- Associated Press - Monday, October 1, 2012

By Thanksgiving, maybe even sooner, the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons could be division champs.

Perfect through one-fourth of the schedule _ and in divisions weaker than the economy _ both of these perennially underachieving franchises are now conference favorites. Barring major injuries, they soon can start concentrating on having the best record in the AFC and NFC.

Arizona, the other 4-0 team, isn’t in quite so comfortable a position. The normally maligned NFC West has turned into a danger zone, with the Cardinals and 49ers boasting powerful defenses and nice balance, and the surprising Seahawks and Rams looking more competitive than expected.

Atlanta has been a consistent winner for the first time in its 46-year existence under team President Rich McKay, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. Since Dimitroff and Smith came aboard in 2008, the Falcons have resembled a model franchise.

Except in the playoffs. But there is a much different, more positive vibe about this squad now.

“We’re a quarter of the way through the season and we’re right where we need to be in terms of our record,” said Matt Ryan, who in his fifth pro season is beginning to look like an elite, clutch quarterback.

Ryan has all kinds of support on offense, from star receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones to ageless tight end and nonpareil leader Tony Gonzalez to running back Michael Turner to a maturing line. The Falcons also have become staunch defensively when they need to be, and their 12 takeaways lead the NFL.

It is a measure of how confident _ and competent _ the Falcons are that even when they began their final and ultimately winning drive Sunday against Carolina at their 1-yard line, no one was shaking in his cleats.

“Every time it looked bleak and it didn’t look like we had the chance there in the last five minutes, we were able to overcome it and finish it,” Smith said.

That bodes well for Atlanta when it gets to even bigger games, especially in the playoffs, where the Falcons are 0-3 under Smith and have barely shown up in those defeats.

“It’s very good to know that you’ll be able to handle the ebbs and flows of a game,” Smith said. “It was just a matter of time that we were going to have to play from behind. We weren’t naive enough to think we would play every game with a lead, but I thought it showed the mettle of the guys in that room.”

The Texans have had only one close game and generally have been ahead, trailing for only about 19 minutes total. Their defense began coming of age in 2011, their first playoff season since they joined the league in 2002, and has forced nine turnovers while getting 13 sacks, 7 1/2 by end J.J. Watt.

On offense, Arian Foster and Ben Tate form a potent running back tandem, Andre Johnson is one of the game’s top receivers, Owen Daniels is a first-rate tight end and QB Matt Schaub is off to a solid start. The scary thing about Houston is that the offense can be a lot more efficient.

Oh, and this: The Texans’ remaining schedule hardly is daunting, with two of the toughest games at home, against Green Bay and Baltimore.

Not that it matters to the Texans.

Story Continues →