EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Through 33 seasons of playing professional football, or at least an imitation thereof, the Atlanta Falcons have never been 6-1.
They can reach that mark today (1 p.m., Fox-54) at Giants Stadium against the New York Jets. Realistically, though, the odds are against them.
Severely banged up for the first time since early last season, the 5-1 Falcons face a 3-3 Jets team that is at least their equal in talent, is run by perhaps the NFL's best coach in Bill Parcells, and plays very well at home.
Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler, who is 11-4 in games he has started and finished the past two seasons, may not play because of a strained left (non-throwing) shoulder and bruised tissue around the ribs under the shoulder. Even if he plays, he's probably one good shot away from another trip to the lockerroom.
Backup Steve DeBerg, 44, would be the oldest quarterback to start an NFL game by more than two years. The honor currently belongs to Warren Moon, who was 41 years and 11 months old when he started for Seattle against Denver two weeks ago. George Blanda, who retired at age 48 in 1975, started his final game at age 41 in 1968.
It's believed that DeBerg also would be the oldest player in history to start at any position.
"We made the decision after the last preseason game that Steve DeBerg gives us the best chance (as a backup), and now maybe we'll see," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. "Can Steve lead us to a win if Chris is not ready to play? Our football team believes we can win with Steve at quarterback."
Quarterback isn't the Falcons' only worry. Travis Hall, the team's best interior defensive lineman, missed the week's two main practices with a bruised knee and also has a twisted ankle and a strained shoulder. If he can't play, journeyman Esera Tuaolo probably will start.
Defensive end Chuck Smith also is ailing with a strained thigh, but should play. And, reserve cornerback Randy Fuller has a strained hamstring. If Fuller can't go, he would be replaced by either rookie Elijah Williams, who has given up a long touchdown in each of the last two games, or newly acquired Darren Anderson.
All of which is a concern, given the fact the Falcons are facing a Jets team whose offense is averaging 350.7 yards per game, fourth in the NFL.
"Everybody was talking about how good the New England Patriots were a couple of weeks ago after they beat Kansas City so bad, but the Jets went in there and did an extremely good job against them (a 24-14 win)," Reeves said. "They have a good blend of younger players and veterans, and they give you a lot of problems."
Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde is playing some of the best football of his inconsistent career. He's 3-0 as the starter, he's the highest-rated passer in the AFC (108.8) and he has thrown 89 consecutive passes without an interception.
Running back Curtis Martin comes off three consecutive 100-games, and he's the kind of quick and shifty back that gives the Falcons trouble.
Receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet pose a challenge. The 6-foot-3 Johnson, the first player chosen in the 1996 draft, has a 6-inch height advantage on 5-9 cornerback Ray Buchanan. Chrebet, who had a 12-catch, 162-yard day against Jacksonville last year, is tough and productive.
The Jets are average defensively, but they have one of the top coordinators in former Cleveland Browns head coach Bill Belichick and they'll smell blood if DeBerg is quarterbacking. Former University of Georgia players Mo Lewis and James Ferguson are starters at left linebacker and left tackle, respectively.
The Falcons aren't 5-1 by fluke. They've run the ball effectively with Jamal Anderson, who leads the NFC with 644 yards, and they lead the league in time of possession. They're tied for second in takeaway/turnover ration at plus-eight, they're tied for second in the league against the run, and they've scored on 15 of 16 red-zone opportunities, with the one exception being a kneel-down play at the end of last week's New Orleans game.
And, like the Jets, the Falcons are well coached.
Not surprisingly, mutual respect abounds between Reeves and Parcells, who coached against each other in Super Bowl XXV when Reeves' Denver Broncos' lost to Parcells' New York Giants 39-20. Parcells is 4-0 against Reeves.
"He's a very innovative guy with a great football mind, and he's very much of a disciplinarian," Reeves said of Parcells. "He doesn't put up with any kind of foolishness."
When asked about Reeves, Parcells said, "Let me put it this way: I voted for him for Coach of the Year last year, and this year I'll vote for him again. That's everything you need to know."
Tony Fabrizio, who covers the Falcons for The Augusta Chronicle, is based in Atlanta and can be reached at email@example.com.
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