Prior to the start of the current National Football League season, about all the Atlanta Falcons could reasonably hope for was a second place finish in their division (the NFC West) behind defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco. For one thing, there were too many unanswered questions about Atlanta's defense. For another, it's difficult to have much faith in a team that won't mix up its plays and continues to force the ball deep against the worst kind of odds.
So with two games still remaining on their schedule, the 5-2 Falcons have already clinched a playoff berth. The amazing thing is that they did it with a 17-7 victory at San Francisco Sunday in which Atlanta controlled the football for almost three-quarters of the game. In fact, the Falcons held 49er quarterback Joe Montana, who had set an NFL record by passing for more than 300 yards in five straight games, to under 200.
''Even though a lot of things went wrong for us last year, we were still a good football team,'' explained head coach Leeman Bennett. ''Probably our own mistakes hurt as much as anything, because when you turn the ball over early in the season it always seems to set a trend. This year we've avoided those kinds of situations.''
Running back William Andrews, who ranks among the league leaders in both rushing and pass receiving, has been a big man offensively all season - and he stood out again Sunday with a combined 176 yards in the two departments. Meanwhile wide receiver Alfred Jenkins continued his personal record of having caught at least one pass in 96 consecutive NFL games. Ditka on rookie QB McMahon
Head coach Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears does not believe that a quarterback has to be on the threshold of social security to start and play effectively in the NFL. ''I'm not into any five-year plan for quarterbacks,'' Ditka told reporters. ''No question, experience is a factor with any quarterback. But a coach can outsmart himself if, under certain conditions, he doesn't recognize the importance of being flexible. If a young quarterback understands his position (he was referring to Bears' rookie Jim McMahon), then he deserves a chance to grow into the job. In McMahon's case, reading defenses; going to the outlet pass when you're in trouble; or throwing the ball 50 times a game (as he did at Brigham Young) is nothing new to Jack. We think he's the real thing.'' Moseley's record; Cowboy streak
With Washington's Mark Moseley, it's getting to be a habit. That is, for the 21st consecutive time over the past two seasons, Moseley was successful with a field goal attempt; this one giving the Redskins a 15-14 win over the New York Giants. Moseley's field goal broke Garo Yepremian's record of 20. ''Mark was fantastic,'' said Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. ''It's almost like we have a patent on winning. You know, just keep it close and then let Moseley do the rest.''
Washington's perennial NFC East rival Dallas also had a big day Sunday, beating New Orleans 21-7 to boost its record to 6-1 and earn a playoff berth for a record-tying eighth consecutive year. Tony Dorsett led the running attack as usual with 105 yards in 25 carries - the most yards gained by any one player against the Saints since Bum Phillips became their head coach last season. Patriots, Colts improve
The New England Patriots turned in one of their most impressive recent performances by controlling the ball for more than 42 minutes in Sunday's 16-0 shutout of the Seattle Seahawks. ''Ball control gives you the best chance to win that I know of, if you can pull it off,'' said Patriots head coach Ron Meyer. ''But as happy as I am about that, I'm even more pleased over the fact that we finally seem to have arrived as a good defensive football team.''
The Baltimore Colts, 0-6 going into Sunday's game against Green Bay, scored twice in less than five minutes late in the fourth period to eventually earn a 20-20 overtime tie. The feeling here is that head coach Frank Kush may finally be getting things turned around in Baltimore which had lost each of its previous games by only three points. However, the Colts have a tough game coming up this week against the high-scoring San Diego Chargers, who overwhelmed defending AFC champion Cincinnati 50-34 in Monday night's nationally televised game.
Word out of Los Angeles is that Ray Malavasi is gone as the Rams' head coach as soon as the season ends. He reportedly will be replaced by either Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos or Dick Vermeil of the Philadelphia Eagles. Malavasi, who fired his entire coaching staff last year after the Rams sank to 6-10 and missed the playoffs, may have a job waiting for him with the Buffalo Bills.