FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The unbeaten Atlanta Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan are playing at an elite level.
It's hard to say anything similar about the Dallas Cowboys, whose offense can pile up yards, but struggles to hold onto the football.
"When you lose, it eats away at you," Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said. "You stay up all night thinking about it."
Ryan has one of the NFL's best receiving corps in receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez, the league's No. 2 career receiver.
But Ryan, despite leading scoring drives on Atlanta's first six possessions last week, knows the Falcons (7-0) must do a better job at scoring touchdowns — not just field goals — if and when they get into the red zone against Dallas (3-4) at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
"We had opportunities on those last three that if we execute better you can put up touchdowns," Ryan said of last week's 30-17 victory at Philadelphia. "That's the key. When you get down there and you have opportunities to put six on the board you have to do it. I think when you look at our entire year up until this point that's something we haven't done a great job of. We need to be better."
The Falcons and Cowboys both have significant holes in the middle of their defense.
Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is sidelined by a low right ankle sprain and will not play. The Cowboys lost linebacker Sean Lee, their leading tackler, to a season-ending toe injury two weeks ago.
Stephen Nicholas will likely assume Weatherspoon's role as the every-down linebacker, while second-year veteran Akeem Dent will slide into Nicholas' spot in base and sub-packages.
Weatherspoon, who had played every snap this season before getting hurt in the fourth quarter at Philadelphia, will be tough to replace with 44 solo tackles, two passes defended, three sacks, four tackles for lost yardage, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Dan Connor has taken over for Lee, but a neck injury sidelined him from the first Dallas practices this week. Next man up on the depth chart is oft-injured Ernie Sims.
The Cowboys are hoping running back DeMarco Murray returns this week after missing the Giants game with a sprained right foot.
Atlanta is likely to start rookie Peter Konz for the second straight week at right guard with Garrett Reynolds nursing a lower back injury.
Konz has yet to face a talent like four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who has a sack, a forced fumble, three quarterback pressures and six tackles since returning from an ankle injury and making his season debut two weeks ago.
Regardless who's in or who's out, Dallas' offense has a long way to go before matching the efficiency of Atlanta's. The Cowboys rank second worst with 19 giveaways, including an NFL-high 13 interceptions by Romo, and fifth worst with 54 penalties.
The Falcons have committed just 24 penalties, fewest in the league, and their 11 giveaways are tied for third fewest.
As a result of making few mistakes, the Falcons are fifth in average points scored. The Cowboys rank 23rd.
For Dallas, last week's 29-24 home loss to the New York Giants was one of its toughest in 23 games under coach Jason Garrett. Six turnovers, including four interceptions by Romo, eventually doomed the Cowboys, even though they rallied from 23 points down to take a fourth-quarter lead that would've amounted to the biggest comeback win in team history. But a fumble by running back Felix Jones led to a second fourth-quarter field goal by New York's Lawrence Tynes and New York held on.
Dallas' hopes were dashed, though there were a couple of bright spots. Tight end Jason Witten set an NFL single-game high for a tight end with 18 catches, and Romo set franchise highs with 437 yards passing and 62 attempts. Still, neither accomplishment held much meaning.
"Tony did such a great job of taking care of the ball last year and throughout his career," Garrett said. "But sometimes you have interceptions and they come in bunches. They're critical plays in the game, and the quarterback ultimately is responsible with the ball in his hands. But one of the things we continue to preach is that turnovers and takeaways are a team thing, and everyone's a part of it."
Falcons coach Mike Smith said his team will count on Dallas playing a clean game. After all, before going to Philly last week, Smith knew Atlanta couldn't project that the turnover-prone Eagles would continue to struggle with giveaways. And that turned out to be the case.
Smith said he likewise can't take for granted the Falcons will play mistake-free and win the turnover margin. There are no guarantees in the NFL, but that doesn't stop him from trying to keep his players in check.
Under Smith, Atlanta keeps a penalty report for each player each week and over the course of a season. Everyone is graded on not only the number of penalties, but whether they come on third down or in the fourth quarter or, in a worst-case scenario, both.
"I think it's an emphasis point that we have instilled in our guys that we don't want to be penalized," Smith said. "We want to understand what we can do with each officiating crew and go out there and play hard."
Likewise, the Falcons must avoid disappointment if they don't start fast. During Smith's five-year tenure, Atlanta is 38-9 when scoring first. Its offense leads the league this year and since the start of 2008 in points scored on its first possession.
"Each week is a different week," Smith said. "The outcome of the previous game has no bearing on it, and I don't think the statistics of the previous game will have any bearing on your next game. We've got to work on preparation and be focused on that."
Defensively, the Cowboys rank 17th in points per game allowed while Atlanta is seventh. The Falcons have 17 takeaways compared to Dallas' eight.
But just as Smith doesn't believe the Cowboys will continue some of their negative trends, Dallas rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne thinks the Falcons, who rank 24th in rushing behind inconsistent running back Michael Turner, could find some creases to gain explosive yards on the ground.
"They can run the ball and they're pretty balanced with the run and the pass," said Claiborne, who has an interception and fumble recovery in the last two games. "They've got a good quarterback over there who can stretch the field."
Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson, a nine-year NFL veteran in his third season with the Falcons, knows that the Cowboys have too many big playmakers in Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin to assume they will take the night off.
"They have weapons all over the field," Robinson said. "We've been in enough situations where we understand that you're going to face great receivers on certain Sundays. We feel like we've faced a lot so far. They're just another bunch of guys that we've got to go play against."
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