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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons are two games below .500.
The Green Bay Packers might be playing as well as anyone in the league.
But, as Falcons coach Mike Smith pointed out Monday, both teams are in identical spots in the standings heading to the final month of the regular season.
"They're playing for the same thing we're playing for," Smith said. "They're in first place in their division. We're in first place in our division. It's no different from this past week."
Technically, that may be true.
But the Falcons (5-7) will undoubtedly be making a big leap in competition when they head to Lambeau Field next Monday night to face Aaron Rodgers and the streaking Packers (9-3), who have won four straight and scored more than 50 points in two of their last three home games.
"It's a big challenge for us this week with Aaron Rodgers," Smith said. "No doubt, he's playing the best of any quarterback in the NFL right now. He's got a number of weapons he can get it to. He's played extremely well at home. I don't think he's thrown an interception at home this season, and I don't even want to talk about how many points they've scored."
Atlanta remained tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South — and holding a tiebreaker edge over the Saints — after perhaps its most impressive performance of the season. Facing the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals, the Falcons raced to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, piled up 500 yards against one of the league's better defenses, and cruised to a 29-18 victory.
But they caught the Cardinals at a good time, taking advantage of a team that lost starting quarterback Carson Palmer to a season-ending injury, didn't have top receiver Larry Fitzgerald because of a knee injury, and lost leading runner Andre Ellington to a hip injury early in the game.
Arizona didn't score an offensive touchdown until just over a minute remained, ending a streak of more than 11 quarters without getting to the end zone.
Scoring has not been a problem for the Packers, who rank second in the league at 31.67 points a game.
And it's even tougher for opponents to win at Lambeau.
Asked what kind of atmosphere he expected, Smith replied with one word: "Cold."
The Falcons' secondary was bolstered by the return of safety William Moore, who forced a fumble against the Cardinals after missing seven games with a shoulder injury. Also, cornerback Robert Alford is being fitted with a special cast that might make it possible for him to play against the Packers; he sat out the last two games with a wrist injury, but could play a valuable role against the Packers' high-flying offense.
If nothing else, the Falcons are feeling a lot better about themselves after finally beating a team from outside their woeful division, and coming away with their first victory over a team with a winning record.
They're still right in the thick of the playoff race despite that poor record.
The same spot as the Packers, in fact.
"The goal," defensive tackle Corey Peters said, "has always been to handle the NFC South, make the playoffs and go from there."
Notes: Smith said the patched-together offensive line continues to make strides, a big reason the Falcons were able to rush for 142 yards — their second-best showing of the season. Atlanta has lost five linemen to season-ending injuries, leaving undrafted rookie James Stone at center, undrafted second-year player Ryan Schraeder at right tackle, and rookie Jake Matthews at left tackle. ... WR Roddy White (ankle) was close to playing against Arizona, Smith said, and the coach is confident that he'll be able to play at Green Bay. ... The Falcons' players will get two days off and hold their first practice of the week on Thursday.
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