Last Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons overcame both Arizona Cardinals and their own excessive generosity with the football, winning 19-16 despite turning the ball over six times, five on Matt Ryan interceptions. In the process, Ryan became the first quarterback since Bart Starr in 1967 to win a game in which he tossed five picks and no touchdowns.
Clearly, that's not a formula the Falcons are going to attempt to repeat.
"Obviously, we can't have that type of game and expect to win most of the time," said Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith. "We were very fortunate to be minus-five in the turnover ratio and still win the game. There were a number of factors. Were there some throws we'd like to have back? Yes. There were some tipped balls at the line of scrimmage. There were a number of factors. You've got to learn from them and put it behind you as quickly as possible. You learn from it, you try to make connections and you move on."
The Falcons have found many different formulas for victory this season, actually, and will bring an NFC-best 9-1 record into Raymond James Stadium on Sunday to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first time this year. Ryan, whose passer rating on the season is still an excellent 94.8 after that five-pick afternoon, has often been a major part of those formulas.
"I think we're very resilient," said Ryan. "We hung in there and kept battling. That's something that we've done a good job of all year. So I think that's probably the biggest thing to learn from that situation. But you also want to play better, and I think that's what everybody's focus is on this week, trying to improve and play better than we did last."
The Falcons may have turned the page from nearly giving last week's game away, but the experience has only sharpened their focus on football security considering their next opponent. The Buccaneers are sixth in the NFL in turnover ratio even after losing that battle for just the second time all year last week in Carolina. Tampa Bay's propensity for taking the ball away, and then making those turnovers count, is a significant concern for Ryan and the Falcons.
"Oddly enough, that's one of the things I think the Bucs have done better than anybody this year," said Ryan. "I think they have 12 touchdowns or 11 touchdowns off turnovers, which is the best in the league. It's something that we try to do a good job and certainly something Tampa has done a great job of.
"It's been something that as an offense and as a team we've talked about all the time, trying to win the turnover differential and protecting the football on offense. We did a really poor job of that last week, myself specifically. But you have to be able to put it behind you and move forward and try to improve. We'll try to do better with that this week."
On paper, Ryan and the Falcons' loaded passing attack would appear to have an opportunity to put up some good numbers this Sunday. Atlanta has the NFL's third most prolific passing offense while the Buccaneers rank last in that category on defense. But, again, the Falcons believe the Bucs' ability to take the ball away is much more significant than the number of yards surrendered.
"They're very opportunistic when taking the ball away," echoed Smith. "I believe they're number one in the league in terms of scoring touchdowns off of turnovers. Right now they're number six in the league in turnover ratio, and really when you start looking at wins and losses, that turnover ratio is one of the most important. All the other things can be empty yards, fluff yards – it's really about points and being able to possess the football."
Ryan should have no problem rebounding from his five-pick afternoon last week, and not only because some of the interceptions were clearly not his fault. He has only had one other game all season in which he was picked off more than once, throwing three in a Week Six win over Oakland, and he followed that with two straight turnover-free games. Moreover, Ryan knows that Atlanta-Tampa Bay games have a tendency to go right down to the wire, and that they are often won and lost with just a handful of big plays. He is certain to put protection of the football at the very top of his priority list this coming weekend against Tampa Bay's turnover-happy group.
"I think it's a good defense, it's a defense that plays with great effort," said Ryan. "They've got a very good pressure package; you have to be on top of it. It's a defense you have to be prepared for, and you have to respect the talent they have on that side of the ball. And we will. We need to be on top of our game plan and try to execute as best we can."