Are these Atlanta Falcons for real? "For real" meaning, are they truly the NFC's best and are they capable of getting to and possibly winning Super Bowl XLV?
It's tough to say.
Sure, the Falcons have the NFC's best record at 8-2, but there are five teams at 7-3, two of which are in their division (Saints, Bucs) and one (Eagles) that beat them by two touchdowns with their backup quarterback. And if Garrett Hartley would have connected on his 29-yard field goal attempt in overtime of the Falcons-Saints Week 3 contest, Atlanta would be 7-3 looking up at New Orleans.
The Falcons have eight wins but all, save two games against opponents in the awful NFC West, have come by 10 points or less. Five wins have come by seven points or fewer.
In other words, they're not steamrolling through the NFC as the clear-cut favorite.
But the good news for Falcons fans is there's no other team standing out too far in the NFC either. The Eagles, with a healthy Michael Vick, would appear to be Atlanta's biggest road block to Cowboys Stadium -- the site of this year's Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers, also one of those 7-3 teams, are another.
That's why Sunday's Falcons-Packers game is such an important gauge to see where Atlanta stands among the NFC's elite.
Though the Falcons aren't a dominating force, they have a lot of the qualities found in a Super Bowl contender. They work well as a team, free of disruptions, egos or superstars -- though Roddy White might be the best receiver in the league -- that work hard and play every down. They have a balanced offense that can beat you in the run or pass. Their defense isn't elite, but it's bend-but-don't-break and John Abraham is still one of the league's better pass rushers. Most importantly, they protect the home field and are 5-0 at the Dome.
Atlanta's two losses are respectable. Both came on the road to teams (Steelers, Eagles) either atop or tied for their division's lead and the Pittsburgh loss in the season opener went to overtime.
Now it's time to once again test the Falcons at the Dome. They've narrowly escaped with home wins over the 49ers, Bengals, Buccaneers and Ravens and with the Packers, they'll face a team that's as equally hot as Atlanta.
While the Falcons are on a four-game win streak, so are the Packers. And Green Bay has won it's last two games by a combined score of 76-10. More impressive, their last two wins, against Dallas and Minnesota, resulted in a coaching change for the Cowboys and Vikings.
That means if the Packers beat Atlanta, the Falcons will fire coach Mike Smith.
Actually, that's a fallacy -- Smith's job is safe. But if Green Bay wins, the Falcons' status as holder of NFC's best record won't be.
If the Falcons win, expect the national buzz of Atlanta being a Super Bowl contender to take off.