everyone else in the league, something that will benefit them greatly down the stretch.
The Falcons are 15-0 when Ryan posts a quarterback rating of at least 100, which is good since he's been over that mark in four of Atlanta's past five games.
Ryan has not thrown an interception in his last four contests and has seven touchdowns over that stretch.
He's coming off a career-best 85.7 completion percentage, is more athletic than people give him credit for and spreads the ball around to seven or eight different receivers a game.
For my money, he's the best young quarterback around and has come out victorious in head-to-head matchups against just about all of his competition in his young career.
With Ryan playing lights-out, the Falcons are tough to beat.
Prior to last season, Tony Gonzalez knew he was going to be traded away from the Kansas City Chiefs. The team was rebuilding and wanted to give Gonzalez a chance to win before his career was done.
When told the team had a deal in place with the Atlanta Falcons, Gonz was given a night to sleep on it. He proceeded to have a dream of confetti falling from the sky, and his mind was made up.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, Gonzalez gushed about his new quarterback, saying Ryan was the best he'd ever played with and marveled at the work ethic of the young team.
He was amazed at how much the guys around him wanted to be the best and how hard they were willing to work to attain their goals.
The future Hall of Famer has been a tremendous influence on players on both sides of the ball. He's taught them what it means to be a professional, and his work ethic has rubbed off on guys who weren't lacking in that department in the first place.
When a team wants it more than anyone else and puts everything they've got into becoming the best, they will eventually find their way to the top.
This could be the season Falcon fans have been waiting for more than 40 years.