8-0 Falcons try to play down talk of perfection
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -- Todd McClure can tell this is becoming a special season for the Atlanta Falcons, just from all the extra time he's spending on the phone.
He's getting hit up for tickets. And extra tickets. And anything with a signature on it.
"I guess it comes with the territory," the Falcons' longtime center said Wednesday, "so I'm embracing it."
McClure is also embracing the idea of perfection, the goal that every team strives for but few will ever reach. The Falcons have won their first eight games, the best start in franchise history and halfway to a 16-0 season.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only team in the modern era to make it through an entire year without a loss. The 2007 New England Patriots are the lone squad to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season (before losing, of course, in the Super Bowl).
Now, along come the Falcons.
Can they reach perfection?
"We can," McClure said without a hint of hesitation. "There's no reason we can't. If we play our game, go out and do what we're supposed to go, we can. The sky's the limit for this team. Is it going to be hard? Yes. Will it be hard this week? Yes.
"But," he added, "if we approach it week by week, it's definitely possible."
An 8-0 start is not all that usual -- the Falcons are the 10th team to do it in the last two decades, according to STATS LLC -- but this is where the pressure starts to mount. There's more and more media attention, more and more questions about the streak. Opposing teams start to play with a little extra fire, eager to be the team that ends the unbeaten season.
That's why another Falcons' lineman, right tackle Tyson Clabo, is realistic about the chances of going 16-0.
"We're only halfway there," he said. "Statistically, the chances of that are really slim. I mean, we base our game plans on statistics. Statistically, this what's going to happen, so we're going to do this. So I don't think we should deviate from our entire mindset based on this big, golden cow that everybody thinks we should try to get to."
Besides, despite being the league's only unbeaten team, the Falcons are still searching for a little national respect.
Outside of Atlanta, there's still a great deal of skepticism about whether this team will end up holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season, no matter how good it looks at the moment.
The Falcons have defeated only one team (Denver in Week 2) with a winning record. The combined record of their first eight opponents is a rather dismal 24-41. Perhaps the two toughest games are still to come -- Sunday's contest at New Orleans against the surging Saints, Atlanta's fiercest rival. Then there's a December contest against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who thoroughly dominated when the teams met last season in the playoffs.
"At this point, we have so many other goals that are more important than" going 16-0, Clabo said. "Like winning the division. Like trying to get a game in the (Georgia) Dome in the playoffs. We have a whole bunch of things we have to do before we even worry about doing that other thing."
Still, the odds of the Falcons running the table start to look much better if they get to 9-0. Other than the NFC East-leading Giants (6-3), the remaining opponents on the schedule are a cumulative 17-24 (Atlanta still has two games left with division rival Tampa Bay). Four of the last seven games are at the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons have a 30-7 record since Mike Smith took over as coach in 2008.
"I think we've got the pedigree to do it," receiver Roddy White said. "Offensively and defensively and how we are as a team. The locker room is very, very united right now. We go into every week expecting to win. ... We've still got to be consistent, don't turn the ball over and get turnovers. That's been the key to winning games all over this league. If we continue to do that, we'll be just fine."
Indeed, Atlanta is among the league leaders in two categories that Smith considers the key to success: turnovers and penalties.
The Falcons have lost only one fumble all season -- when quarterback Matt Ryan took a hit -- and are plus-10 in turnover ratio, which ranks fourth behind Chicago, the Giants and New England. They are by far the least flagged team in the league, called for just 26 penalties (17 fewer than any other team) accounting for 207 yards (118 below the next-lowest total).
"Coach Smith is always pointing out the penalties that players have and how they affect the game," defensive back Robert McClain said. "You don't want to be the guy who gets called out."
The Saints (3-5) have shown signs of bouncing back from an 0-4 start, and they've won their last three meetings against the Falcons. New Orleans would love nothing better than to snuff out hope of an unbeaten season in Atlanta.
"We've got an opportunity to do something nobody's been able to do this year, and that's beat Atlanta," Saints offensive lineman Jahri Evans said. "I'm kind of glad that they're undefeated."
But much like the Falcons have to ward off the natural tendency to look ahead, New Orleans must guard against putting too much emphasis on ruining the Falcons' perfect season.
"That doesn't make a difference really," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "It would be great for the fans. I know Saints fans would love that, but for us, we can't get caught up in all that hype and hoopla. They're a good team. They're 8-0 for a reason. It's not by luck that they're 8-0, so we have to understand who we're facing."
The Falcons know that this season won't be judged on how many games they win during the regular season. This team has been one-and-done in all three trips to the postseason under Smith, so there truly are bigger goals than going 16-0.
Winning in the playoffs is the main thing.
"That's what everybody is waiting for us do," running back Michael Turner conceded. "We've been winning here for a while now. This is nothing new. We just happen to be 8-0."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)