|National Football League|
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By MATT BECKER
(AP) -- Much has been made of the Atlanta Falcons beating inferior opponents - often unimpressively - en route to a perfect record at the season's halfway point.
They'll get another team with a losing record Sunday, but the New Orleans Saints appear to be on the rise.
In what could be a high-scoring affair at the Superdome, the Falcons look to remain unbeaten when they face a Saints team trying for a fourth win in five games.
Atlanta (8-0) is running away with the NFC South, ahead of second-place Tampa Bay by four games - the largest division lead in the league. Defending South champion New Orleans (3-5) is five back.
The Falcons are just the 15th team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 to start 8-0, yet they're still receiving criticism. They haven't had to face the stiffest competition, having played teams with a combined winning percentage of .369, and they've occasionally struggled.
"We're not concerned with the doubters," Michael Turner said after last Sunday's 19-13 home win over Dallas. "This team's main focus is coming out and getting a win each game."
Last weekend's game was another close one, as Turner had a tiebreaking 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter - Atlanta's lone TD. None of the Falcons' four home wins have been by more than six points, and their last five games overall were all against teams which currently have losing records.
"I think at the end of the day it's a league that's based on wins and losses and (Sunday) was a solid effort by this team and we did what we needed to do to come out with a win," said Matt Ryan, who threw for 342 yards but had his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass end at 22.
Drew Brees has the NFL record in that category and extended it to 51 games with a pair of TD throws in Monday's 28-13 win over Philadelphia. It was the Saints' third win in four games following an 0-4 start.
"There are defining moments throughout a season," said Brees, among the league leaders with 2,549 passing yards and 22 touchdowns. "Big plays, big wins, that kind of bring you together and let you see a vision of what you can be, what you can accomplish.
"This," he added, "is the type of momentum we want going into the second half of the season."
The running game has been an area of concern for New Orleans, which is averaging 31.3 points in its victories, but Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram combined for 136 yards on the ground against the Eagles. The Saints came into the game ranked last in the NFL in rushing with an average of 72.6 yards.
If New Orleans can build on that performance against a Falcons team yielding 127.5 rushing yards per game - second-most in the NFC behind the league-worst Saints (176.5) - it should open up things for Brees, not that he needs much help.
The six-time Pro Bowler has usually been just fine in this series, going 10-2 against the Falcons since joining the Saints, averaging 303.3 passing yards with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
He'll be facing a defense that could be closer to full strength, with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and tackle Peria Jerry possibly returning. Weatherspoon, who has a team-high 52 tackles, missed last week's game with a sprained right ankle. Jerry left in the first half with a knee injury.
New Orleans continues to play with end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who are appealing their bounty suspensions, but remains abysmal defensively.
The Saints have yielded at least 400 yards in each of their first eight games, the longest such streak since at least 1950, and maybe in the history of the NFL. They're allowing an average of 471.3 yards - 53.4 more than the next-closest team - and are well on their way to shatter the record for most yards allowed in a season.
Opposing quarterbacks are averaging a 105.1 passer rating, and Ryan enters third in the NFL with a 103.0 mark. The Falcons are 29-0 when he has a quarterback rating of at least 100, but he has an 85.2 rating in his last three games against the Saints and lost them all.
Turner, who had his second 100-yard game of the season last week, also hasn't enjoyed much success in the last three meetings, averaging 61.0 yards without a score.
Updated November 7, 2012