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Falcons face Dallas in pivotal game
Michael Vick scrambles against the Washington Redskins on Dec. 3 in Landover, Md. The Falcons face another NFC East opponent today in the form of the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were routed by New Orleans last week, 42-17, prompting questions about which Dallas team will show up in a crucial game for both teams. - photo by Associated Press
   ATLANTA — Maybe this is the good time to be facing the Dallas Cowboys. Maybe not.
  The Atlanta Falcons aren’t sure.
       Granted, the Cowboys hardly looked like a playoff contender in last weekend’s 42-17 loss to New Orleans. Surely their confidence was shaken a bit, their bravado taken down a notch or two after such a crashing halt to a run of four straight wins.
    Then again, there are times when a blowout loss serves as a wake-up call, the sort of slap in the face a talented team needs to regain its focus. Maybe the Cowboys will be in the mood for payback against the next team on the schedule.
      That just happens to be the Falcons (7-6), who are hosting Dallas (8-5) tonight in a game that will have major impact on the NFC playoff race.
      ‘‘When a team puts 42 points on you in a national TV game, a little bit of doubt starts to creep in,’’ Falcons linebacker Ike Reese said. ‘‘To lose like that before they come in here is not necessarily a bad thing.’’
    Teammate DeAngelo Hall looks at it differently.
    ‘‘That just makes them more dangerous,’’ he said. ‘‘I wish they had won, to tell you the truth.’’
    Both teams have reached that must-win stage of the season. The Cowboys are clinging to a one-game lead in the NFC East over Philadelphia and the New York Giants. The Falcons are part of a three-way deadlock for two wild-card spots, with two other teams just a game behind.
    Led by quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys had won five of six games until they got steamrolled by New Orleans.
    ‘‘That was pretty difficult to take,’’ Dallas coach Bill Parcells said. ‘‘I don’t think any coach can see something like that coming. We played very poorly across the board. We had played pretty good football for six weeks up to that. But we just didn’t give ourselves a chance to win.’’
    The pass-happy Saints repeatedly went deep on the Cowboys, whose secondary took much of the heat for letting things get out of hand. Drew Brees threw for 384 yards and five touchdowns, including a 61-yarder to Reggie Bush and a 42-yarder to Devery Henderson.
    ‘‘We did give up five touchdown passes,’’ Parcells said, essentially pointing a finger at the defensive backs. ‘‘We were in position two times on long passes. We were right there to make the play, but in both cases we didn’t.’’
    Safety Roy Williams got a bit defensive when the spotlight was turned on the leaky coverage.
    ‘‘Everybody knows that whatever goes wrong with the defense, it’s going to be the secondary’s fault,’’ he moaned. ‘‘That is what it is. You’ve got to have a short-term memory in football.’’
    In fact, he’s tired of talking about the Saints. He’s only worried about the Falcons, who have won two in a row after a four-game losing streak imperiled their playoff hopes.
    ‘‘That’s in the past. We don’t dwell in the past,’’ Williams said. ‘‘The only people talking about the last game are the media, trying to throw it in our face. But we’re not worried about the last game.’’
    The Falcons, the NFL’s top rushing team, don’t present nearly as big a threat through the air as the Saints. And Atlanta’s dynamic ground game could be short-staffed if its top two runners, Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood, aren’t able to play.
    Both went down with injuries in last week’s victory at Tampa Bay and were questionable for the prime-time game. Together, they have rushed for 1,547 yards.
    But the Falcons still have Michael Vick, who is on the verge of a season record for most yards rushing by a quarterback. He is 34 behind Bobby Douglass, who rushed for 968 with the Bears in 1972, and just 66 away from becoming the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards.
    He’s not the only Atlanta player with a shot at a major record. Kicker Morten Andersen is one point away from tying Gary Anderson as the most prolific scorer in NFL history.
    Shrugging off his pursuit of history, Vick stressed the need to pass effectively, especially after watching what New Orleans did a week ago, and knowing that Dunn and Norwood won’t be at full strength if they play.
    ‘‘We definitely have to throw the football,’’ Vick said. ‘‘We’ve got to get ball into the air and make some plays in the passing game. They have a good run-support defense. We’re not just going to line up and run the ball against them, regardless of who we’ve got back there.’’
    Romo and the Cowboys are hoping to take advantage of Atlanta’s injury-depleted secondary. Keep an eye on cornerback Hall, who likely will spend most of the night covering Terrell Owens.
    T.O. is just 29 yards away from his seventh 1,000-yard season, and Hall has no illusions about keeping the receiver from getting it this week.
    ‘‘Oh, he’s going to get his thousand,’’ said Hall, who kept Owens out of the end zone when the two went head-to-head in the 2005 season opener. ‘‘When you throw it as much as they do, you know he’s going to get 30 yards. But there’s a lot of playmakers on that team.’’
    Indeed, if the Falcons devote all their attention to stopping Owens, they’ll likely be burned by Terry Glenn (58 receptions, 825 yards, 6 TDs) and Jason Witten (49 receptions). They also have to contend with Romo’s athleticism and ability to throw on the run, though the first-year starter is coming off his worst performance.
    ‘‘I don’t think he could possibly keep up the pace he was at,’’ Parcells said. ‘‘And we became a pretty one-dimensional team for the entire second half of that game.’’
    The Falcons have played well defensively the last two weeks, getting a boost from the return to form of three-time Pro Bowler John Abraham. He had a sack and forced a fumble in the 17-6 win over the Bucs.
    ‘‘Granted, the last two offenses we’ve played (Washington and Tampa Bay) are not as good as the offense we’re playing this week,’’ Reese said. ‘‘But we’re starting to get our mojo back.’’