FLOWERY BRANCH — Then there was one.
The Atlanta Falcons (6-0) woke up Monday as the NFL’s last unbeaten team, the distinction all to themselves after Green Bay knocked off Houston the night before. They’ll be able to savor their status, too, with a bye coming up and nothing on the schedule the rest of the week.
Coach Mike Smith broke with the way he’s done things in previous years, deciding to give his players the entire week off rather than holding a couple of practices. Several dozen players came in to the training complex the day after a 23-20 victory over Oakland, but that was merely to get treatment and maybe look at a little film.
Otherwise, they’re free to go.
See you next Monday.
“It’s very important for us — the players and the coaches — to disconnect a little bit,” Smith said.
The decision had nothing to do with the Falcons’ glittering record. The coach graphed out this schedule back in April when he saw where the bye week fell, essentially right in the middle of the 20-week schedule (counting the four preseason games).
“I try to let the guys know well in advance what the schedule is going to be,” Smith said. “This is just the way we wanted to approach it this year. You don’t get a whole lot out of those two practices during the bye week. It’s like pulling teeth. It’s like the last day before Christmas vacation.”
The Falcons are off to the best start in franchise history and already hold a commanding lead in the NFC South — 3.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay, 4« ahead of both defending division champion New Orleans and Carolina.
But Smith doesn’t want his team thinking about loftier goals, such as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or even winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship, although being the last team to lose in any given season is often a good title omen.
There’s still plenty of work to do, starting with the running game.
Atlanta has put much more emphasis on moving the ball through the air, wanting to take advantage of myriad weapons (quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones). Nothing wrong with that decision, but spreading things out seems to have taken a toll on the once-dominant ground attack led by Michael Turner.
Also, the Falcons have struggled to prevent other teams from running, a double-whammy that Smith plans to address with his assistants even while the players are enjoying their down time.
“We’ve got to be consistent in everything we do,” he said. “We haven’t run the ball consistently, and we’re not stopping the run. Those two things stand out the most.”
The Falcons are averaging just 86.5 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 25th in the league, and they struggled in short-yardage situations against the Raiders. For instance, after John Abraham caused a fumble and Ray Edwards returned it to the Oakland 2, Atlanta was forced to settle for a field goal. After an incomplete pass, Turner was stopped short of the end zone and Jason Snelling was thrown for a 2-yard loss on third down, with the ball no more than a foot from the goal line.
Just as troubling, the Falcons surrendered 149 yards rushing to the Raiders, who came in averaging a league-worst 60.8 per game. Atlanta is surrendering 143.8 overall, a dismal 27th in the league rankings.
“We had a bunch of missed tackles — about twice as many as we expect in a normal game,” Smith said. “That lent itself to the explosive plays we saw from the Raiders. Most of the time in those situations, it’s not great execution by the offense. The majority of time, it’s missed assignments and missed tackles.”
One thing Smith isn’t concerned about: winning three straight close games, by a total of 12 points, against teams that wouldn’t be considered among the NFL elite.
The Falcons rallied to beat Carolina (1-4) on Matt Bryant’s field goal with 5 seconds remaining, and needed another clutch kick from Bryant — a 55-yarder with 1 second left — to get by the Raiders (1-4). In between, Atlanta edged the Redskins (3-3) after knocking Robert Griffin III out of the game with a concussion.
Smith and his players aren’t fretting over style points.
They only care about scoring more points.
“Bottom line, we just need to keep winning,” said Ryan, who bounced back from three first-half interceptions against Oakland to complete five passes on the final drive of the game, setting up Bryant’s field goal. “Certainly we all have the mindset that we need improve, and we do. Everybody needs to take some time on the bye week and evaluate themselves, self-scout a little bit, and determine areas where we need to get better.”
But, he quickly added, “At this point in the NFL regular season, it’s all about getting wins. We’ve done a good job of that so far.”
The way things are going, the Falcons sort of hate to take a week off. Still, given what awaits them after the break — a trip to Philadelphia to face Michael Vick and the Eagles, followed by a prime-time game at home against the Dallas Cowboys — this is a good time to pause.
“We certainly wish we could keep playing, but a bye week is always good for a ballclub,” White said. “We’re going to relax, get healthy and prepare for two tough weeks of football.”