FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga . — 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 making too many mistakes for Smith to say Atlanta is in the NFL’s elite.
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 agreed with his coach. Atlanta escaped with a 24-23 victory Sunday at Tampa Bay, which had won four straight, 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 the past 13 in the series.
Not only did the Falcons suffer their first loss of the season three weeks ago at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; they did so by turning the ball over on downs late in the game from inside the 5-yard line.
Running back Michael Turner was held to 15 yards on 13 carries. New Orleans’ Chris Ivory gained 10 more yards on his 56-yard touchdown run than the Falcons had all day.
Since that loss, Atlanta managed to squeak past Arizona despite five interceptions by quarterback Matt Ryan. With two more Ryan turnovers at Tampa Bay, the Falcons are minus-7 in turnover margin in the past two games — but they have two wins to show for it.
Against the Buccaneers, Atlanta held rookie 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 gave Atlanta the game’s final lead, and Ryan’s smart clock management consumed all but eight seconds of the final 3:22.
Although the last possession sputtered when Matt Bryant missed his second straight field-goal try — this one a 48-yarder — the Falcons did enough right to sneak out of Tampa Bay with a win.
“We feel really good where we are at,” receiver Roddy White said.
Atlanta’s declining turnover margin — the Falcons have two takeaways in their past five games — needs attention, too. But Gonzalez believes the Falcons will follow Smith’s lead and focus 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.”
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