FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. --- Rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is close to returning from a knee injury, just more good news for the healthy Atlanta Falcons.
"Yeah, that's the key to winning in the NFL, just staying healthy," receiver Roddy White said Thursday. "Having all your guys with you every day in practice and in games is a big deal, man."
The former Missouri star's hopeful return Sunday in St. Louis would give the NFC-leading Falcons another boost. It would be the first time this season that all 22 current starters played in the same game.
Players and coaches rarely want to answer hypothetical questions about injuries, and linebacker Mike Peterson is no exception. But with the Falcons lucky to avoid catastrophic injuries this year, he does acknowledge that they're blessed.
"The thing about injuries, man, is that it's around the league, and you can't really prepare yourself for it," Peterson said. "It's something that happens to everybody. This year -- knock on wood -- we've been real fortunate. We haven't had too many setbacks with guys as to when they can come back."
Of the nine NFC teams either leading a division or trailing by one game, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Chicago are relatively healthy when you consider what Green Bay and New Orleans -- and to a lesser extent, New York, Seattle and St. Louis -- have endured to stay in contention.
The Rams (4-5) have lost receivers Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton to season-ending injuries, and franchise running back Stephen Jackson is playing with a broken left ring finger.
Atlanta's problems have been less frequent. Cornerback Dunta Robinson missed just one game because of a concussion. Weatherspoon and receiver Michael Jenkins, sidelined the first five games with a bruised shoulder, are the only starters to miss substantial time.
White calls it an encouraging scenario.
"It's a big part of the chemistry, too, when everybody's out there on the field and everybody's jelling together," White said. "When you have to flip flop guys from week to week, one guy might not have the chemistry the group has with another guy."
The Falcons hope Weatherspoon, the 19th overall draft pick, can play Sunday. Knee and ankle injuries sidelined him in five of the last six games, but Atlanta benefited from reserve Stephen Nicholas, who had 33 solo tackles in the games Weatherspoon missed.
"It's a good problem to have when you've got guys that you're confident can come in and play," coach Mike Smith said. "We're very excited about getting Sean back because of how he started the season off, so I think it's just a really good situation for us."
Weatherspoon had 26 solo tackles, a 9-yard sack and one pass breakup while starting the first four games.