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Bair: What Falcons currently sitting atop NFC South means, what's required in quest to stay there

Atlanta moved a game up in the division after Sunday's 37-34 overtime win against Carolina Panthers

ATLANTA – The Falcons stand atop the NFC South as we head toward this season's pivot point. They haven't been here in a while, suffering through some tough starts and lean recent seasons.

They attained such status from Sunday's 37-34 victory over the Carolina Panthers, a weird and wild affair that many Falcons called the craziest game they'd ever played.

We'll write plenty about this game’s twists and turns, and how it was ultimately won. You won't read much about that here.

That means it's big-picture time for the Falcons.

One undisputed truth: a win's a win no matter how it's earned.

The Falcons emerged from this contest at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a 4-4 record and a one-game lead in the division, over a trio of 3-5 teams.

None of those records should be considered exemplary. The division has been a bit of a punchline over the past week and, until Sunday, the entire group was under .500. The jokes will probably continue, with cheap shots coming until a team establishes more firm control and with a winning record.

While that will inspire some sarcastic tweets, it doesn't matter one bit. Division races develop this way sometimes.

The Falcons are not, and should not, be sorry about their circumstances.

They want to win this division, this year. And they believe, deep down, that they can do it.

"Let's be real. That's a goal that we have," left tackle Jake Matthews said. "We want to win this division. We want to make it to the playoffs and winning the NFC South is the first step towards that. We have high expectations as a team. I feel like we're trending, in a lot of ways, in the right direction.

"There's still a lot more to improve and work on, but I can't say enough about this team. I couldn't be happier. This was a wild game. Amazing how it turned out. I mean, we'll take it."

They'll also take the division lead. Being up a game, in first place, at the turning point is better than fourth, even if we all know standing after Week 18 is all that matters.

They aren't patting themselves on the back for jumping out front. Not even a gold star after their first NFC South win in three tries. As a quick aside, each intra-divisional clash should be considered monumental in a grouping so tightly packed.

Back to reality, here: to borrow Matthews' parlance, let's be real. Getting that division win, getting back to .500 and moving into first place is a positive step. That's it.

Now that they're here, the Falcons will search for some staying power. Consistency both in games and between them, has proven elusive.

"You feel excited about being in first, but the hardest thing to do is maintain that position, to stay there," linebacker Rashaan Evans said. "We still have a lot of big games we have coming up that we've gotta win."

They've gotta win some winnable games. No schedule is easy, but there are upcoming opportunities to go on more of a winning run. If, of course, the Falcons avoid more injury plagues and keep their wits about them. That last part isn't a real worry. Arthur Smith implied that focus slipped a bit after the 49ers win. Can't imagine that'll happen again.

Motivation will be high to take advantage of their position, trying to create more space and margin for error moving forward. It also won't be easy, and their division foes will certainly make things competitive.

The Falcons are, however, in a position to achieve a great reward if they can grind out wins and find a way to come out on top.

"We just have to continue to win week by week, especially those in the [NFC South]," cornerback Darren Hall said. "It feels good to be at the top of the division, but we can't stop now. We've got to keep pushing."

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers during Week 8.


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