Falcons vs. Saints
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV, radio: FOX (WAGA-5); 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
ATLANTA — Don’t blame the Atlanta Falcons for taking advantage of their bottom-feeding opportunities in the first half of the season.
Sure, the Falcons’ surprising 5-3 mark has included wins over Detroit, Kansas City and Oakland, teams that are a combined 3-21 halfway through the season. The real news is the Falcons aren’t foundering at the bottom of the league with the winless Lions, 1-7 Chiefs or the Raiders, who fell to 2-6 with Sunday’s 24-0 loss to Atlanta.
No matter the lack of strength in the Falcons’ schedule, their strong first half is a welcome surprise.
The Falcons, 4-12 in 2007, were widely expected again to have one of the league’s worst records after an offseason makeover that began with the additions of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith.
Most of the team’s biggest names were released or traded, and the new management team committed to rookie quarterback Matt Ryan as the starter from the opener.
Ryan, who threw touchdown passes to Michael Jenkins on two of the Falcons’ first three possessions Sunday, has helped Atlanta and its fans move past the Michael Vick era.
Ryan helped make the astonishingly lopsided win over the Raiders look easy. The Falcons finished with a 30-3 advantage in first downs as Ryan completed 17 of 22 passes for 220 yards without an interception.
Running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood shared the carries as the Ryan-led offense moved in the first half as if it were facing a scout-team defense.
"We came out and scored three touchdowns on our first three drives and got the field goal on the fourth," Ryan said. "We had a good rhythm and a good momentum."
The Falcons assumed an aggressive edge early with a no-huddle attack.
"I thought, Matt, when we jumped into our no-huddle, did a very nice job," Smith said. "We wanted to control the tempo of the ballgame from the very beginning ... and we were able to do that."
After four possessions, the Falcons had a 24-0 lead. The rest of the game belonged to Atlanta’s defense, which completed its first shutout in six years.
"Defensively, I thought it was our best performance," Smith said. "We’ve been very efficient in the first quarter throughout the season defensively, but we were able to sustain it for the entire game this week."
The Falcons set a franchise record in allowing only 77 yards, the Raiders’ lowest total since 1961.
John Abraham had three sacks, giving him 10 for the season, and Erik Coleman preserved the shutout with his fourth-quarter interception in the end zone.
"That was a huge win for us," Coleman said. "We flew all the way out to the West Coast. The offense started the game off with a great drive and we took that momentum and kept it going. The defensive line did a great job stopping the run and keeping pressure on the quarterbacks to pass. It really made our jobs easy back there in the secondary."
The Falcons outscored the Lions, Chiefs and Raiders 96-35, but the 5-3 start also has included a road win at Green Bay and a home victory over Chicago, when Ryan delivered in his first opportunity for a last-minute win.
Smith said the first half of the season "has confirmed that ... we are doing things the right way."
The Falcons play at home Sunday against New Orleans (4-4), their first reminder that the second-half schedule will be more difficult. Only two of Atlanta’s remaining eight games come against teams which currently have losing records — San Diego (3-5) and St. Louis (2-6).
The second-half schedule includes second chances against Tampa Bay and Carolina, which each beat Atlanta 24-9 earlier in the season.
"You never want to have a let-up. Especially going into next week we want to continue to be consistent through four quarters," Coleman said. "I think we did a great job of that on defense as well as offense. That helps build our confidence a little bit going into next week. We have a huge game playing against the Saints."