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ATLANTA – Matt Ryan has never been through a stretch like this.
Clearly, he can't carry the Atlanta Falcons all by himself.
Ryan has thrown seven interceptions over the last two weeks, failing to spark one of the NFL's most disappointing teams. The Falcons (2-6) started the season touted as a leading Super Bowl contender, but injuries have ruined those hopes heading into Sunday's game against the first-place Seattle Seahawks (8-1).
"Obviously, I have not played my best the past couple of weeks," Ryan said. "But I've got to keep plugging away, keep working at it. Trust my preparation, try my ability, trust the guys around me, and know that I'm capable of better."
Ryan has been hindered by a shaky line, a useless running game and the loss of star receiver Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury. Not surprisingly, the glaring mistakes have started to come in spurts with the Falcons desperately trying to turn things around.
The Arizona Cardinals picked off Ryan four times in a 27-13 victory. The Carolina Panthers came up with three more picks — returning one for a touchdown — in a 34-10 blowout last week.
"I've got to be a little more patient, understand what's there and what's not there," said Ryan, who is suddenly on pace for a career-worst 20 interceptions. "I have tried to force in a couple of passes. That's going to happen when you're trying to play aggressive and trying to make plays. I've got to clean up my decision-making a little bit."
The Seahawks are coming off lackluster victories over St. Louis and Tampa Bay, teams with a combined record of 3-14. They expect to face a much different Ryan than the turnover-plagued quarterback of the last two games.
"I know they have missed some key guys," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "Certainly when you're top receiver on the outside is not there, it's going to affect the quarterback. That's what you're seeing. But Matt is doing a great job. He's on it. They're still a very explosive football team."
Besides Ryan's slump, five things to watch for in Sunday's game between the Falcons and Seahawks:
RUN, HAWKS, RUN: The Seahawks want to run the ball like they did last week against Tampa Bay — 35 carries for 198 yards — with Marshawn Lynch getting the bulk of the carries. The Falcons did a good job preventing Lynch from getting into "Beast Mode" in a playoff win last season, limiting him to 46 yards on 16 carries.
OH, AND STOPPING THE RUN, TOO: The Seattle defense has been shredded on the ground the last two games, giving up 205 yards to Tampa Bay and 200 to St. Louis. This is a good week to get healthy, facing an Atlanta team that ranks last in the league in rushing. The Falcons line has created few running lanes, and newcomer Steven Jackson has been totally ineffective with just 140 yards in four games (he missed the other four with an injury).
WHITE'S RETURN: The Falcons figure to get a boost from the return of receiver Roddy White, who has missed the last three games nursing ankle and hamstring issues. White feels as healthy as he has all season, acknowledging that he probably would've been better off sitting out a couple of games at the start of the season to let a high ankle sprain fully heal. White has yet to show the form that made him one of the NFL's top receivers, catching just 14 passes for 129 yards and no touchdowns.
TURNOVERS WANTED: Like all coaches, Atlanta's Mike Smith considers turnover margin one of the key indicators of success. No wonder the Falcons are 2-6. They are minus-seven in that category and failing to take advantage of the few chances they do create. Against Carolina, Asante Samuel stripped Brandon LaFell from behind deep in Falcons territory, and the ball bounced toward rookie cornerback Robert Alford. He failed to corral it, the ball deflecting back into LaFell's arms. The Panthers took advantage of that huge break, scoring a touchdown that broke the game open.
PAYBACK TIME: The Seahawks surely remember what happened on their last visit to the Georgia Dome, when they were poised for a huge upset in the divisional playoffs. Wilson led Seattle back from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter, with Lynch scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just 31 seconds remaining. Alas, the Falcons hit two long passes and Matt Bryant connected on a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining, rallying Atlanta to a 30-28 victory and a spot in the NFC championship game.
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