Just four games into the season, the Atlanta Falcons have already built a sizable NFC South lead.
That hasn't kept them from realizing they have a long way to go.
Matt Ryan looks to guide Atlanta to its first 5-0 start Sunday when Robert Griffin III tries to help the Washington Redskins end their seven-game home losing streak.
Heading into 2012 with an 0-3 playoff record since Ryan and coach Mike Smith arrived in 2008, Atlanta (4-0) has matched the best start in franchise history, last accomplished during its 2004 run to the NFC championship game.
With Ryan, the NFL's highest-rated passer at 112.1, driving his team 77 yards to get in position for a last-second field goal in last Sunday's 30-28 victory over Carolina, the Falcons now lead the South by three games over the Panthers and Tampa Bay. New Orleans is 0-4.
"I'm aware of it but I don't pay attention to it,' Smith said. "This early in the season you've got to concern yourself with your team. You don't even think about what is going on with the other teams until you're getting ready to play them.
"We've started out fast and it's just a start.'
The Falcons did a nice job protecting Ryan on the game-winning drive against Carolina - a 59-yard pass to Roddy White got the Falcons off their 1-yard line - but the fifth-year quarterback was sacked a career-high seven times in the first 59 minutes.
"Ultimately we made enough big plays to win, but I think that everyone is of the mindset that we need to get back to work," Ryan said after his 17th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. "We feel like we can get a lot better and that's what we're going to set out to do this week.'
While the Falcons' offense gets most of the headlines with its 31.0 points per game - best in the NFC - first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's unit has been outstanding, allowing 19.0 points per game and 207.0 passing yards per contest.
Atlanta has also scored a league-high 43 points off takeaways.
Increasing that total could be a challenge the way Griffin has played in his first four NFL games. The 2011 Heisman Trophy winner is fourth in the NFL with a 103.2 passer rating and has thrown just one interception in 124 attempts, guiding the Redskins to 30.8 point per contest.
Washington (2-2) is tied with Atlanta and Houston for the fewest turnovers with two.
"I respect all those other quarterbacks. But, just athletically, nobody can come close to him," Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said after Griffin led the team on a late drive to set up a game-winning field goal in last Sunday's 24-22 victory at Tampa Bay. "... It is surprising - I thought he would have more mistakes at this point.'
While the Falcons could have their hands full with Griffin and fellow rookie Alfred Morris, the keys to a rushing attack that's producing an NFL-best 175.5 yards per game, Washington's defense will likely need to step up if the team is going to post its first home victory since a 22-21 win over the Cardinals on Sept. 18, 2011.
Falcons running back Michael Turner will face a unit yielding 89.0 rushing yards per game - 10th in the league - but Ryan could have plenty of opportunities to throw to White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez with Washington giving up 326.3 passing yards per game and 20 passes of 20-plus yards - third-most in the NFL.
The last time these teams met, Turner ran for 166 and two scores in a 31-17 Falcons home victory Nov. 8, 2009.
Atlanta has won its last two games in the nation's capital - most recently 24-14 on Dec. 3, 2006 - after losing its first 10.
The Falcons' last 3-0 start away from home was in 1986.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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