In all likelihood, the Falcons (11-1) will be in that No. 1 spot again, even if hardly anyone seems to think they're the NFL's best team. They've already locked up their division and hold a 2½ game lead over the next-best team in the conference with just four weeks to go.
So, why should people believe this team — with many of the same guys from the last three playoff flops — is suddenly going to shake its reputation as chokers?
For one, the Falcons have displayed impressive versatility. Some weeks, quarterback Matt Ryan has carried the Falcons on his sturdy right arm, taking advantage of perhaps the game's most impressive trio of receivers (Roddy White, Julio Jones and Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez). Other times, it's the defense that provides the big plays, as was the case in Atlanta's most recent victory over New Orleans. With Ryan and the offense struggling, the defense picked off Drew Brees a career-high five times and ended his record touchdown pass streak at 54 consecutive games.
"You've got to find a way to get it done," Ryan says. "That's one of the reasons we've had a lot of success this year. We've found a lot of ways to get it done. It hasn't always shaken out the same way. It's a different person, a different unit, stepping up week in and week out."
Another thing to like about this team is the close-knit locker room. A lot of the credit for that must go to general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who factors character into the evaluation process, and coach Mike Smith, who leaves little doubt he's the boss but is willing to listen to his players, especially the veterans.