Falcons not where they want to be yet

ATLANTA -- In a Georgia Dome stairwell, the chant echoed and kept getting louder as more fans got on the steps.

"6-0, 6-0, 6-0," more than a few dozen fans yelled repeatedly after the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Oakland Raiders 23-20 on Sunday.

A long-suffering bunch, Atlanta fans have every right to be giddy about a 6-0 start. The Falcons have never been there before. Heck, they never have been any better than 4-0 until this season.

But let’s not get too carried away just because the Falcons are in uncharted territory. There’s still plenty of territory they haven’t entered yet.

In coach Mike Smith’s postgame news conference, there was a question about how the Falcons should handle potential talk about how they’re the best team in football as they head into their bye week.

Smith chuckled at the question.

"They'll watch the tape and they'll realize that we've got a lot of work to do," said Smith, who got his 49th career victory to tie Dan Reeves for the most wins in franchise history. "I can assure you that. They don't need to have myself or any of the coaches in there watching it. They're off during the bye week, but they will be in there watching tape. That’s the way we do things. That's a great locker room and they realize that we haven’t played the best football that we're capable of playing."

Despite their lofty record, the Falcons definitely aren't the best team in the NFL. They're not even the best team in the NFC at the moment. I’m not sure which team is the best in the NFL or the NFC, but it's not the Falcons. At least not yet.

The game against Oakland was firm proof of that. Throw in the previous two games, against Washington and Carolina, and we haven't seen the Falcons play a real good game since Week 3 at San Diego.

They're just getting by and Sunday was the closest escape yet. The Falcons needed a 55-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with one second remaining to get a home win against what is one of the worst teams in the league.

For the third straight week, the Falcons were sloppy in a lot of areas, and no one was sloppier than quarterback Matt Ryan. He’s been mentioned in MVP conversations, but any more games like Sunday will put a stop to that.

Ryan was intercepted three times in the first half. But Ryan, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, did what he had to do when it mattered most. For the third straight week, he led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

This one began with the game tied (20-20) and the Falcons getting the ball at their own 20-yard line with 40 seconds remaining. Ryan worked the sideline perfectly, completing five of six passes to get the Falcons within Bryant's range.

"We need to strive to play our best," said Ryan, who entered the game with only three interceptions on the season. "I don’t think we've done that the last couple weeks. It's going to be critical for us to use this week to find ways to improve."

The Falcons aren't the best team in the league right now, but that doesn't mean they can't get there. By skill and by luck, they're the only undefeated team in the NFC and they’re running away with the NFC South.

The Falcons know they have to get better if they want to keep winning and go deep into the playoffs. There are issues on offense and defense that have to be patched up.

"We've definitely got something special on this defense," veteran cornerback Asante Samuel said. "We're going to put it all together by the end."

Like Ryan, Samuel and the defense experienced highs and lows against the Raiders. Samuel seemingly won the game when he intercepted Carson Palmer and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown with 2:40 remaining.

But, largely with help from Samuel losing Derek Hagan on a 38-yard pass play, the Raiders moved right down the field to tie the game with a touchdown.

"I think we can improve so much," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "We're not where we want to be as a defense. We want to be perfect."

The Falcons aren't where they want to be as an offense or a defense, but that’s not a bad thing with a week off coming to correct flaws and get some rest.

"It's good that we've got some time off because we have a long list of guys that are banged up right now," Smith said.

The week off may help the Falcons get defensive tackle Corey Peters, who has been on the physically unable to perform list, back on the field. That should help a defense that allowed the Raiders to rush for 149 yards. The time off also should help linebacker Stephen Nicholas get healthy. Nicholas came into the game dealing with an ankle injury and played only sparingly after aggravating it or realizing he wasn’t fully ready.

The Falcons allowed 474 yards, but there were bright spots, like John Abraham's three sacks and Samuel's interception.

"We need to use this week to make sure we get better ourselves," safety Thomas DeCoud said.

That applies to offense, defense and special teams because the 6-0 record might be a wonderful thing, but it's also a bull's-eye on their back.

"The thing now is we know we're going to get everyone's best shot," Robinson said. “We've got to take our game to another level."

If the Falcons can take their game to another level and start putting together complete games, then the chants and talk of them being the best team in the NFL could be justified.

But the Falcons aren’t there -- yet.