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Falcons showing winning instinct among early pacesetters

By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - With less than a minute on the clock and his undefeated team needing a score, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan coolly dropped back into his own end zone, glanced up and aired the ball downfield.

Receiver Roddy White beat double coverage to make a 59-yard catch and the Falcons' final drive ended with a game-winning 40-yard field goal from Matt Bryant that sent a brave Carolina Panthers team out of the Georgia Dome empty handed.

It was exactly the kind of victory that championship caliber teams pull off and with a 4-0 record after the first quarter of the National Football League's (NFL) 2012 season, the Falcons are indeed looking like winners.

The matured Ryan is rated as the top quarterback in the NFL so far this season, having thrown for 1,162 yards, 11 touchdowns while completing 102 of 147 passing attempts.

White, the fifth-ranked receiver in the NFL, is averaging 103.3 yards per game and is a constant threat while across the roster there is an abundance of quality, such as running back Michael Turner.

The Falcons, however, have looked good for three of the last four seasons as they have reached the playoffs but failed to parlay that form into a post-season win.

But there are indications that this year's Falcons could be made of sterner stuff - as Sunday's 30-28 win over Carolina showed.

"It was a very good sign for our group. Just shows that we are never out of it," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith.

"The guys kept fighting and as long as there's time on the clock, we got to have the mindset, and we do, as a football team that we can do it. If it's 60, we need 60 yards, we need 99 yards, we need 40 yards — we feel like we have that mentality that we can do whatever it takes."

Another of the league's three unbeaten teams, the Arizona Cardinals, showed that same character trait in their win over a surprisingly hard-to-beat Miami Dolphins team that has now lost two consecutive games in overtime.

An Arizona touchdown with 22 seconds left in regulation forced overtime and, on their second possession, thanks to an interception, Jay Feely made a 46-yard field goal to send the Cardinals to 4-0.

There is less buzz around Arizona's form largely because, unlike Atlanta and the undefeated Houston Texans, the Cardinals do not possess a highly-rated quarterback.

Kevin Kolb has never truly established himself as a starter in his six years in the NFL and began this season watching from the sidelines until starter John Skelton suffered an injury in the fourth quarter of Week One.

But with four consecutive wins to start the season, Kolb is also getting some of that never-say-die spirit.

"We've seen so many miracles happen in this stadium, we just don't give up hope," Kolb told reporters.

The Texans had no need for late heroics in their 38-14 win over the Tennessee Titans, their fourth straight win by at least 20 points and one which left some commentators labelling them the most complete team in the NFL.

"I knew before (training) camp started that we had a good football team. It was just up to us to put it all together. So far, we've been doing that," said wide-receiver Andre Johnson.

"It's not just one guy going out and doing something. It's a team effort.

"We can score in every phase of the game, offense, defense, special teams. It's a collective effort. we have a lot of weapons and we make great use of them."

Three quarters of the NFL season remain however and it would be unwise to dismiss some of the pre-season favorites.

The Baltimore Ravens are 3-1, the San Francisco 49ers' 34-0 road trouncing of the New York Jets on Sunday was a reminder of their strengths and New England's 52-28 win at the Buffalo Bills silenced those who, after two consecutive losses, questioned if last season's Super Bowl finalists, were really in the hunt.

There is still a long way to go.

(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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