The Atlanta Falcons muscled out a 19-13 win over the reeling Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night to remain the NFL’s only undefeated team at 8-0. Atlanta’s unblemished record at the halfway point of the season marks the best start in franchise history, and the Falcons are expected to clinch a division crown not too long after the Thanksgiving turkey is cut.

The question is whether or not Atlanta will be able to replicate its success in the first half of the season and become just the third team in the Super Bowl era to complete a perfect 16-0 campaign.

There are a couple of unspoken rules in sports that deal with the subject of perfection. In baseball, you wait until the sixth inning before uttering the words “no-hitter” or “perfect game.” In football, you generally wait until late November (or at least until the biggest hurdle is cleared) before discussing the possibility of a perfect season.

That being said, Atlanta certainly deserves some consideration, especially keeping in mind the fact that it will play just one team with a winning record the rest of the year — a Week 15 clash with the 6-3 New York Giants — and their remaining opponents’ records total an unintimidating 30-36.

There’s no arguing with the fact that the Falcons are a very good team. Quarterback Matt Ryan is enjoying the finest season of his career, emerging alongside the usual suspects (Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Brady) as a league MVP candidate. Wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones are drawing comparisons to the famed Randy Moss-Chris Carter duo of the late ’90s, and tailback Michael Turner is on pace for the quietest 1,000-yard rushing season in NFL history.

Then how — or better yet, why — is it that the Falcons are not seen as the best team in the league, or even the best team in their conference? In my eyes, it’s due to the fact that, if you’ll excuse the cliche, the Falcons do everything very well but do nothing spectacularly well. They rank in the top half of the NFL in just one major defensive category, placing fourth in scoring defense, while their supposedly high-octane offense ranks outside the top seven in every relevant offensive statistic. And yet, despite this, they’ve yet to lose a game. Head Coach Mike Smith’s strategy of tempo control and near-flawless special teams execution has won out every time so far, but questions arise as to whether such a style will be sustainable come playoff time.

At this point in the season, 8-0 means nothing, and, in a couple weeks, 10-0 won’t mean much more. At 12-0, a first-round playoff bye is all but certain, and anything after that elicits the “rest players vs. chase history” dilemma.

Barring a perfect record and the off chance that he keeps up in the MVP race, 2012 will be just another year for Matt Ryan: He’ll have added nothing to his resume but 30 touchdown passes, 4,000-plus yards and a few more Tony Gonzalez chest bumps. Ryan’s track record already includes a 13-3 finish, the team’s first divisional title (2010) in six years and a trio of January flameouts. With a win Sunday in New Orleans, he’ll clinch his fifth straight winning season — a franchise best — and be one week closer to that highly anticipated first playoff game.

Five is the magic number for the Atlanta Falcons to reach the elite company of 13-0 teams in recent history. This is the sixth time in the last eight years that an NFL team has at least made a legitimate run at perfection, as the 2005 Colts, 2007 Patriots, 2009 Colts, 2009 Saints and 2011 Packers all started 13-0. Four of those six teams made it to the Super Bowl, but only the 2009 Saints were able to claim the title of champion. Atlanta needs to keep being “very good” against the subpar teams it will face the rest of the year and then find another gear against likely opponents Green Bay and New York, which are coincidentally the teams that have eliminated it from the playoffs the past two years.

As we get closer and closer to the playoffs, we’ll start hearing Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and a host of other commentators use a common football idiom — “This team is built for the playoffs.” The expression generally refers to a team that is capable of playing lock-down defense, consistently wins the field-position battle and is at its best when the stakes are high. Judging by the generous sample size displayed since 2008, the Falcons are not one of these teams.

They have individual players like Asante Samuel with proven playoff prowess, but, as a collective unit, they’ve lacked the three aforementioned qualities of a “playoff-built” team.  Because of this, Atlanta has disappointed every year in the Matt Ryan era. I have no reason to believe this year’s team is any different.

Matt Bell is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. FRESH OUT OF PHILLY appears every Friday.

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