FLOWERY BRANCH — No one was more amused by Raheem Morris boasting that Tampa Bay is the best team in the NFC than Roddy White.
The Atlanta Falcons star receiver could barely keep a straight face as he talked Wednesday about facing the Buccaneers in a crucial game between the teams tied for the NFC South lead.
"They've got the crown right now," White said with a smirk, his words just oozing with sarcasm. "If we win, I guess we'll be the best team in the NFC."
Morris has brought a whole new element to this Deep South rivalry by proclaiming his Bucs — who were just 3-13 a year ago, but have already surpassed that total with a 5-2 start — as the top team in the topsy-turvy NFC.
The Falcons, not surprisingly, have taken note of the brash young coach who'll be on the opposite sideline Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Linebacker Mike Peterson said Morris' comments were on the "back, front and side of his brain," and left little doubt the bulletin board will be overflowing this week.
"That's a lot of confidence coming from a coach," Peterson said. "We'll see if his team can back it up."
Atlanta (5-2) is coming off a bye week, which gave cornerback Dunta Robinson a chance to heal from a concussion. He was cleared to play and returned to practice for the first time since a brutal head-to-head hit on Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson, which resulted in a $50,000 fine that Robinson still hopes to overturn on appeal.
Robinson, never shy about expressing his opinions, said he wasn't too bothered by Morris' bravado — though, of course, he fired right back with a shot of his own.
"Those are things you have to do to get a young team to believe in itself and believe in the coach," Robinson said. "They've still got to come into our house. They've still got to beat us. We feel like we're the best team. I guess we'll see on Sunday. Someone is walking out of here 6-2. We think it's going to be us."
This is unlikely showdown for divisional supremacy, especially since it doesn't include the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints (not far back, though, at 4-3).
The Falcons aren't a huge surprise, coming off back-to-back winning seasons with a high-powered offense featuring White, quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and tight end Tony Gonzalez. But the Bucs are one of the league's most unexpected success stories, having won four games by a total of 10 points behind the improved play of quarterback Josh Freeman and an opportunistic defense that has returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
Morris didn't back off from his bluster.
"I really believe it," he said in a conference call with Atlanta media. "It starts with believing. It's your mentality before it's ever reality. ... It's no different than I expect all of you guys to believe in your children. If you don't, no one ever will. That's what we are doing right now. I'm believing in this young football team, they are believing in their young head coach and we are believing together."
While trash talk is an everyday occurrence in the NFL, coaches are rarely so bold in their public comments (outside of the occasional exceptions such as Rex Ryan). In Atlanta, certainly, Mike Smith goes out of his way to avoid saying anything that might put the opponent in a negative light or provide motivational fodder.
"It's surprising coming from a coach," Turner said. "I suppose that's what he believes. You've got to have self-confidence, I guess."
Asked he could imagine Smith ever saying anything like that, Turner broke into a big smile. "Uhh, no. He's a bit more conservative."
While several Atlanta players, including Ryan, downplayed Morris' braggadocio, Peterson made it clear he's intent on shutting up the 34-year-old coach who's actually three months younger than the linebacker.
"It's everywhere on my mind," Peterson said. "I'm sure it will be a little additional motivation for us. That's always good. Maybe after the game, we'll send him a thank-you note."
White did his best not to be drawn into any sort of controversy, but he couldn't contain his mocking tone.
"When you anoint yourself like that, you've got to back it up," the receiver said. "We have a bunch of guys in this locker room who are humble. We just like to take the backdoor. But when guys say things like that, we'll be getting after 'em on Sunday."