Familiar faces, new perspective

IRVING, Tex. - For 11 seasons, linebacker Keith Brooking was a stalwart in the Atlanta Falcons' defense. Since the end of the last millennium, he has played in every big game the Falcons have played.

Atlanta has another big game Sunday, and once again, Brooking will be in the starting lineup. But for the first time, he'll be on the other sideline, after signing as a free agent in the offseason with the Cowboys. The team of which he has been a member for more than a decade is now the enemy.

"I wouldn't say it's just another game, but I'm not doing anything different than I normally do for a game, as far as my preparation goes," Brooking said. "It's a very exciting game for me, (but) I'm not going to make it any bigger than what it is, though. It's an opportunity for us to get to 4-2, and to do that, we have to beat a very good football team, a team I think is very talented and well-coached — they're not going to do anything to beat themselves."

Brooking said that despite the fact that he will make every effort to treat Sunday's game as the proverbial "just another game," he can't deny that his long tenure with the Falcons will make the game emotional for him.

"I have a lot of history there," he said. "There's a lot of people in that organization that mean a great deal to me, so … to beat their heads in would be nice.

It's not about me playing my former team. It's about the Cowboys trying to win a big game against a very good opponent, and create some momentum after our bye week."

Brooking even acknowledged that although he recognizes the fact that he is an emotional player, he has to balance the desire to rein in his emotions against his former team but not so much that he loses his focus.

"Whatever takes place — I'm not thinking about that. Obviously, I've played in games, big-time games, where I do get too emotional, too pumped up, and it kind of takes me out of my game. I've got to be mentally sharp, to where my emotion doesn't take me out of that part of my game, and just play football, so whatever happens, happens."

The New Orleans Saints are undefeated and appear to be one of the NFL's dominant teams. If they keep up their torrid pace and win the NFC South divisional crown, the 4-2 Falcons are among a handful of teams that will battle for an NFC Wild Card berth. The 3-2 Cowboys also hope to be in the postseason hunt, meaning Sunday's game represents a chance for each team to measure itself against a possible postseason foe.

"The way our season has gone so far … we got beat by two very good football teams, and the teams we beat, their records aren't very good," Brooking said. "So I think this will prove a lot to the people on the outside, because Atlanta is, I think, going to be one of the better teams that we play. If we beat this team, we beat a very good football team in the Atlanta Falcons.

"They're very talented, I know them very well, I know their coaching staff — they're well-coached — so it's a big game for us from that standpoint. Not only that, it's a conference game against an opponent that's probably going to be right there at the end of the season, in the playoff picture, so from that standpoint, it's a big game."

Brooking obviously is most familiar with the Atlanta defense he anchored for 11 seasons, but he said he also has immense respect for the Falcons' offense, a unit he said will present the Dallas defense with numerous challenges.

"They do a good job offensively," he said. "(Offensive coordinator Mike) Mularkey, I think, is one of the better offensive minds in this league. You don't hear his name a lot, but playing against him last year in practice, in training camp, going against him in OTAs … they do a lot of great things, offensively. With (quarterback) Matt (Ryan), you've got to give the offensive line a lot of credit, because they play well together — across the board, there's no standouts, nobody going over the water (to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii), but they play great together, five guys who are cohesive, playing as a unit.

"It's a lot of the same personnel, the same guys, and Michael Turner is one the best — if not the best backs in the league. So we've got to really shut down that run game, and then do those things I was just talking about with Matt Ryan, because most importantly, we can't allow that run game to get going."

For the Dallas defense, Brooking said the key to winning Sunday will be in how the Cowboys' front seven fares against the Falcons' protection while trying to get to Ryan and force him to make throws before he's ready.

"Mularkey does a great job with his protections, and Matt gets rid of the ball really quick — it's a lot of three-step (drops)," Brooking said. "When that back foot hits … and his intelligence comes into play, as well, because he knows where to go with the ball, and he reads through his progressions and he gets rid of it very quick.

"So I think the combination of all that is the reason they haven't given up many sacks and he hasn't been hit a lot. So we've talked about that all week, and this is going to be a front-seven game for us, defensively. We have to beat their offensive front, and harass Matt and get some pressure in his face, and obviously tighten up our coverage down the field, and that gives us a very good chance of winning the game."

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