Falcons coach Mike Smith has watched his team survive a number of close calls this season, including Sunday’s 24-23 victory against Tampa Bay to improve to 10-1 overall.
FLOWERY BRANCH — Leading the NFC with a 10-1 record isn’t nearly enough to satisfy Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith.
His team is playing too many close games and still making too many mistakes for Smith to say that Atlanta is one of the NFL’s few elite teams.
He will only say that if the Falcons keep winning, they will put themselves in position to earn a top playoff seed.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s No. 2 career-leading receiver, agrees with his coach. Atlanta just escaped with a 24-23 victory at Tampa Bay, which had won four straight and five of six, but Gonzalez knows the Falcons still have plenty to prove.
“Everyone was saying they were the hottest team in the NFC South, and they probably were,” Gonzalez said. “To be honest, we could have played a little better, but when you win close games like that, it’s only a positive.”
With just three days to prepare for Thursday night’s home game against New Orleans, the Falcons want to clean up inconsistencies in the running game, red-zone offense and pass rush.
The Saints (5-6) are coming off a 10-point home loss to San Francisco, but Atlanta has lost 11 of its last 13 matchups against New Orleans and quarterback Drew Brees.
Not only did the Falcons suffer their first loss of the season three weeks ago at the Superdome; they did so by turning the ball over on downs late in the game from inside the 5-yard line. Atlanta also was forced to settle for two field goals in the red zone
Running back Michael Turner was held to 15 yards rushing on 13 carries while New Orleans’ Chris Ivory gained 10 more yards on his 56-yard touchdown than the Falcons managed all day.
Since that loss, Atlanta has managed to squeak past Arizona despite five interceptions by quarterback Matt Ryan.
With two more Ryan turnovers at Tampa Bay, the Falcons are now minus-7 in turnover margin the last two games.
But they have two wins to show for it.
Against the Buccaneers, Atlanta held powerful rookie running back Doug Martin to a season-low 2.4 yards per carry. Ryan and Julio Jones connected for an 80-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter that wiped away Tampa Bay’s second lead of the afternoon.
Michael Turner’s 3-yard TD run midway through the fourth quarter gave Atlanta the game’s final lead, and Ryan’s smart clock management consumed all but 8 seconds of the final 3:22 and all but secured the victory.
Though the last possession sputtered when Matt Bryant missed his second straight field-goal try — this one a 48-yarder — of the game, the Falcons still did enough right to sneak out of Tampa Bay with a big win.
A critical third-down pass from Ryan to Roddy White covered 8 yards and moved the chains to the Tampa Bay 37. One play later, the Bucs were forced to use their final timeout.
“We feel really good where we are at,” White said. “We’ve got a game coming up against the Saints on Thursday night and that’s going to be a big one for us in the division. So we’ve got to move past this one and move on and get ready for the next game.”
Atlanta’s declining turnover margin — the Falcons have created just two takeaways in their last five games — needs attention, too. Injuries to cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson are another concern.
But Gonzalez believes that the Falcons will follow Smith’s lead and focus more on what they need to correct rather than what they’ve done well.
“It doesn’t matter what your record is,” Gonzalez said. “You just want to be playing some good football come playoff time and right now we’ve got to hopefully put something together and try to get that home field advantage.”