FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons are in uncharted territory.
Then again, this is starting to feel downright routine.
Since Mike Smith took over as head coach in 2008, the Falcons are tied for the second-most wins in the regular season, their 48-21 record surpassed only by the New England Patriots (51-18). With Atlanta (5-0) off to the best start in franchise history, Smith is just one victory away from tying Dan Reeves as the winningest coach in team history.
The Falcons play host to the Oakland Raiders (1-3) on Sunday.
“We want to sustain this not just from game to game, but season to season,” Smith said Monday. “We want to be a relevant football team in the months of December and January. That’s what we really want to do as an organization.”
When it comes to constructing the roster, the credit goes largely to general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who also came aboard in 2008. He is already recognized as one of the league’s top personnel gurus, having relied mainly on the draft to rebuild the Falcons but supplementing his picks with some timely free-agent signings and trades.
Once they take the field, the Falcons take on the personality of their coach. Smith is steady as can be during the week, instilling a sense of calm and purpose in his team, but he can turn fiery on Sundays.
The team seems to feed off his energy.
“During the week, we try to be even-keeled,” Smith said. “You’ve got to go through your preparations as a coaching staff and as a team. Then, you go play with emotion on game days. The guys do a really good job of that.”
After cruising through their first three wins, the Falcons have showed plenty of resiliency the past two weeks. They beat Carolina on a last-second field goal and knocked off Washington 24-17 behind another big game from quarterback Matt Ryan.
Smith traditionally lets his players take Monday off when they win, but he estimated that at least 80 percent of the team turned up at the training complex after beating the Redskins.
“They’re visiting with their coaches and wanting to talk about certain things, more about the things they did poorly than the things they did good,” Smith said. “When you have guys doing that, it takes care of itself. We have great leaders in the locker room who make sure we focus on the task at hand. Right now, it’s just a start. Yes, we may be 5-0 for the first time in franchise history. But it’s just a start, guys, just a start.”
Ryan is the league’s second-rated passer, behind San Francisco’s Alex Smith, and no one has been more important to their team through the first five weeks. The Falcons quarterback is completing more than 68 percent of his attempts, accounting for 1,507 yards with 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
“Matt has really matured and stepped up his game,” Smith said. “He has a very good idea of how guys are trying to defend us. If there’s something we haven’t seen, he goes over and looks at the pictures and - boom - he’s got it. The next time he sees that, he knows where to go with the football. He knows how to get us into the right play. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and distributing the ball to multiple players.”
Washington’s defense was determined not to get beat on deep throws to the Falcons’ dynamic receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. So Ryan kept going to ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught 13 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. Not bad for a 36-year-old who will likely be retiring at the end of the season.
“Every time we threw the ball deep over the middle to (White and Jones), there were two or three guys around them,” Gonzalez said. “That means I’m getting man-to-man coverage underneath. I’ve told you guys since I got here that ... if I get man coverage, I should be able to get open most of the time.”
Ryan completed 34 of 52 passes for 345 yards and a pair of touchdowns, shaking off a brilliant play by Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who picked off a little screen pass early in the second quarter and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown.
Maybe it helps that Ryan was not around for this franchise’s largely forgettable history. Before 2008, Atlanta had never even put together consecutive winning records, truly one of the most remarkable runs of ineptitude in any sport. Since arriving the same year as Dimitroff and Smith, Ryan has been part of four straight winning seasons. The only thing marring these new-look Falcons is playoff success.
They are 0-3 in the postseason under the current regime.
It’s a little too soon to be thinking playoffs, even though the Falcons might clinch the NFC South by Thanksgiving at the rate they’re going.
“It is a great start for us, it really is,” Ryan said. “At this point, you can’t really worry about what is going on in the history of our organization, but we have put ourselves right where we need to be five games into it.”