FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) A team that wins its first five games almost always makes the NFL playoffs.
The Atlanta Falcons are in danger of bucking that trend.
Now, rookie coach Dan Quinn has to make sure a season that began with such promise doesn't spiral totally out of control.
After losing three straight and four of their past five, the Falcons returned to their training complex Monday for a series of meetings, trying to figure out what went wrong. If there's any sense of panic, Quinn and his players won't acknowledge it.
''The bear is not loose here inside the building. I want to make sure we're really clear on that,'' Quinn said. ''We've got a really talented team and a coaching staff that really believes in these guys.''
When the Falcons began 5-0, they looked like a lock for the playoffs. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, 66 of 72 teams - a staggering 92 percent - have gone on to the postseason after getting off to such a strong start, according to STATS.
But Atlanta's once-comfortable position is now threatened after three losses by a total of seven points, the latest a 24-21 setback to the Indianapolis Colts in which the Falcons squandered a pair of two-touchdown leads. Two other teams, Seattle and Tampa Bay, have climbed within a game of Atlanta for the second NFC wild card.
Winning the division is unlikely with Carolina on top at 10-0.
At the beginning of the season, the Falcons (6-4) were winning all the close games. But they've slipped to 3-3 in contests decided by four points or less, largely because of puzzling breakdowns on the offensive side and, more specifically, the struggles of quarterback Matt Ryan.
In Sunday's loss, Matty Ice threw a crucial interception from his end zone that was returned 6 yards for a tying touchdown by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. The Colts won 24-21 on Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal with 52 seconds to go.
The Falcons, who host Minnesota next Sunday, jumped to leads of 14-0 and 21-7 with three drives covering at least 80 yards. After that, it looked like a totally different offense.
Atlanta had only 52 yards over its final seven possessions, with as many turnovers as first downs (three each). Two of the drives were snuffed out on their very first play, one by Tevin Coleman's fumble, the other by Ryan's devastating interception.
There's no chance of the Falcons making a change at quarterback. Not with Sean Renfree as the top backup.
So it all rests with Ryan.
''If there's decisions to be made in terms of where to go (with passes), how to feature him, we'll do that,'' Quinn said. ''But there's a lot of things he's doing well, too. It kind of gets overlooked sometimes when an interception of that magnitude takes place.''
Indeed, Ryan threw a season-high three touchdown passes against the Colts, two of them to little-used fullback Patrick DiMarco. Overall, the quarterback has 15 touchdown passes and is on pace for the most prolific yardage season of his eight-year career.
But that doesn't excuse some huge blunders.
Against the Colts, Ryan squandered a scoring chance early when he overthrew Roddy White in the end zone, allowing Dwight Lowery to make a diving interception. Then, looking like a rookie instead of a veteran who prides himself on preparation, Ryan was totally fooled by Jackson with the Falcons backed up inside their 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. The linebacker faked as though he was coming up to stuff the run, then dropped back into pass coverage.
Ryan threw it right to the Colt, who returned it for a touchdown in the blink of an eye.
''It's a throw he just should not have made, one he could've easily checked down into the flat,'' Quinn said. ''Those are the decisions we count on him like crazy for us. For all those things he did in the game very well, that's one he'd like to have back.''
The loss ruined DiMarco's career day. The fourth-year player had only one career touchdown coming into the game; in fact, he'd never scored two touchdowns in a game at any level of football.
He had both balls in his locker Monday and plans to get them engraved. But the moment was overshadowed by the bitter defeat.
''I wish we would have won,'' DiMarco said. ''It would have made things a lot more sweet.''
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry
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