The Atlanta Falcons have an opportunity to post consecutive winning records for the first time. Injuries to Matt Ryan(notes) and Michael Turner(notes) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers almost derailed their chances.
Winners of two straight since Ryan’s return, the Falcons look to post a second straight above-.500 record for the first time in their 44-year history as they visit the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Atlanta (8-7) beat Tampa Bay 20-17 on Nov. 29, needing a 5-yard touchdown pass from Chris Redman(notes) to Roddy White(notes) with 23 seconds remaining to avoid falling to 2-5. Redman replaced Ryan, who suffered a turf toe injury, and the Falcons also lost Turner to an ankle injury during the third quarter.
Turner remains hampered by that injury and will miss Sunday’s contest, but Ryan has won two games after Atlanta went 0-2 with Redman as its starter.
Though this is Atlanta’s 35th season out of the playoffs, one last victory will give it two straight winning seasons. Ryan was the 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year, leading the Falcons to an 11-5 record and a playoff appearance, losing to eventual NFC champion Arizona in a wild-card matchup.
“Whether it’s hard to grasp or whatever, it is what it is,” Ryan said. “We want to be the first team and we want to set it straight with the organization that we’re going to have back-to-back winning seasons here and hopefully for a long time.”
Ryan’s lingering toe issues have him practicing on a limited basis. In his first game back, he led Atlanta to a 10-7 win over the New York Jets on Dec. 20, throwing a 6-yard TD pass in the final minutes.
Last Sunday, he completed 18-of-35 passes for 250 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 31-3 win over Buffalo.
Ryan, though, has a career passer rating of 43.0 against the Buccaneers (3-12), failing to throw a TD pass while getting picked off four times. He completed 13-of-33 passes for 158 yards with two interceptions in a 24-9 loss at Tampa Bay on Sept. 14, 2008.
Ryan, who is 13-1 at the Georgia Dome, is hoping to improve his play on the road. He’s 2-5 this year away from home and 6-11 for his career.
“Coach (Mike) Smith preaches to us all the time that there is a lot to learn week to week,” Ryan said. “I learned a lot this year and will as much against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I feel that if I can end the season a better quarterback than I started, then it will be a successful year.”
The Bucs have had their worst season since going 4-12 in 2006, and first-year coach Raheem Morris’ job may be in jeopardy, but they have won two straight for the first time since a four-game streak in November 2008.
Tampa Bay has beaten Seattle and New Orleans on the road after a 1-12 start. The Bucs rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Saints 20-17 in overtime Sunday, marking the first time a 13-win team lost to a club that came in with two victories.
But that has done little to quiet rumors that team ownership is considering replacing the 33-year-old Morris, who became the youngest coach in the NFL last January.
“When you’re put in a position to coach a football team, you coach it,” Morris said. “That’s what you do until they tell you to stop. That’s what I’m going to do now.”
A lethargic running game hasn’t helped Morris’ cause. Carnell Williams(notes), though, had 129 yards and a score versus the Saints for his best game since 2006, before he suffered serious injuries to both knees.
Williams has been held under 60 yards in four straight games versus the Falcons after running for a total of 266 in his first two games against them.
Tampa Bay desperately needs to improve its running game heading into next season, as it tries to take some of the burden off quarterback Josh Freeman(notes). The rookie has thrown 11 interceptions in his last four games, but has had moments that have given the franchise reason for optimism.
Freeman made a pivotal play in OT against New Orleans when he scrambled for a first down on third-and-6 to sustain the winning drive. He had perhaps his best game of the season against Atlanta, completing 20-of-29 passes for 250 yards and two TDs without an interception.