ATLANTA -- Asante Samuel took a late interception 79 yards and wasn't clobbered until he reached the end zone, and that was by a teammate. Then another. The Atlanta bench erupted, giving the impression of a team deluded into thinking the game, and all doubts about its greatness, was over.
Then why aren't the Falcons feeling like their record, all polished and perfect?
"It's important, as we go into this bye week, that we look critically at ourselves," said quarterback Matt Ryan.
Yes. That would be a wise way to spend their down time, working on their game as well as our skepticism. Teams that want to be considered special don't need a 55-yard field goal to beat the Raiders. At home. With one second left. After taking the lead just before the two-minute warning on a brilliant pick-six by Samuel.
The Falcons were required to do all of that nervous heavy lifting at the end to remain 6-0, the NFC's only unbeaten team. And now the real chore belongs to anyone searching for an NFL kingpin with the season one-third old. Do the Falcons, their qualifications inflated partly by a soft schedule, fit that description? Maybe the Texans? Ravens? Niners? Or do we really even know yet?
The NFL season is best taken in stages. Especially this season, where there's no superteam, no Patriots ready to run the table, nobody who absolutely scares everyone. Nobody has any idea where this is going, which likely means the trophy in February will go to the hot team, not necessarily the best.
This is roughly the time when the contenders take a bold step forward, declare themselves for real, then demonstrate it in various ways. The most obvious, of course, is to do what the Falcons just did. They were sloppy for nearly four quarters, their quarterback matched his season total for interceptions (three) in the first half, and they were slapped around at times by a Raiders team without Tatum and Stabler and Allen and the Mad Stork.
But they won, 23-20, and as Ryan said: "We just need to keep winning. It's all about getting wins and we've done that so far."
The fine print says the Falcons were fortunate they weren't playing the varsity Sunday. Actually, if you wish to nit-pick, the Falcons won their last three by 12 points over the Raiders, Panthers and Redskins, none of which are league powers. After the bye, they get to either intercept one of Michael Vick's passes or force him to fumble. Then comes the Cowboys, Saints, Cardinals, Bucs, Saints again and Panthers before they see the Giants, the only team with a Super Bowl shine.
It's not that there isn't anything to like about the Falcons. Ryan has been on everyone's MVP shortlist, with the help of a great group of receivers. Based purely on statistics, both yards and touchdowns and wins and nothing more, his status soared, right up with Rodgers and Manning and Brady.
Their defense was pushed around by the Raiders, but Samuel did produce when it counted, and last month Atlanta shut down Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. So there's obviously something at work here. The Falcons haven't won a playoff game behind Ryan and coach Mike Smith, but Smith is now tied with Dan Reeves as the winningest coach in Falcons history, which says plenty about what Smith has done in just four-plus years. He'll be known for that, and a few fourth-down-and-short calls that backfired, until his postseason breakthrough finally happens. If he finds a running game and keeps the Falcons' helmet sizes from growing, he's on his way.
"Our guys realize we haven't played the football we're capable of playing," said Smith. "Even when you win, there's still a long laundry list of things you've got to do better. We'll watch tape and see there's still a lot to do."
After watching the Falcons after Samuel's interception, Smith knows exactly where to start.
"We have to work on our celebration," he said. "We have to realize we have to go back on the field and not expend all of our energy. I know that's very difficult to do."
More work, less whoop. More dominant performances that put games away, less fourth-quarter sweat. The Falcons are trying hard to be more like vultures who pick a carcass cleanly and thoroughly, then look for more. Do they have that in them? We're still not sure. There are just enough flaws to see and shaky moments that are too hard to ignore. Great teams don't get pushed to the very last second by the Raiders and aren't forced to send out a bat signal for Matt Bryant to kick the second-longest field goal of his career.
But they do win.
"We were able to overcome all that," Smith said. "Our goal was to get through this game. That was the mission going into the bye week."
And that mission was accomplished and makes the Falcons unbeaten. Just not perfect.