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Falcons look to match start of 1998 team
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (22) is stopped on the goal line by the Atlanta Falcons’ Lawrence Sidbury (90), Curtis Lofton (50) and Erik Coleman in the fourth quarter last Sunday in Atlanta, The Falcons visit Dallas today. - photo by By John Bazemore

Atlanta (4-1) at Dallas (3-2)

4:15 p.m., FOX

Series record: Cowboys lead 15-8

Last meeting: Cowboys beat Falcons 38-28, Dec. 16, 2006

Last week: Falcons beat Bears 21-14; Cowboys bye, beat Chiefs 26-20 in OT in Week 5

Falcons offense: Overall (18), Rush (24), Pass (15)

Falcons defense: Overall (24), Rush (23), Pass (21)

Cowboys offense: Overall (2), Rush (3), Pass (9)

Cowboys defense: Overall (22), Rush (17) Pass (26)

Streaks, stats and notes: Dallas, Atlanta and Denver are only NFL teams that have not allowed touchdown in third quarter. ... Dallas and Atlanta have split their last 14 games. Before that, Cowboys had won eight of nine, including NFC divisional playoff games in 1978 and 1980 seasons. ... Both teams had receivers with team-record receiving games on Oct. 11: Atlanta’s Roddy White had 210 yards against San Francisco; and in Dallas’ last game Miles Austin had 250 yards vs. Kansas City. ... White is on pace for third consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season, which would match Andre Rison (1992-94) for most by Falcons player. ... Atlanta has allowed only two sacks this season, none in the past 17 quarters (four-plus games). ... Falcons are playing first of four road games in a five-week stretch. After Dallas, they play at NFC South rival and undefeated New Orleans on Nov. 2. ... Dallas is 15-5 coming off bye weeks, 6-1 at home. Cowboys have won out of bye week in last four seasons. ... Cowboys are 2-0 this season against NFC South teams (Tampa Bay and Carolina), improving to 48-22 against that division.
— their best record against any division. ... Since starting 12-1 for coach Wade Phillips, Dallas is 13-11 its past 24 regular-season games, plus a playoff loss. ... After leading NFL with 20 sacks last season, DeMarcus Ware finally got his first two of season in last game against Kansas City. ... First-year Cowboys LB Keith Brooking played first 11 seasons of career for Atlanta, where he had 1,471 tackles and 17 sacks in 161 games (146 starts). He was last remaining player from Atlanta’s only Super Bowl 11 seasons ago, when he was rookie.

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys certainly felt better after a weekend off.

Receiver Roy Williams, running back Felix Jones and safety Gerald Sensabaugh were among the injured players given some extra recovery time after already missing games and should be back today against Atlanta.

The Cowboys (3-2) also moved into a second-place tie with Philadelphia and gained a half-game on the NFC East-leading New York Giants without even playing — all the other division teams lost last weekend while Dallas had its bye.

Now Dallas needs something a little more credible: a win on the field against a good team like, say, the Falcons (4-1).
“We know the urgency is there,” tight end Jason Witten said.

“It’s the most important game of the year,” said Wade Phillips, his coachspeak brimming with truth. “Yeah, if we beat that team, I think somebody else will say that’s a credible win.”

While the Cowboys have managed a winning record, their victories are against a trio of teams with a combined 3-11 record. They went into their bye week after a 26-20 overtime victory at then-winless Kansas City, beat then-winless Carolina in Week 3 and opened the season by winning at Tampa Bay, now one of the NFL’s three 0-6 teams.

As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones put it this week, “We’ve got an opportunity here to really create some, perceived by our fans and by other people, some real credibility if we could come in here and beat the Falcons.”

Lose today to another winning team, like they did against division leaders New York and Denver, and the Cowboys are a pedestrian .500 team capable of going either way after that.

With second-year coach Mike Smith and second-year quarterback Matt Ryan, Atlanta can match its franchise-best start of 1998, when the Falcons were 5-1 on the way to their only Super Bowl appearance.

They are still trailing New Orleans (5-0) in the NFC South, and go on the road to play their rivals next.

Ryan hasn’t been sacked in 17 quarters since the season opener, and the Falcons have allowed 14 points or less three times already.

“The team is so young ... they’re enthusiastic, the way these guys approach practice. It’s just great to be around. It’s infectious. It’s contagious,” said tight end Tony Gonzalez, in his first season with Atlanta after 12 seasons in Kansas City. “And I love it, obviously to be on a winning team again.”

While the Cowboys appear to be healing, with Williams (bruised ribs), Jones (strained left knee) and Sensabaugh (right thumb) all expected back in the lineup, Atlanta is dealing with some injuries.

Starting fullback Ovie Mughelli missed last week’s win over Chicago because of a calf injury and is questionable, as is backup running back Jerious Norwood (hip flexor).

Starting cornerback Brian Williams is lost for the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee last week.

Despite defenders being unable to get to Ryan, starting running back Michael Turner is coming off a season-low 30 yards rushing (on 13 carries) against Chicago and is averaging only 3.5 yards per carry on his 100 attempts. More concerning is that Turner has fumbled in each of the last four games, though the last two balls were recovered by Atlanta.

“It’s a focus area, with not only Michael but our entire team,” Smith said. “I don’t think fumbles are one person. ... When somebody comes in and hits the ball carrier, we had somebody that was responsible for blocking that guy most times. We’ve got to do a better job as a complete unit and team.”

The Falcons are opening a stretch of four road games in five weeks. Survive that span and they could be in really good shape going into a three-game homestand that will conclude with the Saints at the Georgia Dome in mid-December.

Gonzalez’s first season with the Falcons — and he plans to “definitely” play again next season, he told Dallas media on a conference call this week — coincides with linebacker Keith Brooking’s first season out of Atlanta.

Brooking, who spent 11 seasons with the Falcons, was the last remaining player from Atlanta’s Super Bowl team. He left as a free agent when it was clear the Falcons were ready to move forward without him being a starter.

Brooking is Dallas’ leading tackler with 37 stops, and had 18 in the last game against the Chiefs.

“It will be good to see Brook. He’s a friend and a great player,” said Ryan, though he obviously hopes they won’t be meeting during the game.

“He’s a high intensity and a high emotion type guy. I’m sure that he’s going to be ready for this game,” Gonzalez said. “You would anticipate that he’s going to be at his best.”

After the Falcons, the Cowboys have five games before going to New York to again play the Giants, who got a field goal on the final play of the home opener to ruin Dallas’ inaugural game in its new stadium.

Three of those games are at home against teams that now having losing records and the others are at Philadelphia and Green Bay, both 3-2.

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