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Holloway: Picture it, the playoffs

POSTED: November 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.

ATLANTA - Playoffs?! Don’t talk about...playoffs? Are you kidding me?

Cover your ears Jim Mora (both of you), because with seven weeks left in the regular season we’re going to talk playoffs, and the Falcons are officially in the discussion.

Sunday’s surgical dismantling of New Orleans was the team’s first win over a division opponent this season and first win over the Saints since 2005. It leaves Atlanta at 6-3 and a single game behind division-leading Carolina.

Just let that sink in for a minute.

A couple of months ago, would you have believed it?

"I can’t really answer that," said Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose head coaching career is off to a smashing start. "We’re very confident in our football team, and we continue to get confirmation about what we’re doing."

But this was supposed to be the game where the Falcons come back down in their yo-yo season: Fresh from a ridiculously easy road win in Oakland, with the league’s top passing offense coming to the Georgia Dome. Instead, Atlanta looked more like the team that was predicted to contend for a first-round playoff bye, and less like the team that one national publication pegged for a one-win season.

The Falcons set the tone from the beginning Sunday.

When the Saints went hunting for the big play on the game’s first snap, Falcons safety Erik Coleman picked it off. New Orleans, which depends on big chunks of yards, got beat at its own game. Those 20- and 40-yard plays Saints coach Sean Payton builds his offense around, didn’t come until New Orleans went into desperation offense and the Falcons went to prevent defense.

In fact, the Saints got beaten at the Falcons’ game too, as Atlanta had five scoring drives that took more than five minutes off the clock.

"We got beat," Payton said. "We got beat in every area."

That’s why it’s realistic for Falcons fans to start thinking about playoffs: It’s not just the victories, it’s the way they’re getting them.

Like a self-correcting machine, when the running game was limited early, Matt Ryan and the Falcons receivers were nearly flawless. When the team needed the running game to chew up clock and yardage in the second half, it led the way on an eight-and-a-half minute drive that put Atlanta in front by two touchdowns.

And when the NFL’s version of a Big 12 offense finally started moving the ball, the Atlanta defense stepped up with back-to-back red zone interceptions of the league’s leading passer and squashed what hope for a comeback the Saints still held.

It was impressive, plain and simple, and it puts the Falcons in the playoff hunt. But being in the hunt isn’t the same as making a kill.

"We’re 6-3 and we’re in a good position to do a lot of the things we want to do as a team," Ryan said. "But there’s seven weeks left and there’s a lot more that’s going to be determined in that time."

Of the seven teams remaining on the Falcons’ schedule, all but one of them were realistically in playoff contention when Sunday began. That includes critical division dates with Carolina and Tampa Bay at home, and a trip to New Orleans, which will probably have Reggie Bush back by then.

To navigate that unforgiving forest and not come out looking like babes in the woods, a lot of things have to keep going right: The continued growth of Ryan (103.8 passer rating in the last five games); the serviceable efforts of the defense and the running game, John Abraham’s health, etc.

It seems like a lot to ask.

Then again, a couple of months ago a 6-3 start seemed a near impossibility, even if Smith won’t admit it.



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