FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Coach Mike Smith is trying to level expectations for the Atlanta Falcons.
If they keep winning, the Falcons will energize their fan base and draw more national attention, but Smith cautions that division titles aren't won in September.
"I think we have a good foundation in place the first three weeks, but that's just the first three weeks," Smith said. "We've got to be ready to handle adversity when adversity comes. We've got to be resilient, and I think we've shown that in the past three ball games."
A 27-3 victory at San Diego gave the Falcons a two-game lead over Carolina and Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Though Smith knows that the leadership of quarterback Matt Ryan and the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan have made the Falcons heavy favorites to win the division, Smith doesn't buy that Atlanta has maximized its potential.
The Falcons still have concerns to address even though Ryan leads the NFL in touchdowns, completion percentage, first downs and passer rating and Nolan's defense ranks first with 11 takeaways and fifth in scoring.
"On the negative side, you've got to learn from your experiences," Smith said. "We didn't convert (the first) extra point. We need to make sure we do that. We gave up the 52-yard run in the fourth quarter ... Then we didn't cap it off there in the secondary."
Atlanta (3-0) will face a different challenge from the past three weeks when it hosts Carolina (1-2) on Sunday.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton can hurt opponents passing and running the ball, but given how well the Falcons' defense is creating turnovers — they have a league-best seven interceptions — it's reasonable to think that Nolan will have a sound scheme in place.
Atlanta held Phillip Rivers to a 45.2 passer rating that was 50.3 points lower than his career mark from 2004-11.
"Even though we had only one sack yesterday, we had three or four times when we had free runners," Smith said. "The quarterback was able to get out and was under duress and threw the ball away. It's a combination of what happens up front and in the secondary."
Smith loved how his offense and defense complemented each other against the Chargers, describing Atlanta's 17-play, 96-yard drive late in the second quarter as the game's turning point.
After linebacker Sean Weatherspoon caused running back Ryan Mathews to fumble and Thomas DeCoud recovered the loose ball at the Falcons' 4-yard line, the Atlanta offense held the ball for the next 12 minutes, 28 seconds.
Ryan converted five first downs on the drive before connecting with Tony Gonzalez for a 7-yard touchdown and a 13-0 lead.
Ryan snapped his franchise-record of 272 consecutive pass attempts without an interception when Antoine Cason picked him off at the San Diego 3 early in the fourth quarter. But the defense followed with a three-and-out to sustain a 20-3 lead.
"When Matt is playing with confidence, I think it permeates around the locker room," Smith said. "We've got a lot of guys playing with confidence right now. We're creating a lot of first downs on first and second down, and that's a good thing. I think if Matt's got a lot of confidence that if we do get into a third down, we're going to be able to convert."
With Gonzalez, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas as his primary targets, Ryan is enjoying a resurgence in his fifth season. He leads the NFL with a 114 passer rating, a 72 percent completion percentage and 50 first downs. He's tied with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ben Roethlisberger for most touchdowns with eight.
Ryan, whose career record improved to 46-19 in the regular season, credits the Falcons' 0-3 playoff record during his first four seasons with creating added motivation. The entire team seems to believe more in its abilities than in some years past.
"Yeah, I think so," Ryan said. "I think each team is different. The confidence level across the board is probably higher than it's been. That's not to say we haven't been confident in the past. We've had some good football teams in the past."
The Falcons got a boost from running back Michael Turner for the first time this season. Five days after he was arrested in an Atlanta suburb on charges of drunk driving and speeding, Turner ran 14 times for a 5.7-yard average and a fourth-quarter touchdown.
The difference in Turner's performance was obvious to Smith.
"We blocked better," Smith said with a smile. "He ran harder. We got some looks."