The Atlanta Falcons have gone from posting the NFC’s best record last season to the having the NFL’s worst, and they’re headed toward their highest draft pick since selecting quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008.
Ryan’s struggles away from home are a major reason for the team’s sub-standard record, and he’ll look to help Atlanta end a five-game losing streak Sunday when it faces the Buffalo Bills in Toronto.
The Falcons (2-9) went 13-3 and hosted the NFC championship game in 2012, but they’ll finish this season under .500 for the first time since going 4-12 in 2007, leading them to take Ryan with the third overall pick.
Atlanta is tied with Jacksonville and Houston for the NFL’s worst mark.
“We are disappointed in the way that we’ve played through the first 11 ballgames, which I think I’ve stated many times, too many times,” coach Mike Smith said.
That trend continued in last Thursday’s 17-13 home loss to New Orleans as the Falcons scored that many points or fewer for the fourth time during the skid. Smith, without mentioning names, eluded to lesser-used players getting a long look as they battle for jobs.
”I think anyone that’s on our 53-man roster is going to get an opportunity to play as we move forward,” Smith said. ”It’s going to be based on how they work in practice. It’s going to be based on previous games for some of our older players, but it will be an evaluation process that’s ongoing, just like always.”
He cautioned not to view that stance as the team giving up, though.
”We’re not going to not try to win the football game and just go into a complete evaluation mode,” Smith said. ”We’re going to put the best players out there.
”We’re concerned about winning the next game and putting a string together here at the end of the season.”
Ryan has won plenty since arriving in Atlanta, but he’s having a down season with 12 interceptions after throwing 14 all of last year. Last week marked the first time he didn’t throw a touchdown pass in 19 games, including the playoffs.
The disparity between Ryan’s stats at home and on the road has been cause for concern as well. He’s completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns and one interception while posting a 106.2 rating in Atlanta, but he has a 60.5 completion percentage, eight touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 70.2 rating in five road games - all losses.
“I’m not sure why. Obviously, if I knew I’d be better on the road,” Ryan said. “It’s tough in this league sometimes to go on the road and play well. I don’t know what the reason is for it, but certainly I need to be better.”
Ryan will try to bounce back against a Buffalo defense that picked off New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith three times in a 34-17 win Nov. 17 before the Bills’ bye week.
Jarius Byrd had two of those interceptions and has three in his last two games. His 21 picks since entering the league in 2009 rank second.
”It was just a matter of time. I just had to feel comfortable,” said Byrd, who missed the first five games with plantar fasciitis in both feet.
The Bills (4-7) ended a three-game losing streak and are anticipating receivers Stevie Johnson (groin) and Robert Woods (ankle) back after resting during the bye.
“I was very happy with the players coming back and their enthusiasm running around,” coach Doug Marrone said. “We’re at full strength. We don’t expect anybody not to be available to us, which is a good sign.”
Buffalo still is holding on to slim playoff hopes, though it would have to jump ahead of multiple teams to capture an AFC wild-card spot. It hasn’t been to the playoffs since losing to Tennessee in the Music City Miracle in the 1999 season.
“We’re always going to have that mentality that we’re still in there,” linebacker Manny Lawson said. “Until it’s clear-cut and we’re done, that’s our goal.”
Marrone is trying to keep his team focused on the task at hand.
“We’re playing a good Atlanta Falcon team coming up that has a lot of pride,” Marrone said. “I addressed it with the players. I said don’t let people pull you out and talk to you about all this other talk. The most important thing is let’s just win a game. That’s where all our focus should be.”
Ryan threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns as the Falcons beat the Bills 31-3 in the most recent meeting Dec. 27, 2009.