The Atlanta Falcons shrugged off criticism of the team's slow start to stop a five-game losing streak and rekindle their hopes in the weak NFC South.
Beating the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-17 Sunday may not guarantee they've resolved all of their issues, however it was exactly what the team needed coming off an open date that allowed more time than usual to stew over blowing a 21-point lead in a loss to Detroit two weeks ago.
Coach Mike Smith said it hasn't been difficult to block outside distractions and keep his players on task.
"This is a big-boy's business. You're judged on wins and losses, and we've got half of a season to play," Smith said. "I can assure you we're doing everything in our power each and every week to go 1-0."
There's still a lot of winning to do to get back into the NFC South race, but beating the Bucs for the second time was a start.
The victory was the first for the Falcons (3-6) since they embarrassed their division rivals 56-14 on Sept. 18, a game in which Tampa Bay (1-8) lost quarterback Josh McCown to a thumb injury.
And as strange as it might sound, it preserved the team's hopes of creeping back into the NFC South race.
"It's been too long since we won a game. It's always better when you come out on the right end, so we'll enjoy it," Matt Ryan said after throwing for 219 yards and one touchdown. "But we also know with the way the division is shaking out, we're right in the mix."
New Orleans (4-5) leads the NFC South with a losing record. Second-place Carolina (3-5-1) plays Philadelphia on Monday night.
"We feel good. We've just got to keep winning," receiver Julio Jones said. "Everything else will take care of itself."
That's the same thing the Bucs (1-8) have been saying during a five-game skid of their own. Sunday's loss dropped them to 0-5 at home, and coach Lovie Smith is running out of explanations for the team's lack of success.
"We realize what our record is," Smith said. "It's a broken record, really, with me talking to you and telling you how much better we're getting and we're making progress to find a way to get a win."
McCown returned to Tampa Bay's lineup for first time since the earlier meeting at the Georgia Dome, throwing for 301 yards and two TDs. His 1-yard scoring pass to Austin Seferian-Jenkins put the Bucs ahead 17-16 early in the fourth quarter. But Ryan drove the Falcons right down the field, throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White and a two-point conversion to Harry Douglas.
Steven Jackson scored on a 1-yard run and Matt Bryant kicked four field goals for the Falcons, one of them after a wide-open Devin Hester dropped what would have been a touchdown in the second quarter.
Ryan finished 20 of 31 with no interceptions and one sack. Jackson rushed for 81 yards on 16 carries, Julio Jones had eight receptions for 119 yards and White had six catches for 72 yards.
"We know, obviously, where we stand and what's in front of us. We still have three division games and four other games, and a lot of things can happen during that time frame," Ryan said. "We can't worry about all the other stuff that's going on. We've got to focus on ourselves."
Reasons why the Falcons snapped a five-game losing streak and the Bucs have now dropped five straight:
OFFENSIVE WOES: McCown sparked Tampa Bay's offense, which was a season-best 12 for 17 on third-down conversions. Nevertheless, the Bucs still only had three scoring drives, one of them a 17-play, 47-yard march that lasted more than 8 minutes while only a producing a field goal.
BEND BUT DON'T BREAK: Atlanta's defense yielded 373 yards, but finished with three takeaways, including a pair of interceptions in the final 2 minutes. Dwight Lowery's end-zone interception stopped a Tampa Bay drive that reached the Atlanta 4 with 1:49 remaining. Josh Wilson picked McCown's final pass of the day.
CAN WE GET A STOP: Each time the Bucs scored, Atlanta responded by scoring on its next possession.
IMPRESSIVE ROOKIE: Evans had his second straight 100-yard game receiving for the Bucs, finishing with seven receptions for 125 yards and one touchdown. He has five TD catches in the past five games.
KNOWS HOW TO WIN: Ryan improved to 10-4 against the Bucs.
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