Matt Ryan knew he needed to be better. So too did the Atlanta Falcons offense. It was a point of emphasis following a crucial 20-17 Week 14 win over New Orleans, when the NFL’s reigning MVP struggled immensely, throwing three interceptions – two of which came in the Saints’ end-zone – and nearly a fourth pick as well.
In Monday night’s 24-21 road win against Tampa Bay however, the much maligned offense delivered.
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2017
Ryan was on target for much of the game, connecting on multiple deep strikes to his receivers, including four plays of 20 yards or more. More importantly, the running game was downright dominant. Devonta Freeman ran violently, ripping off multiple big runs, and despite two fumbles – both recovered by Atlanta – put a dagger in Tampa with a 32-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter that highlighted his sensational open field ability.
Freeman – who has missed two games this season while battling a concussion – amassed a season high 194 yards from scrimmage, including 125 yards rushing with a healthy 5.7 rushing average. The offensive line was sensational, opening up lanes left, right and center. The two-time Pro Bowler also led the Falcons in receiving.
“We still haven’t played our best football yet,” Freeman, who offered plenty of love to his line, told ESPN during its postgame show. “We definitely talk about.”
To be sure, it wasn’t always perfect for the Falcons offense.
Ryan missed a few gimmes, especially on the run and under duress. Most notably was a blown coverage assignment by the Bucs in which Ryan misfired to a wide open Justin Hardy deep in Tampa territory. These are the throws he will have to convert if the Falcons are to make a deep playoff run once again. Moreover, Julio Jones caught just three balls for 54 yards. That can not continue to happen moving forward. Jones – who saw eight targets – is too good to be held in check, especially when the running game and play-action is effective.
— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) December 19, 2017
But give Ryan credit: He made enough plays, as he tends to do.
With fewer than three minutes remaining and the Buccaneers’ defense zeroing in on a Ryan sack, the 32-year-old quarterback found Freeman for seven yards on a third and six.
“I love the third downs,” the star running back added. “That’s the money down.”
Tampa Bay though, did get the ball back on its own 28, with one minute remaining after Ryan was sacked on another third down. Winston – who has seven game-winning touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and overtime – orchestrated his offense down the field, only to have kicker Patrick Murray miss a 54-yard field goal that would have`resulted in overtime.
As things stand, Ryan and the Falcons improve to 9-5 and remain in the sixth spot for the NFC’s rugged wild-card picture. They may not be winning pretty, but keep in mind that the Falcons boast an impressive slate of wins over the Saints, Lions, Packers, Cowboys and Seahawks.
Atlanta, winners of five of their last six, will close out the regular season with two more NFC South tilts – next week in New Orleans followed by a Week 17 matchup at home versus Carolina.
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.
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