November 05, 2014

With their season potentially slipping away, the Atlanta Falcons still believe Matt Ryan is the right quarterback to help turn things around.

Ryan and the Falcons face the team against which their downward spiral began as they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

With Atlanta (6-5) mired in a four-game losing streak, making the playoffs is in doubt for a team which started 5-0 and frustration continues to mount. Ryan has taken a brunt of the blame from fans and the media, especially after throwing five interceptions in the last two games for a team that has averaged 16.3 points in the past six games - down from 32.4 in the first five.

However, team owner Arthur Blank, coach Dan Quinn and players such as star receiver Julio Jones have publicly voiced their support for the embattled quarterback. Even after Ryan tested their patience last Sunday when one of his two INTs came in the end zone while the Falcons were driving in the third quarter of a 20-10 loss to Minnesota.

"He's absolutely the competitor I want," Quinn said of Ryan, who ranks 21st in the league with an 88.6 passer rating and is on pace for his fewest TD passes since 2009. "He's what we look for and our team looks for the whole way."

Ryan, five interceptions shy of matching his career high of 17, doesn't need to be reminded that improvement starts with making better decisions.

"As a competitor you want to make those plays to get everybody going, and to get the ball into the end zone," he said. "I'm a better player than that to know when it's time to ditch it and throw it away.

''I know I can play better. I've done it before and I'll do it again. But I've got to get started (this weekend).''

Turnovers also plagued him against Tampa Bay (5-6) on Nov. 1, and that turned out to be the beginning of the Falcons' four-game skid. Ryan threw for a season-high 397 yards and two touchdowns, but he fumbled and was intercepted in Buccaneers' territory en route to a 23-20 overtime loss.

Jones caught 12 passes for 162 yards but also lost a fumble, tight end Jacob Tamme had 10 for 103 and both of them scored. Devonta Freeman recorded 131 total yards and is expected to return Sunday after sitting out last weekend with a concussion.

Though Ryan has been a natural scapegoat for Atlanta's struggles, there's blame to go around.

A defense that yielded an NFC-low average of 78.6 rushing yards in the first seven games has allowed 128.8 in the last four. That unit gave up a season-worst 191 last weekend, with 158 to Adrian Peterson.

''We put the work in, we practice hard, we work hard, but for whatever reason, it's not showing up on Sunday,'' cornerback Desmond Trufant said. ''We just have to keep pushing, stick together and the only way is up.''

The Falcons held Tampa Bay to 290 total yards last month but failed to force a turnover while the Bucs turned four into 20 points.

Tampa Bay failed to earn a third straight win with last Sunday's 25-12 loss at Indianapolis but remains confident, knowing its playoff chances could improve by sweeping the season series from Atlanta for the first time since 2007.

''Now it's about this stretch run," coach Lovie Smith said. "We have a five-game season, playing all NFC teams. ... In November, you want to get into position, and now it's who gets hot in the end.'

''This is the final stage of our growth, rebirth, whatever you want to call it - to finish on this back stretch. I'm of the school of thought that we are going to be one of those teams that's going to do this now, right when we need to.''

Whether the Bucs succeed could depend on the play of Jameis Winston, and maybe his offensive line.

The No. 1 overall pick was sacked a season-high five times last week after going down eight times in the previous six games as Tampa Bay went 4-2. Winston went 20 of 36 for 245 yards and a touchdown against the Colts, but the Bucs fell to 1-4 when he throws at least one interception. He didn't have one in Atlanta, where he was 16 of 29 for 177 yards with a TD and also ran for a score.

Teammate Doug Martin followed his 235-yard rushing game against Philadelphia with 97 on 14 carries last weekend. However, he carried twice for seven yards in the Bucs' scoreless second half.

Tampa Bay held the Colts to 27 rushing yards but allowed 309 through air to 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck. The Bucs also committed 12 penalties to increase their NFL-high total to 109.

"(Last Sunday) was disappointing ... in a lot of different ways," Smith said. "We're gonna get this right."

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