Four Downs: Falcons pass Bucs test without a running game

BY foxsports • October 20, 2013

Here are four things we learned from the Falcons' 31-23 triumph over the winless Buccaneers (0-6):

Yes, Tampa Bay is the middle of a train-wreck season that includes more MRSA medical scares inside the Bucs' training facility than actual team victories.

And yes, the Buccaneers might have been more potent in the red zone if star tailback Doug Martin (54 total yards) hadn't been knocked out with a shoulder injury (third quarter).

That aside, it's impossible to fathom the Falcons owning double-digit leads for 29-plus minutes on Sunday — without receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White ... and with tight end Tony Gonzalez (two catches, 30 yards) drawing only four targets.

And yet, Atlanta made it work in the passing game, a credit to Matt Ryan's cool proficiency (273 yards passing, three TDs), Harry Douglas's efficient dominance as a No. 1 receiver (seven catches, seven targets, 149 yards, one TD) and a much-maligned offensive line that didn't surrender a single sack on the day.

Of course, it's not like the Falcons tailbacks were invisible against the Bucs, as Jacquizz Rodgers (62 total yards) converted two short passes into receiving touchdowns — with both scores extending Atlanta leads to 14 points.

For the season-ticket holder who has no use for preseason games, they've only seen Jackson register four touches (and one touchdown) at the Georgia Dome — the screen-time equivalent of Burt Reynolds' horribly conceived cameo at the end of Smokey and the Bandit III (below).

And at age 30, it's fair to wonder if Jackson (2,822 career touches) will be durable enough for at least seven more games — after his current malady (hamstring) heals in due time.

After all, we're talking about a back who was reportedly on the verge of playing against the Jets two weeks ago ... but didn't even practice this week, coming off a bye.

Either Jackson aggravated that injury sometime between Oct. 7 and Sunday, or the Falcons have been slow-walking the media and fans into the possibility of a greatly diminished season (involving Jackson).

As for Rodgers ... his two-game output of four touchdowns dwarfs the end-zone efficiency of Jackson, who has only five TDs in his last 21 games (dating back to 2011).

A quick look at the stat sheet reveals a fantasy-friendly outing of 10 catches, 138 yards and two touchdowns for Jackson.

But V-Jax also collected 22 targets on the day, meaning Bucs QB Mike Glennon (256 yards passing, two TDs) only connected with his favorite receiver 45 percent of the time.

And Jackson's 22 targets matched the combined Sunday output of every other Tampa Bay pass-catcher.

All things considered ... if you offered Mike Nolan a pregame "deal" of 45-percent efficiency with Jackson — knowing his young secondary can be erratic — the Falcons defensive coordinator would probably take it and move on.

Victory aside, it's still preposterous to boost Atlanta's chances of collecting a wild-card slot, even though the club trails Chicago and Detroit (both 4-3) by a mere 1 1/2 games.

My pessimism stems from this: If the Falcons don't win two of the next three outings (with Week 8/9 roadies against the Cardinals and Panthers), the good tidings from Sunday's win would essentially dissipate.

That's the reality for a depleted and desperate club that needs all the tiebreakers in their favor come late December — most notably conference record, for which the Falcons currently stand 2-1 in NFC play (0-3 against AFC foes).

At the very least, the Falcons must finish 8-4 in-conference to garner serious consideration for a playoff spot.

Among the NFC's seven most prominent wild-card contenders (San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, Arizona, St. Louis, Carolina, Philadelphia) ... only the Rams, Bears and Panthers currently have losing in-conference records.