Falcons say they’re not yet where they hope to be

There was relief in the Atlanta locker room Sunday, the kind of feeling players would carry with them on the bus and the plane ride back home following another escape.

At least until Houston plays the New York Jets on Monday night, the Falcons are still one of the NFL’s two remaining undefeated teams. But they sure didn’t look flawless in a 24-17 win over the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

Quarterback Matt Ryan looked ordinary in the first half. Atlanta had two turnovers, including an interception that Redskins defensive end Ryan Kerrigan returned for a touchdown. And the Falcons, unbeaten or not, let the Redskins hang around, threatening that perfect record, even after Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III left with a mild concussion.

Five weeks into this NFL season, the Falcons have become a popular choice to reach the Super Bowl. There must be improvement between idea and reality, and for now, Atlanta too often resembles the team with plenty of talent that lacks the composure to win a playoff game — something it hasn’t done since the 2004 season.

“We’ve got to fix those problems,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. “Basically, what we’re doing on offense, it’s kind of us; it’s not really the defense. We’ve just got to go out there and fix it ourselves.”

That’s two weeks in a row, though, that the Falcons looked less like a Super Bowl contender and more like a team winning in spite of itself. They struggled a week earlier against the Carolina Panthers, and for a long time Sunday, there was nothing to celebrate until Griffin’s backup, Kirk Cousins, threw interceptions on the Redskins’ final two possessions. Then defenders Sean Weatherspoon and Thomas DeCoud could dance on the sideline and relieved players could talk about the potential that lay ahead, if Coach Mike Smith and his staff can tighten the loose ends.

“It’s not going to be pretty every week,” Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “We know we can play a lot better than we did today, and we know we can play a lot better than we did last week.”

Ryan’s teammates insisted later that their quarterback is at least at the doorstep of that place where the league’s elite passers reside. Perhaps, but before halftime Sunday he was asked to throw 32 times; he lacked the accuracy he has become known for and struggled to find receivers downfield.

Those teammates said it wasn’t so much that Ryan’s first half was unremarkable; the impressive thing, they said, was his team’s second-half turnaround. Running back Michael Turner eased the pressure on Ryan, the defense knocked Griffin from the game and eventually contained Cousins after a 77-yard touchdown pass, and the Falcons looked much more like the solid team that already has built a comfortable lead in the NFC South.

“That’s what good teams do,” Gonzalez said of his team’s ability to shake off an unimpressive first half.

There was relief in the Atlanta locker room, sure. But, perfect or not, maybe Sunday was another reminder that the Falcons aren’t yet where they hope to be.

“There are so many things that we can work on,” Gonzalez said. “We have not arrived, by any [means].”

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