FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Ten games into the season, the Atlanta Falcons find themselves with exactly the same record as a year ago.
Yet it feels a whole lot different.
The Falcons (6-4) head into their bye week leading the NFC South and exuding plenty of confidence, even coming off a discouraging loss at Philadelphia.
''We all know this is a pretty special group to be a part of,'' coach Dan Quinn said. ''You can feel their connection, their tightness, how bad they want to go for it.''
At this point last season, the Falcons were also 6-4. But they had lost three games in a row - none to teams that would make the playoffs. They were already out of the division race, having fallen far behind a Carolina team that was 10-0 and would reach the Super Bowl.
Atlanta's losing streak would grow to six games, and a season that started with such promise ended at 8-8.
Quinn keeps insisting that his team learned some valuable lessons from its 2015 collapse, and indeed these Falcons look far more capable of reaching the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
While the 24-15 loss to the Eagles was a definite step back, the offense remains the most productive in the NFL (averaging 32 points per game) and seems to have found its groove in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The young defense - which has started as many as four rookies - is setting the sort of fast, aggressive tone that Quinn wants on that side of the line.
In perhaps the most telling sign of where this team believes it is heading, the coaches and players all consider the bye week to be the midpoint of the season.
In other words, they plan on playing up to four games beyond the regular season, which would mean a trip to the Super Bowl.
''You have to get rest this week and have a mindset that you're not preparing for the last six games of the season, but the mindset to play nine or 10 more,'' said quarterback Matt Ryan, who is having the best season of his nine-year career. ''That'll be my message to everybody. Keep moving, but let your body and mind get right.''
The Falcons certainly hold a far more promising position in the NFC South than they did in 2015. The Panthers have slumped to 3-6, while Tampa Bay and New Orleans are struggling at 4-5, leaving Atlanta with a fairly comfortable 1+-game lead in the division race.
The rest of the schedule looks highly favorable, as well. Four of the last six games are at the Georgia Dome, which will be replaced next season by a $1.4 billion retractable-roof stadium under construction next door. Kansas City (7-2) is the only remaining opponent with a winning record.
The week off comes at a time when several key players are trying to get over injuries. Running back Tevin Coleman has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury, but Quinn is confident that he'll be ready to return when the Falcons host Arizona on Nov. 27. Punter Matt Bosher is contending with a recurring hamstring issue, but the extra week of rest gives him a chance to recover for the next game.
The outlook isn't quite as clear for cornerback Desmond Trufant, the team's top coverage defender. He missed the last game with a left shoulder injury, and there's been speculation he could be done for the season. But Quinn said he's ''absolutely hopeful'' that Trufant will play again this season.
The defense has gone through some growing pains, most notably getting gashed in the running game by the Eagles. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
After a disappointing rookie season, Vic Beasley has emerged as a pass-rushing force with 9+ sacks, tied for third in the league. Rookies Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal are having a huge impact, as is second-year tackle Grady Jarrett.
''We still have a ways to go in improvement on our tackling and making sure our fits are exactly on point,'' Quinn said. ''We are gaining confidence in those players and how we like to play.''
Neal said the loss to the Eagles will be a huge motivating factor when Atlanta returns from its break.
''We're going into the bye week and it doesn't feel too good,'' he said. ''But it's going to help us in the long run. Two weeks with that bitter taste in our mouth and we are going to come back ready to go.''
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