Atlanta Falcons need to address unforced errors

Despite the popularity of fantasy football, the NFL’s game has never been about numbers and Matt Ryan found that out the hard way on Sunday during Atlanta’s inexcusable 23-20 home loss to the rebuilding Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

When you see numbers like 37-of-45 for 397 yards with two touchdowns and a 109.0 passer rating from the quarterback, it almost doesn’t compute that a 6-1 football team could lose by a field goal in overtime to Lovie Smith’s lowly Bucs but that’s exactly what happened in Dixie, thanks in large part to the mistakes in between all that production.

Two turnovers in the red zone, along with a lost fumble by Ryan, helped put the Falcons in a 20-3 hole before the heavy favorites got the late wake-up call and roared back, erasing that 17-point deficit when the veteran signal caller found All-Pro receiver Julio Jones for an 8-yard score with only 17 seconds left in regulation.

All the momentum was pointing toward Atlanta at that point but Tampa Bay won the toss and rookie QB Jameis Winston calmly converted three different times on third down in the Buccaneers’ first possession in the extra frame, helping set up a 31-yard Connor Barth chip shot.

The Falcons offense knew what they needed to do from there but sputtered early in the ensuing drive and Ryan misfired on a fourth-down pass thanks in large part to heavy pressure coming from Gerald McCoy.

Overall the Falcons lost three fumbles in the game, along with that costly Ryan pick and have now turned the football over 12 times over their past four contests. That sloppiness carried over to the officials against the Bucs as Atlanta was penalized 11 times for 124 yards.

“I thought we battled,” Ryan said. “We did kind of everything we wanted to offensively, other than protect the football. I think we had a few too many penalties as well.”

Battling is fine, as is piling up copious amounts of offense, but playing a clean brand of football is far more important to winning on Sundays.

You never know what you are going to get from most rookies but it was Winston who played the clean game that the Falcons needed. The No. 1 overall pick never made the game-changing mistake.

Atlanta, on the other hand, looked like a Benny Hill routine.

Jones has the ball stripped after catching a big gain over the middle, center Mike Person botched a snap on 2nd-and-goal at the Bucs 4, Kwon Alexander, playing just two days after his younger brother was killed in a fight, picked off Ryan’s awful pass into a sea of Tampa defenders in the end zone, and Ryan fumbled the football on a hand-off attempt.

“Three of our four turnovers were on the plus-side of the 50,” Ryan said. “That’s directly taking points off the board.”

And every time Atlanta turned it over, the Bucs turned it into points in what is the kind of loss that will cost Dan Quinn and the Falcons big as they look up at unbeaten Carolina in the NFC South.

“We can’t dig ourselves that hole and expect to consistently get out of it,” Ryan admitted.

“I expect nothing less than us to continue to compete for however long we need to play,” he continued. “I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I think we have the right guys in the right mindset that regardless of the situation, we’re going to battle.”

— John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen@phanaticmag.com or on Twitter @jfmcmullen — Also catch John this season on ESPN Southwest Florida every Monday at 3 PM ET; on ESPN Lexington every Thursday at 6:05 ET, and live every Tuesday from 2 to 6 PM ET at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City for the NFL Wraparound on ESPN South Jersey.

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