PREVIEW: Ryan, Falcons face off vs. Cardinals

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a career-high passer rating of 148.4 against Tampa Bay last week and is hoping to stay hot today against Arizona. (Reuters)

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a career-high passer rating of 148.4 against Tampa Bay last week and is hoping to stay hot today against Arizona. (Reuters)

ATLANTA — A pair of teams scrambling to stay in the periphery of the NFC playoff picture square off today in the desert when the Arizona Cardinals host the Atlanta Falcons.

Both teams already have fallen three games behind in their respective divisions. Injuries have hampered the Falcons in their NFC South title defense, but they could have a key offensive player back this week as running back Steven Jackson returned to practice Wednesday after missing four games with a hamstring injury and is listed as probable.

The Cardinals were unable to dig out of a 14-0 hole last week in a 34-22 loss to division-leading Seattle, dropping their second straight game following a modest two-game win streak.

“That’s one thing I stressed to the team, that we’ve got to start faster at home,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told reporters. “Defensively, offensively, the entire team. We need to get off to a better start in the first quarter.”

The Falcons have won two straight meetings and six of the last seven, including a 23-19 victory in Atlanta last season.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is trying to lead his team out of perhaps the stiffest challenge of his six-year career as he’s coming off a career-high passer rating of 148.4 against Tampa Bay.

“Absolutely,” said Ryan, when asked if he was up to the task of leading a turnaround.

He quickly added that this won’t be a one-person mission.

“It’s not just me,” said Ryan, who was named the NFC’s offensive player of the week. “It’s going to be all of us working together to kind of dig our way out. I think that everybody has kind of taken it upon themselves to pull their weight.”

Ryan completed 20 of 26 passes (76.9 percent) for 273 yards with three touchdowns and a career-high 148.4 passer rating in the win over the Bucs. His rating was the highest single-game mark by any passer in 2013 and was the second-highest single-game rating in franchise history.

“You’ve got to focus on getting better all the time,” Ryan said of his growth. “You can’t become lackadaisical or complacent with that. You’ve just got to keep working at it. That’s one of the things that I’ve tried to do throughout my career.”

This season, Ryan has completed 171 of 244 passes (70.1 percent) for 1,922 yards with 13 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 105.9 passer rating.

He ranks third in the NFL in completion percentage and passer rating, fifth in completions, and seventh in touchdowns and passing yards. Additionally, Ryan is averaging 320.3 passing yards per game, which ranks third in the NFL.

“I think experience has a lot to do with it,” Ryan said. “Understanding our offense better than I ever have. Understanding defenses probably better than I have, probably helps too in that gradual process. I think it’s hard work too. You’ve got to focus on getting better all the time.”

The Falcons are dusting off their best “one game at a time” quotes, but know they’d like to get back to .500 as quickly as possible.

“Consistently, we’ve taken the approach of week to week,” Ryan said. “I think that’s important when things are going well to keep that mindset, but also when things are going poorly to keep that mindset.”

Ryan knows that the offense will have to control former teammate John Abraham, who signed on with Arizona after being released by the Falcons.

“He’s one of the best in the league,” Ryan said. “You see it already even this year. He’s able to kind of rush around. He’s great with his hands. He’s great with getting the ball out.

“That’s something as a quarterback that you have to be prepared for. You have to be conscientious of that when you’re in the pocket. We have to protect well. It comes down to all of us playing well together. It’s not one guy or what matchup. Collectively, we need to play well together and understand that he’s really doing well in the pocket.”

The offensive line could receive a boost from the return of Jackson, who said he’s going to give the group a pep talk.

“They are doing a good job in the pass game,” Ryan said. “We have to be a little bit better in the run game. But pass protection wise, they are solid. They are getting better together. Collectively, the more that those guys play with each other, the better they are going to be.”