ATLANTA -- There are no schedule permutations under which an NFL franchise can clinch a divisional title in September, but mathematics notwithstanding, the Atlanta Falcons are making a pretty good run at accomplishing the impossible and could well lay waste to the NFC South by the end of the month.
For a second straight week, the Falcons on Sunday demolished a division rival that had been to the playoffs in 2005, this time whipping the defending NFC South champion Tampa Bay Bucs in what might have been the most one-sided 14-3 victory in recent NFL history. The win followed a 20-6 thrashing of Carolina, a 2005 wild-card team that advanced to the conference title game a year ago, in the season opener.
Just like that, in only two weeks and with most NFLfans having barely caught their breath, Atlanta owns a two-game lead over the teams that were expected, by most pundits, to rule the division.
"When the schedule first came out, everybody looked at it and saw how we opened up with teams in our division, and we knew how critical it was to get off to a fast start," said Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, whose outstanding performance constituted four tackles, two interceptions and four passes defensed. "Last year, it seemed like forever until we played a division game. So, yeah, this got our attention and it gave us real incentive to jump out fast. To win both games, against these teams, man, that's huge."
How big, or actually rare, is it for a team to get off to such a fast start in its division?
Consider this: Since the NFL realigned in 2002, only the 2003 Minnesota Vikings, entering this season, opened 2-0 -- with both victories over division rivals. The Falcons now share that distinction and can become, with a victory at New Orleans in a Sept. 25 Monday game, the first team since those '03 Vikings to get out of the chute with three straight season-opening wins over division opponents.
New Orleans, which won at Green Bay on Sunday, has surprised even itself with a 2-0 start. But the Saints, even with the anticipated emotion expected to accompany their first home game at the Superdome since the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, could have a difficult time competing if the Falcons arrive in town with the same kind of overall brilliance they have shown in their first two victories.
The Falcons are on a roll and, to this point at least, are simply steamrolling opponents.
"We knew that, with the way the schedule set up, a slow start could kill us in the division," defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "So I think that motivated us."
The Falcons' rushing offense has now pounded out 558 rushing yards in two victories. The Falcons ran for 252 yards in their win at Carolina, the most real estate ever surrendered by the Panthers on the ground. The 306 yards for which they gashed Tampa Bay, with tailback Warrick Dunn (134 yards) and quarterback Michael Vick (127 yards) both topping the century mark, was also an all-time opponent's high against the Bucs' defense.
While it still tends to get overlooked, Atlanta has led the NFL in rushing in each of the last two seasons and is on pace to rush for 4,464 yards. The single-season league rushing record, established by New England in 1978, is 3,165 yards. The Falcons may find it impossible to continue at such a pace. Right now, though, even good defenses seem to have no answers for staunching the Atlanta running game.
"Coming in, you know exactly what they want to do, you know?" Tampa Bay strong safety Jermaine Phillips said. "Everybody knows they're going to run it. They could put up a neon sign that says, 'Run!' But they do it really well, and they're hard to stop, even if there's no great mystery to it."
There may not be many surprises to the Falcons' approach but, Phillips' assessment aside, there definitely are some new wrinkles in Atlanta's running game for 2006. The most obvious alteration is that Atlanta now is using the shotgun formation on early downs, not just in third-and-long passing situations. His team has borrowed some components of a few college offenses, most notably that of West Virginia University, head coach Jim Mora acknowledged, and opponents have not been able to adjust.
"When the schedule first came out, everybody looked at it and saw how we opened up with teams in our division, and we knew how critical is was to get off to a fast start. Last year, it seemed like forever until we played a division game. So, yeah, this got our attention and it gave us real incentive to jump out fast. To win both games, against these teams, man, that's huge."
DeAngelo Hall, Falcons CB
"Our coaches saw some teams out there, and not necessarily NFL teams, that were doing some pretty nice things [offensively]," Mora said. "And they said, 'Let's look at those teams.' We've been able to apply a lot of that stuff into our concepts without having to change very much."
