SAN DIEGO -- These sure don't look like the same Atlanta Falcons.
Not with this defense.
Late in the first quarter of a steamy game at The Q, the San Diego Chargers offense was in rhythm, driving for what might have been a go-ahead score. Twisting inside the 5-yard line, running back Ryan Mathews lunged for a few more inches and then it happened.
RELTAED | Falcons stomp Chargers, remain undefeated
The football popped out, punched by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud, approaching for the tackle, pounced on the football instead, and the game was never the same.
"It's like a snowball effect," DeCoud said. "We're gaining more and more confidence."
DeCoud collected three of the Falcons' four takeaways during an impressive and complete 27-3 smashing of the Chargers, which came on the heels of the Monday night victory against the Denver Broncos that began with three first-quarter interceptions of Peyton Manning.
You'd expect this from the Baltimore Ravens defense.
It's been a long time since the Grits Blitz. In recent years, which includes an 0-3 playoff record over the four years that Mike Smith has been coach, defense was a liability.
Yet now big-play defense is a key reason why the Falcons (3-0) are not only one of three undefeated teams left in the NFL, but perhaps the best team in pro football.
In putting the clamps on Philip Rivers,the Falcons added to their NFL-high takeaway tally, now 11 and counting, while the offense has committed just one turnover.
"It's early," quarterback Matt Ryan said Sunday. "Three weeks into it, collectively, we've played some good football."
Sure, the league doesn't award championships after three games. The Falcons realize this, having been bounced in three playoff openers during the past four years. But their confidence is soaring nonetheless because of the balance. While Ryan continues to improve -- his interception Sunday snapped a streak of 272 passes without one -- the defense has shown a new personality under new coordinator Mike Nolan.
The past two games have certainly shown the potential that young, emerging safeties DeCoud (two picks Sunday) and William Moore (two picks Monday) have in the schemes, which allow them more freedom to roam the middle of the field and challenges them to better disguise coverages.
Rivers can vouch for that, having produced his worst passer rating in a game (45.2) since 2008.
Meanwhile, Ryan has barely been touched due to his protection, allowing him to confidently throw darts to big-play wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez. And Michael Turner had his best game of the season (14 rushes. 80 yards), just days after his DUI arrest.
They are now trending as perhaps the best team in the NFL (this week), with the 3-0 Houston Texans and surprising 3-0 Arizona Cardinals worthy of objections.
"We've just got to keep it going," Moore said.
And how. When Week 3 began, the San Francisco 49ers were widely considered the best team in football, atop many power rankings. The 49ers have all 11 starters back from their smashmouth defense, and they upgraded the receiver position. San Francisco, under fiery coach Jim Harbaugh, undoubtedly learned something from the NFC title game loss.
Then any given Sunday struck at the Metrodome.
The 49ers 24-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings opened up a new round for a debate that ultimately will be settled a few months from now during the postseason.
The best team in football?
Said Turner, "We've got a long way to go."
But at least they are part of the conversation.
(Jarrett Bell is the NFL columnist for USA TODAY Sports.)