The Atlanta Falcons reported to work Monday in a strange place.
Yep, the Falcons (4-6) are tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South and actually hold a tiebreaker edge after beating the Saints in Week 1.
Not so long ago, Atlanta was mired in a five-game losing streak that raised doubts about the future of coach Mike Smith. Now, the Falcons have won two straight heading into Sunday's suddenly important game against Cleveland (6-4).
"There's a lot of football to be played," coach Mike Smith said. "But we're aware of where we are. Our goal is to continue to improve. We've got some young guys that are starting to get significant playing time at different positions across the board. I think everybody is improving. I think everybody is aware of what we need to do this week."
After a stretch with only one home game in 59 days, the schedule turns in Atlanta's favor the rest of the way.
Four of their last six games are at the Georgia Dome.
But there's more bad news on the injury front. Running back Antone Smith, a special teams ace and tied for the team lead with five touchdowns, is out for the year after breaking his right leg while covering a kickoff in Sunday's 19-17 victory at Carolina.
Also, cornerback Robert Alford is expected to miss two to four weeks with an injured left wrist.
Javier Arenas, who has been a healthy scratch all season, will get a chance to fill Alford's role in the secondary. Smith could be even tougher to replace, given his propensity for breaking long plays despite limited opportunities on offense. All five of his TDs have covered at least 38 yards.
"When he touches the ball, he has the ability to take it the distance," Smith said. "He's had a lot of explosive plays for us that we'll miss. But this gives an opportunity for some other guys to touch the ball."
Besides, the Falcons can't complain too much given their fortuitous position in the playoff race. They're at least three games behind every other NFC team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today, but they could wind up with at least one home playoff game if they win their division.
"We're now back in the driver's seat of our destiny," running back Steven Jackson said. "That's where we want to be. Ultimately you have to continue to win. You can't look for anybody else to help you out."
Atlanta surrendered a 16-3 lead to Carolina in the fourth quarter, falling behind 17-16 after the Panthers scored a pair of quick touchdowns.
But, unlike so many other games where the Falcons have fallen apart in the final period, they showed some resiliency this time, driving into position for Matt Bryant's fourth field goal of the game with 2:08 remaining. Then, they got a little good fortune — Graham Gano missed a 46-yard attempt for Carolina with 1:27 to go and had a desperation 63-yarder blocked as time expired.
"It's been a different year, for sure, but you play to be relevant in November and December," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "As quirky as this year has been, we're relevant."
Smith senses that the Falcons came together after their fifth straight loss, a 22-21 defeat to Detroit in London three weeks ago. Atlanta built a 21-0 lead at halftime and was still in good position to hold on at the end, but poor clock management gave the Lions a chance to kick a game-winning field goal on the final play.
Instead of folding, the Falcons bounced back to win their last two games on the road, albeit against division foes (Tampa Bay and Carolina) with a combined record of 5-15-1.
"When you have adversity, when you don't have things going your way, when you start getting yourself painted into certain situations, it changes things," the coach said. "There is a sense of urgency. As a team, we talked right after we got back from London. We discussed what we needed to do as a coaching staff and as a team. There was a commitment to one another to accomplish what we needed to accomplish."
And now, they're on top of their division.
As strange as that seems.
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