ATLANTA (AP)First place.
A strange place to be for the Atlanta Falcons.
Yep, seven games into an up-and-down season, the Falcons hold the top spot in the NFC South.
Never mind that it’s probably the weakest division in the NFL. Considering this team hasn’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2017, there were plenty of smiles after an ugly 16-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We’ll take it,” coach Arthur Smith said after his team improved to 4-3. “We know we’ve got work to do, but happy to get a win.”
The Falcons pulled out the victory despite three fumbles by quarterback Desmond Ridder, which cost them at least one touchdown and probably another.
“We certainly like to make it hard on ourselves,” Smith said. “But our guys make plays in big moments. We always feel like we got a shot, no matter what happens. It’s a resilient group.”
An offseason spending spree directed largely toward the defense had paid big dividends.
The Falcons are surrendering an average of 19 points a game, which ranks in the top 10 of the league and would be their lowest figure over a full season since 2012.
They’ve turned up the pressure on the quarterback the last two weeks, though it helped to be facing a pair of shaky offensive lines. Atlanta had five sacks against Washington and three more against Tampa Bay, pushing their total to 13 for the season. Not a huge number, perhaps, but an encouraging sign for a team that hasn’t had even 30 sacks in a season since 2018.
The guys on the defensive side are the biggest reason the Falcons have a winning record despite being held under 20 points in four of their seven games.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
This is a familiar gripe, but Ridder simply has got to do a better job of protecting the football.
He’s had three turnovers in three of the last four games, and one of his fumbles against the Buccaneers was simply inexcusable.
With about 6 1/2 minutes remaining, Ridder appeared to score a touchdown on a scramble to the left pylon. But he was carrying the ball in the right hand, which allowed it to be punched out for a touchback just before he crossed the goal line.
“Back when we’re 7, 8 years old, playing football, you learn that when you’re running to the left, put the ball in your left hand, when you’re running to the right, put it in the right,” Ridder conceded.
Instead of a 20-10 lead, which likely would’ve sealed the victory, the Falcons were forced to fight to the very last play on a day when they recorded more than 400 total yards for the third week in a row – the first time that’s happened in five years.
Ridder lost two other fumbles inside the red zone, including a botched snap on first-and-goal at the 1 that likely cost the Falcons another touchdown.
“I’ve just got to do a better job of taking care of the ball,” he said.
While Ridder is doing plenty of good things – he completed 19 of 25 passes for 250 yards and ran for Atlanta’s only touchdown against the Bucs – he must cut down on the mistakes.
That said, Smith hasn’t lost any faith in Ridder.
“The guy played phenomenal in the pocket, delivered the ball,” the coach said. “I know this about Desmond Ridder – he’s tough and he’s a winner.”
Younghoe Koo is one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers, which showed again when he booted a 51-yard field goal on the final play to win the game.
It was his second game-winning kick this season and seventh of his career.
Koo has made 13 of 14 field goals this season and 135 of 151 (89.4%) over his six seasons in the NFL.
“He’s clutch,” Smith said.
CB A.J. Terrell got beat on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans and was called for three penalties: two for holding, another for illegal use of hands.
Terrell did, however, break up three passes.
The Falcons are having an amazing run of good fortune in the health department. For three straight weeks, they haven’t had anyone on their injury report.
Star rookie Bijan Robinson got limited snaps against the Bucs, but that was because he was feeling under the weather. Tyler Allgeier (59 yards rushing, three catches for an additional 53 yards) and Cordarrelle Patterson (56 yards rushing) filled the void nicely.
2-0 – The Falcons’ record within the NFC South, which could come in handy at the end of the season if tiebreakers are needed in a division that doesn’t seem to have a dominant team.
“Whether we’re on top of the division today does not matter,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “But I will say, getting a win on the road in the division is huge.”
The Falcons travel to Tennessee (2-4) on Sunday for their second straight road game.
Looking further down the road, the schedule looks incredibly favorable to Atlanta. The remaining 10 games are against opponents with a cumulative record of 22-43. None of them is above .500 at the moment.
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