(Eds: Updates throughout. With AP Photos.)By GEORGE HENRYAssociated Press
Matt Ryan likes how the Atlanta Falcons are playing with two games left in the regular season.
He is even more pleased that the Falcons can rest this weekend while other NFC playoff contenders compete.
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Atlanta (9-5) has won four of five and closes the regular season with games at New Orleans on Dec. 26 and at home against Tampa Bay on Jan. 1. The Falcons seem poised to make consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in their 46-year history.
”Four or five days off couldn’t come at a better time,” said Ryan, who threw three touchdown passes in a 41-14 victory over Jacksonville on Thursday night. ”I think everybody will use this extended little break that we have to let our bodies heal a little bit so that we can be fresh when we go down and play New Orleans.”
Ryan believes his team is brimming with confidence even though it’s coming off consecutive wins over teams with a combined 8-19 record. The Falcons ripped off 65 consecutive points from the start of Sunday’s third quarter at Carolina to the 2:12 mark of Thursday’s third quarter.
”That’s what we need,” Ryan said. ”We’re in a position where we have two games left now, and I think still control our own destiny. That’s the kind of football we need to play moving forward, and I think it’s good that we’re doing it at this time.”
Atlanta trails the NFC South-leading Saints by 1 1/2 games. New Orleans, which earned a 26-23 overtime victory five weeks ago at the Georgia Dome, takes a five-game winning streak into Sunday’s matchup with the Vikings in Minnesota.
With the top three NFC playoff spots likely to going to Green Bay, San Francisco and New Orleans, the Falcons would benefit if New York, Detroit, Chicago or Dallas loses this weekend. Atlanta currently has the fifth-best record in the race for the NFC’s six postseason berths.
The Falcons moved past a disappointing 17-10 loss at Houston two weeks ago by returning to the core principles that have fueled their success under fourth-year coach Mike Smith.
They jumped out to a fast start against Jacksonville in all three phases of the game, building a 27-0 halftime lead with big plays on offense, defense and special teams.
Sean Weatherspoon helped Atlanta pull away with a key fumble recovery after Jacksonville muffed a punt in the second quarter. He fell on the loose ball at the 5, and Michael Turner ran for a touchdown on the next snap to make it 17-0.
”Winning on a short week is never an easy proposition, but I really think our team handled it very well and I really think it showed the way that they worked in the ballgame,” Smith said after the Falcons improved to 27-1 in his tenure when they win the turnover battle.
”They started fast and I think that they played well for most part of the ballgame. I liked their effort and I liked that the guys played, and we got the result that we wanted. Now it’s an opportunity to try to go get (victory) No. 10.”
A 41-0 lead allowed Smith to rest Ryan for the final 17 minutes, a deserved break after his quarterback threw three touchdown passes in consecutive games for the first time in his career.
Ryan completed 19 of 26 passes for 224 yards and is 22-0 when he records an NFL passer rating of 100 or higher.
Three-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and rookie Julio Jones, the league’s No. 6 overall draft pick, combined to catch 15 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
”I feel like we played a good three quarters,” White said. ”The fourth quarter, the starters were out, so we didn’t get a chance to see what we could do then. The first three were really, really good. We got after the quarterback, scored a lot of points on offense, and got down in the red zone and scored.”