The Falcons held on for the win, which was the most important thing.
They still don’t look like the same team as a year ago.
Roddy White had seven receptions for a season-high 147 yards and Atlanta fended off a comeback led by rookie quarterback Jake Locker, beating the Tennessee Titans 23-17 Sunday.
The defending NFC South champion Falcons (6-4) were solid but hardly spectacular, struggling to finish drives and settling for three short field goals by Matt Bryant. They had to sweat it out at the end after Locker, taking over for the injured Matt Hasselbeck, nearly led an improbable comeback.
”We made it a little harder than it needed to be,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. ”There’s a number of things we need to address, that we need to get fixed.”
Locker took over late in the third quarter after Hasselbeck went out with a sprained right elbow, having endured an ineffective day even before he was hurt.
The youngster hooked up with Nate Washington on a pair of touchdown passes that made a game of it, but the Falcons managed to run out the clock after Matt Ryan completed a third-down pass to Harry Douglas that was barely enough for the first down.
At least the Falcons shook the hangover from their stunning overtime loss to New Orleans the week before. The Saints prevailed 26-23 in the crucial division game after Smith made a much-debated decision to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory. Michael Turner was stuffed, and the Saints kicked the winning field goal.
But, as they’ve done so many times under Smith, the Falcons bounced back. They improved to 16-3 after losses since their coach took over in 2008.
”It starts at the top,” said Ryan, who completed 22 of 32 for 316 yards. ”In this league, you’re going to have some tough losses. You need to move on from that.”
Atlanta jumped out to a 13-0 lead on Ryan’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez and Bryant’s first two field goals. Turner, who rushed for 100 yards, stretched the lead to 20-3 with a 4-yard touchdown run on the opening possession of the second half. But Turner’s fourth-quarter fumble deep in Tennessee territory allowed the Titans (5-5) to get back in it.
But Tennessee simply made too many mistakes to win on the road for the second week in a row. The Titans were penalized 10 times — two of which came on third down to extend Atlanta scoring drives — and Hasselbeck threw an interception that led to the first Atlanta field goal.
Plus, Chris Johnson had one of the worst games of his career in what has already been a hugely disappointing season. He followed up a 130-yard effort against Carolina with a season-low 13 yards on 12 carries, his longest gain going for only 6 yards.
”You go back to the last game and I got 130 and everything was good,” Johnson said. ”You come back to this game and nothing is working. It goes back to the offense not executing, not being consistent.”
White was in the midst of a disappointing season, as well, leading the NFL with nine dropped passes. He bobbled another one against the Titans but more than made up for it with his longest reception of the season, a 43-yarder that set up Turner’s touchdown. White also took a short pass for a 32-yard gain, leading to Bryant’s final field goal and a 23-3 lead that looked safe, especially when Hasselbeck went out.
”I got in a little groove,” White said. ”I feel like I get faster into the game, get a groove going, when they get me the ball early in the game.”
Locker at least gave the Titans hope. On his third snap, he threw a deep pass to Washington, who came down with the ball and got away from two defensive backs for a 40-yard touchdown.
The Falcons were driving for the clinching score when Turner had the ball knocked loose at the Tennessee 8 by Colin McCarthy. Will Witherspoon fell on the ball, and Locker guided Tennessee on a 14-play, 84-yard drive capped by a 4-yard scoring pass to Washington with 3:06 remaining.
The rookie didn’t get a chance to complete the comeback, watching as Ryan kneeled down in the final seconds.
”It was a lot of fun,” said Locker, who was 9 of 19 for 140 yards. ”I would have liked a better outcome, but it was fun to be out there competing.”
Hasselbeck, who passed for 124 yards, injured his elbow when a Falcons defender struck him on his follow-through. Coach Mike Munchak said he didn’t think the injury would keep Hasselbeck out for an extended period and left little doubt he’s still the No. 1 quarterback.
”I’m happy for the team that we bounced back,” Hasselbeck said. ”It hurts to come up short.”
NOTES: Bryant connected from 19, 33 and 24 yards and is 18 of 19 on the season. … Tennessee didn’t cross midfield until late in the second quarter, driving into position for Rod Bironas’ 46-yard field goal with 2 seconds remaining in the half. … Gonzalez also became just the 13th player in NFL history to go past 13,000 yards receiving. He finished with six catches for 74 yards.