NFC-leading Falcons keep close eye on loose balls
Falcons coach Mike Smith knows that most of the bounces are going Atlanta's way this season.
The Falcons always seem to capitalize on opponent mistakes while avoiding their own. It's the kind of good fortune that's helped Atlanta become the first NFC team to make the playoffs.
A victory over New Orleans or Carolina in the next two games will clinch the No. 1 overall seed.
''We know what's at stake,'' Smith said Monday. ''The one thing I will say, though, is there's a lot of football left to be played over the next couple of weeks.''
Players were given the day off following Sunday's 34-18 victory at Seattle, Smith's reward for an eight-game winning streak that has Atlanta poised to win its first NFC South title since 2004.
When the Falcons report for a short day of film study and a brief practice Tuesday, Smith will remind them of the importance of protecting and recovering the football.
Entering a Monday showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, Smith has been proud of Atlanta's performance thus far.
Just eight fumbles, tied for fewest in the NFL. Five resulted in turnovers, but combined with quarterback Matt Ryan's nine interceptions, the Falcons' plus-13 turnover margin ranks first in the NFC and fourth overall.
That success doesn't come without some struggles.
In the second quarter Sunday, Atlanta's offense had yet to solve Seattle's blitz packages, and momentum was hard to attain.
Consecutive fumbles by running back Jason Snelling could've been disastrous, but Brian Finneran and Roddy White each grabbed a loose ball to sustain a drive that ended with a field goal and a three-point lead.
On the next series, Ryan was intercepted in Atlanta territory, but the Seahawks went three-and-out and settled for a field goal and a 10-all tie.
That was when the game changed.
Showing why they lead the league in time of possession and rank first in fourth-down percentage and second in third downs, the Falcons started to wear Seattle down.
''You get these ebbs and flows in the game and you get upside-down,'' White said. ''You turn over the ball here and there, and teams usually take you down. But we just did a good job of staying focused throughout this whole stretch. I think that was a key thing for us.''
By the end of the third quarter, the Falcons had a 24-point lead against an opponent in the NFC West hunt.
''We didn't do anything real stupid,'' Ryan said following Sunday's game. ''I had the one turnover that wasn't very good before the half (and) led to some points for them, but we responded. That's what you have to do in those situations. You're going to make mistakes, but it's all about how you come back from them.''
A little luck doesn't hurt.
Ryan took some hard shots, one of the biggest coming on a 24-yard touchdown pass he threw to Michael Jenkins in the final seconds before halftime.
Seeing that right defensive end Raheem Brock was stunting through a free space in the middle, Ryan knew he was about to get clobbered.
Sure enough, Brock lifted Ryan off his feet and planted him backward, but the ball was already arcing toward Jenkins.
Wouldn't you know it? Rookie safety Kam Chancellor blew an assignment and let Jenkins, who already had beaten cornerback Kennard Cox, outrun the coverage.
''Matt said he didn't even know what happened,'' Jenkins said. ''I think he got hit and they told him on the ground that it was a touchdown. But he threw a great ball. It was right there.''
The Falcons equally benefited from Jamaal Anderson, who swatted the ball loose from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the end zone, leading to a third-quarter touchdown for defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux on Atlanta's first score of the second half.
''The ball bounces in funny ways, and I think what you will see if you watch the trends of turnovers, especially fumbles and then fumbles lost,'' Smith said, ''the teams that are winning are usually getting more of the recoveries than (their opponents).''