Most run-oriented teams eschew working out of the shotgun because theory holds that it limits the kinds of running plays that can be used. But the Falcons have incorporated it seamlessly and, because of that, have not had to rework their zone-blocking schemes upfront. The broadened use of the shotgun has permitted Vick to get to the perimeter on more designed plays. And Vick has improved his ball-handling -- especially a belly-type series in which he sticks the ball into Dunn's gut and hesitates with it there, as if he is maybe reading the flow of the defensive end in an option-based attack -- to the point where defenses are frozen.
By unofficial count, the Falcons aligned in the shotgun 13 times on first-and-10 and rushed for 96 yards on 10 carries in those situations. Suddenly, you don't hear many complaints anymore about Atlanta's staff trying to pigeonhole Vick into a West Coast-style offense for which his unique skills-set isn't well suited. Vick has been efficient, managed the first two games well, and seems to be enjoying himself as he cavorts through overmatched defenses.
Said Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice, who has helped contain Vick in the past, but who was held to one tackle and no sacks Sunday: "It was the impromptu part of it. It was a 'make it up as you go' thing. They didn't require him to stay in the pocket. They allowed him to make plays with his feet. He got up the field. He held onto the ball. The bootleg worked well. Listen, they were on-point today. They did their thing. They put pressure on us in every facet."
The Bucs' game plan centered around lining up with two or three tight ends -- not counting return specialist Mark Jones, Tampa Bay dressed only three wide receivers and had two on the field at the same time on only about 25 percent of its 70 snaps -- and pounding tailback Cadillac Williams at the Atlanta defense. But the beauty of the manner in which the Falcons are playing right now is that they are not only running the ball exquisitely, but are extinguishing their opponents' running games, which they never did a season ago.
Tampa Bay eked out just 40 rushing yards on 16 attempts. In two outings, a Falcons unit that in 2005 statistically ranked a miserable 27th leaguewide versus the run, has permitted only 105 rushing yards. The offseason additions the front office made to address the run-defense shortcomings have paid off handsomely so far.
"I think that's the most gratifying thing," said weakside linebacker Keith Brooking, forced to play in the middle for a second straight week as Ed Hartwell recovers from twin knee surgeries. "We're stuffing teams right now that absolutely beat us up last year. It feels pretty good. We're playing well, but there are still some areas where we can get better."
Start, for one, with the placement game. Second-year veteran Michael Koenen, who is handling all three kicking chores for the Falcons, missed four field goal attempts Sunday and squandered an opportunity to bury the Bucs early. Koenen was an equal opportunity scattershot kicker, missing wide left twice (from 36 and 40 yards), wide right once (30 yards) and having a 30-yard effort blocked. In two games, Koenen has now converted 2 of 8 attempts. His six misses are three times as many as last year's kicker, Todd Peterson, had for the Falcons.
Despite converting 23 of 25 kicks in 2005, the Falcons chose not to re-sign Peterson, who remains out of work. The coaching staff here likes to rationalize that Peterson's average conversion in 2005 was only from 31 yards. But at least he made the makeable kicks, which is more than Koenen is doing. Mora faced the kicker situation head-on in his postgame, noting that it "is an issue that we're not going to disregard," but emphasized he thinks the deficiency can be resolved with the people on the payroll.
Still, the wayward kicker might need a visit to the local sports shrink whose talents have been called upon by some Atlanta employees.
The other shortcomings for the Falcons -- squandered red-zone opportunities, dropped interceptions, the inability to put away an opponent on the ropes, some players' childish contentions the team doesn't get enough respect, and Vick's stretches of inaccuracy and the occasionally maddening interception -- probably fall into the nit-picking category. Through two weeks, the Falcons have been thorough in their dominance, and there are probably few teams playing any better.
"There's always room to get better," said Hall, who continues to establish himself as one of the league's premier cover defenders. "But if feels good to be 2-0 and to have this kind of leg up on two teams in the division. To be this early in the season and to be playing this well, yeah, it feels real good."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.