ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are tied for the best record in the NFL. They have a comfortable lead in their division. They've already clinched another winning season.
Nothing much to complain about, right?
For a team that has built such a lofty mark, the NFC-leading Falcons (9-1) had plenty of high-profile issues to deal with Monday coming off an ugly win over Arizona. Like a feeble running game, a defense that keeps giving up big running plays, injuries to Asante Samuel and Julio Jones, plus a four-game suspension for backup center Joe Hawley.
Then there was Matt Ryan's career-high five interceptions, though Falcons fans hope that was just an aberration rather than another cause for concern.
"We're very, very fortunate," coach Mike Smith acknowledged. "You've just got to keep fighting. It's amazing. The NFL is so close."
The league announced Hawley's penalty after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, yet another distraction for a team that must address its trouble spots to avoid a repeat of the one-and-done playoff troubles of recent years.
Even so, Smith focused on the positive side of winning a game that was closer than expected.
"We're very resilient," he said. "There was never any doubt in anyone's minds that we would not get the result we wanted if we just kept working at it."
The Falcons will continue to work on running the ball, a strong point in years past but now the most obvious weakness. The Falcons worked on it a lot in practice last week after a dismal performance at New Orleans, but there wasn't significant improvement against the Cardinals.
Michael Turner carried 15 times for 46 yards and was booed several times by the home crowd. Change-of-pace back Jacquizz Rodgers was held to 16 yards on five carries. Jason Snelling was thrown for a 1-yard loss on his only handoff, when the Falcons merely needed about a foot on a third-down play in the third quarter.
Overall, the Falcons managed just 58 yards on the ground, dropping their season average to 89.2 per game as they rapidly sink toward the bottom of the league rankings. They are down more than 25 yards a game from last year's average.
There were some encouraging signs in the fourth quarter.
With Atlanta trailing 19-16, Ryan guided the offense down the field through the air, setting up first-and-goal at the Arizona 1. Those sort of short-yardage situations have given the Falcons all sorts of problems, but Turner rumbled into the end zone standing for the winning score with 6:40 remaining.
"You've got get back on the horse when you're thrown off it," Smith said.
Then, after the Cardinals were stopped on downs, the Falcons managed to run out the final 3:06 to preserve the 23-19 victory. Turner took a sweep around right end for 7 yards and Rodgers converted on third-and-2, speeding around left end for a 6-yard gain that finished off Arizona.
"Being able to run the ball on that last drive to run out the clock was huge," Ryan said.
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