Texans, Falcons in position for early clinchings
Perfect through one-fourth of the schedule - and in divisions weaker than the economy - both of these perennially underachieving franchises are now conference favorites. Barring major injuries, they soon can start concentrating on having the best record in the AFC and NFC.
Arizona, the other 4-0 team, isn't in quite so comfortable a position. The normally maligned NFC West has turned into a danger zone, with the Cardinals and 49ers boasting powerful defenses and nice balance, and the surprising Seahawks and Rams looking more competitive than expected.
Atlanta has been a consistent winner for the first time in its 46-year existence under team President Rich McKay, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. Since Dimitroff and Smith came aboard in 2008, the Falcons have resembled a model franchise.
Except in the playoffs. But there is a much different, more positive vibe about this squad now.
''We're a quarter of the way through the season and we're right where we need to be in terms of our record,'' said Matt Ryan, who in his fifth pro season is beginning to look like an elite, clutch quarterback.
Ryan has all kinds of support on offense, from star receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones to ageless tight end and nonpareil leader Tony Gonzalez to running back Michael Turner to a maturing line. The Falcons also have become staunch defensively when they need to be, and their 12 takeaways lead the NFL.
It is a measure of how confident - and competent - the Falcons are that even when they began their final and ultimately winning drive Sunday against Carolina at their 1-yard line, no one was shaking in his cleats.
''Every time it looked bleak and it didn't look like we had the chance there in the last five minutes, we were able to overcome it and finish it,'' Smith said.
That bodes well for Atlanta when it gets to even bigger games, especially in the playoffs, where the Falcons are 0-3 under Smith and have barely shown up in those defeats.
''It's very good to know that you'll be able to handle the ebbs and flows of a game,'' Smith said. ''It was just a matter of time that we were going to have to play from behind. We weren't naive enough to think we would play every game with a lead, but I thought it showed the mettle of the guys in that room.''
The Texans have had only one close game and generally have been ahead, trailing for only about 19 minutes total. Their defense began coming of age in 2011, their first playoff season since they joined the league in 2002, and has forced nine turnovers while getting 13 sacks, 7 1/2 by end J.J. Watt.
On offense, Arian Foster and Ben Tate form a potent running back tandem, Andre Johnson is one of the game's top receivers, Owen Daniels is a first-rate tight end and QB Matt Schaub is off to a solid start. The scary thing about Houston is that the offense can be a lot more efficient.
Oh, and this: The Texans' remaining schedule hardly is daunting, with two of the toughest games at home, against Green Bay and Baltimore.
Not that it matters to the Texans.
''The good teams I've been around,'' said coach Gary Kubiak, who was with two Super Bowl winners in Denver, ''that is the way they focus because they don't get concerned about who they play, where they play. They get concerned about how they play.
''They know that if they play good football, we're going to have an excellent chance to win, week in and week out, and they're really hard on each other and pushing each other. We'll see over a period of time, but it's a good start.''
Arizona's start, built on powerful defense, opportunistic offense and strong special teams, is its best since 1974 when the Cardinals played in St. Louis. They'll need to keep it up to keep pace with the 49ers, who use similar skills and have the added edge of being a good road team.
But who's to doubt these ''Cardiac Cardinals,'' whose knack for winning the close ones, including their last five overtime games, all at home, is a trait every team envies.
''It's an awesome feeling,'' star receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. ''You go around town and take your kids to school, eat at restaurants, the whole valley is behind us and it's a fun feeling. ... There's nothing better than being 4-0 (except) being 5-0.''
And there's nothing worse than 0-4, an ignominious spot shared by the Browns (no surprise) and the Saints (shocking).
Cleveland is young, rebuilding with 15 rookies on the opening-day roster, and undergoing a change in ownership. Patience needs to be the keyword there.
No chance of that in New Orleans, where angst over the bounty scandal and its resulting suspensions has turned to anger at just about everyone in the NFL outside the Big Easy. The Saints come close, but can't make the decisive plays and have more losses this season than in all of 2011.
The suspension of coach Sean Payton for the season has been a harder hit than anyone projected, and the defense, already suspect, has been a sieve, allowing the most points in the NFC.
After the latest loss, at Green Bay, words of optimism crept out of interim coach Aaron Kramer's mouth. From Drew Braes, too.
''Things just aren't going our way,'' tight end Jimmy Graham said. ''You look back: `09, everything went our way. Even last year, everything went our way for the most part. It's just ... somehow we have to turn it over. We have to overcome these things and just stay positive.''
They are whistling in the graveyard.
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