- Associated Press - Friday, November 12, 2010

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. (AP) - The Atlanta Falcons are sitting atop the NFC standings at 7-2 and they’ve won three straight games.

Mike Smith thinks they deserve a break.

The coach gave his players the weekend off so they can recuperate from winning two close games in five days.

The Falcons feel their 26-21 victory Thursday over Baltimore proves they are as competitive as any team in the NFL.

“You can sense it when they walk into the locker room from practice, when they’re out there on the field, and this is a very close-knit group,” Smith said Friday. “These are men who know what their jobs are.”

The win against Baltimore is the kind of collective team performance that could give Atlanta confidence it can advance deep into the playoffs.

The defense held Baltimore scoreless on its first five possessions, and despite allowing touchdowns on three of the Ravens’ last five, played well overall.

Defensive ends John Abraham, Kroy Biermann and Chauncey Davis combined for five solo tackles, one pass breakup, two sacks and two additional quarterback hits. Brent Grimes was beaten on two touchdown passes, but the left-side cornerback had the game’s only interception, and it led to a third-quarter field goal.

The offense built a 10-point lead as quarterback Matt Ryan ran a no-huddle offense exclusively throughout the first half. On the winning drive, the Falcons returned to the no-huddle, and Ryan completed three passes, including Roddy White’s second touchdown catch of the game.

Atlanta’s power running game was held to 60 yards rushing on 23 carries. Reserve Jason Snelling, who caught a 28-yard TD pass, played a bigger role than starter Michael Turner.

“We have definable roles for guys, but those roles can change,” Smith said. “They’re an unselfish group, and they know they have to be accountable to one another if we’re going to be successful.”

Smith, whose three-year stay in Atlanta includes a 22-1 record when his team begins the fourth quarter with a lead, was pleased with how well Ryan ran the no-huddle offense.

In his rookie season as the NFL’s No. 3 overall draft pick of 2008, Ryan called between 10-12 plays from the no-huddle. Now he calls 30-32 plays.

Atlanta’s no-huddle formations aren’t so much designed to speed up the pace of the offense as they are used to keep a defense from disguising coverages.

Before the snap, when his receivers take their place at the line of scrimmage, Ryan instructs each with a different route based on defensive alignment.

Ryan used the no-huddle throughout the first half to build a 10-point lead, and the Falcons brought it back on the winning drive.

“I thought he did a good job of getting us into the right plays based on the looks,” Smith said. “And the attack at the end of the game, you can’t operate any better than that.”

Though the Falcons‘ offensive identity is based on a power running game, they changed their approach against Baltimore. In the first half, Ryan handed the ball to his running backs 14 times for 34 meager yards, but he completed 20 of 28 passes for 160 yards and one touchdown.

“We feel confident we know the system really well and we felt that it would keep some of what Baltimore did (defensively) vanilla,” Ryan said. “The plan wasn’t necessarily to come out and throw it on every snap, but that’s just kind of the looks we were getting.”

Smith loved the outcome for a team that’s 27-14 in his tenure and pushing for its second playoff berth in three years. He never doubted the outcome Thursday after Baltimore took a one-point lead with 1:05 remaining.

“There was an air of confidence about what needed to be done and what we were going to get done,” Smith said. “It was a heck of a drive in the last 65 seconds for us to win the game.”