FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It took every ounce of energy left in Calvin Collins' hulking body to take a shower and get dressed following Sunday's 45-29 loss at St. Louis. Like so many other players, especially on offense, Collins left nothing in reserve -- mentally or physically.
As hard as the Atlanta Falcons played, it wasn't enough. But it was a start.
"We were a better football team today than what we've been," said wide receiver Terance Mathis. "It was an emotional game for us. We came out of this game as a better football team. We're still alive."
Atlanta trailed by only eight points with less than five minutes remaining inside the Trans World Dome. The closeness of what was supposed to be a blowout was a testament to the team's resolve to battle through injuries and self-doubt.
St. Louis, the defending World Champions that improved to 6-0, put the game out of reach through a touchdown with only 69 seconds to play, but it still didn't stop Atlanta. Although the victory was gone, the Falcons fought until the final whistle by moving the ball 40 more yards on three plays.
"I'm disappointed we didn't get the job done, but I thought we played hard," said coach Dan Reeves after his team dropped to 2-5. "We had a chance late in the fourth quarter to win. I'm disappointed we lost, but I'm proud of the way we played."
Jamal Anderson saw a big difference in the team's attitude. He ran for 64 yards and caught four passes for another 67 yards in his best performance since having major reconstructive surgery a year ago on his right knee.
"I think this was proof things are going to get better," he said. "They had intensity up front. Chris (Chandler) is a great quarterback if you give him a chance to throw. We started doing the things we needed to do to put ourselves in a position to win. Now we've got to find a way to win these games."
Atlanta returns home this Sunday to start a three-game home stand. Games against New Orleans, Carolina and Tampa Bay offer the Falcons a chance to get back to .500 before hitting the road again for a three-game trip that includes stops in Detroit, San Francisco and Oakland.
"We're going to be 5-5 after these home games," Anderson said.
After going two games without scoring on offense, the beleaguered squad scored on all three of its possessions inside the 20-yard line. Chandler hit 18 of 30 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns, while Anderson averaged 4.6 yards a carry.
"Up to this game, the little clock in my head had gone from three seconds to two seconds to one second before the alarm went off," Chandler said of the Falcons' inability to stop a pass rush. "The line gave me time today. I guarantee you, the offensive line felt worse about the sacks than I did.
"We lost, yeah, but we played better. We took our shots. We gained some confidence today. We were aggressive. We gave Jamal room to run. I'm much more confident to get after it now."
Collins said Atlanta still needs to get better if it wants to advance to the next level.
"We know we can play with these guys," he said. "We just came up a little short. Part of our problem (in previous games) was we haven't been playing together. This line worked well. I think we all learned something."
With Ephraim Salaam back in the starting lineup at right tackle for the first time since undergoing knee surgery in training camp, the Falcons had their fifth combination of starters in seven games. This one, however, worked.
"It's good," said tackle Bob Whitfield, "but it's not good enough until we win."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org