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Falcons' narrow win over Cowboys a familiar result for both teams

Jacquizz Rodgers' fourth-quarter run was a microcosm of the differences between the Falcons and Cowboys. (Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE)

At the risk of condensing an entire football game -- not to mention two teams' seasons thus far -- to one play, Sunday night's Dallas-Atlanta game hung in the balance when Jacquizz Rodgers caught a pass from Matt Ryan, turned and found himself a good four yards from a first down on 3rd-and-6. Between Rodgers and the first-down marker was Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys' safety who had a shot to make a tackle, force an Atlanta punt and get the ball back to his offense, down three points with four-plus minutes left.

Rodgers juked. Scandrick whiffed.

Dallas defenders finally dragged Rodgers to the turf 31 yards downfield. Later on that same drive, Rodgers made Cowboys safety Danny McCray look just as foolish in converting another third down.

Three times on Atlanta's last possession, Dallas had a chance to get the ball back before the two-minute warning. All three times, the Cowboys failed -- or the Falcons succeeded, depending on which side of the ledger you were on.

The result: a 19-13 Falcons win that pushed Atlanta to 8-0 and dropped Dallas to 3-5.

In it, a microcosm of both teams' seasons to date. Atlanta, doing just enough to win; Dallas finding ways, again and again, to lose.

"We're just happy to get the win tonight," Ryan told NBC's Michelle Tafoya after Dallas' last-gasp attempt at a miracle victory came up a good 25 yards short. "We were resilient. [Dallas is] a very good football team ... [but] we hung tough."

The Cowboys missed a 51-yard field goal for a win in Week 6 and Dez Bryant landed millimeters out of bounds on a potential game-winning TD in Week 8. Sunday, it was the defense with a chance to flip the narrative -- to turn Dallas, at least briefly, into a team capable of getting the job done down the stretch.

Instead, the Falcons did it again, just as they've done all season.

Let's not kid ourselves: This Atlanta team, despite its unblemished start, has not been a complete powerhouse in 2012. Counting Sunday, four of the Falcons' last five games could have ended differently.

But they inched past Carolina in Week 4, Washington in Week 5, Oakland in Week 6 and then Dallas on Sunday night.

The latest battle did not swing until late in the third quarter when, after the Falcons and Cowboys had poked and prodded their way to a 6-6 tie, Michael Turner broke loose off the right side of his line for a 43-yard gain.

Three plays later, Turner, stuck in the midst of a thoroughly underwhelming season -- he averaged less than 60 yards per game through Atlanta's first seven -- powered the ball into the end zone.

It was the first real breakthrough in a methodical game.

"Our offensive line hung in there, they kept grinding, we kept wearing them down in the front seven," Ryan said. "Mike [Turner] and our running backs did a great job in the second half getting through initial contact."

Atlanta added a field goal on its next possession, aided greatly by a 48-yard Julio Jones reception. Jones did most of the work on the play, too, taking a pass over the middle and outracing several Dallas defenders to the boundary.

That completion was Atlanta's longest of the night, though Ryan threw for 342 yards, narrowly outpacing Romo's 321.

In all, the two teams combined for more than 800 total yards, though the points remained hard to come by. The Falcons found just enough.

"We're starting to beat good football teams," said Falcons receiver Roddy White, "and that's good, because then when we get in the playoffs and are in those tight football games, we can win them."

Ah, the playoffs. Any discussion of the Falcons cannot be had without mentioning that great franchise-wide Achilles' heel.

Did we really learn anything Sunday night to convince us that this season will end differently than 2010, when a top-seeded Atlanta team bowed out at home to Green Bay? Or 2011, when the Falcons face-planted in New York against the Giants?

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (he of zero career playoff wins) talked earlier in the week about a lack of respect given his team by the national media.

Ryan reassured the world Sunday night that "we don't care about that" -- which is good since, short of a 16-0 regular season, the Falcons will and should only be judged by what happens come January and February.

The Falcons' win over Dallas moved them one step closer to securing a spot in the NFL's dance. Atlanta actually could clinch the NFC South division as early as Week 12, but wrapping up that title appears inevitable anyway.

Dallas is not so fortunate. Now 3-5, the Cowboys' hopes for claiming a wild-card spot are dwindling rapidly and they still find themselves 2.5 games back of the Giants in the NFC East.

The situations could be different, for both teams.

A dropped interception here, a catch there. A tackle in space by Scandrick on Rodgers.

On the field, there is not much separating the Cowboys and Falcons. Their records and reality tell a different story.

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