FLOWERY BRANCH — Rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is close to returning from a knee injury, just more good news for the healthy Atlanta Falcons.
"Yeah, that's the key to winning in the NFL, just staying healthy," receiver Roddy White said Thursday. "Having all your guys with you everyday in practice and in games is a big deal, man."
The former Missouri star's hopeful return Sunday in St. Louis would give the NFC-leading Falcons another boost. It would be the first time this season that all 22 current starters play in the same game.
Players and coaches rarely want to answer hypothetical questions about injuries, and linebacker Mike Peterson is no exception, but with the Falcons lucky to avoid catastrophic injuries this year, he does acknowledge that they're blessed.
Thus so far.
"The thing about injuries, man, is that it's around the league, and you can't really prepare yourself for it," Peterson said. "It's something that happens to everybody. This year — knock on wood — we've been real fortunate. We haven't had too many setbacks with guys as to when they can come back."
Of the nine NFC teams either leading a division or trailing by one game, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Chicago are relatively healthy when you consider what Green Bay and New Orleans — and to a lesser extent, New York, Seattle and St. Louis — have endured to stay in contention.
The Rams (4-5) have lost receivers Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton to season-ending injuries, and franchise running back Stephen Jackson is playing with a broken left ring finger.
Atlanta's problems have been less frequent. Cornerback Dunta Robinson missed just one game because of a concussion.
Weatherspoon and receiver Michael Jenkins, sidelined the first five games with a bruised shoulder, are the only starters to miss substantial time.
White calls it an encouraging scenario.
"It's a big part of the chemistry, too, when everybody's out there on the field and everybody's jelling together," White said.
"When you have to flip flop guys from week to week, one guy might not have the chemistry the group has with another guy."
White, the NFL's leading receiver, had a scare Nov. 7 in a narrow home win over Tampa Bay. Hit near the sideline after making a first-quarter catch, White lay on the field with a sprained knee before walking gingerly to the sideline.
He returned briefly before leaving again and getting fitted for a soft brace that helped him play the second half. Though he finished the game with his lowest totals this season in catches and yards receiving, White still caught a critical 9-yard pass to convert a third down and set up Atlanta's last touchdown.
The Falcons hope Weatherspoon, the 19th overall draft pick, can play Sunday at St. Louis. Knee and ankle injuries sidelined him in five of the last six games, but Atlanta benefited from reserve Stephen Nicholas, who had 33 solo tackles in the games Weatherspoon missed.
"It's a good problem to have when you've got guys that you're confident can come in and play," coach Mike Smith said.
"We're very excited about getting Sean back because of how he started the season off, so I think it's just a really good situation for us."
Weatherspoon's speed, tackling and pass coverage skills should further bolster a defense that ranks second in interceptions, second in third-down percentage, seventh against the run and eighth in scoring.
Atlanta needs to improve its pass rush and ball pressure as the defense ranks 18th in sacks and fumble recoveries.
Weatherspoon had 26 solo tackles, a 9-yard sack and one pass breakup while starting the first four games, but his presence away from ball accounts for more than statistics as opponents often have to find another point of attack.
"I want to do my part," Weatherspoon said. "I want to make plays and have fun out there. Sitting on the sidelines is not fun. It's not the same when you wish you could be out there."