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Bair: Falcons must be better to make most of meaningful December games

Playing complete games in December key to playing important games in January


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Falcons will play meaningful games in the month of December.

That really means something to Matt Ryan. That was crystal clear during his Sunday press conference, when the topic was broached following a 21-14 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

His face lit up. His posture got a little straighter. Excitement oozed out of every word he spoke.

"It's all you can ask for," Ryan said. "If you tell me in the beginning of the year that we're right in the mix in December, that's where you want to be. I think our best football is still in front of us. We're going to get there. But, with six games to go and we're right in the mix, with December starting next week, sign me up.

"I'm ready for that. It's going to be a fun couple of weeks."


It'll offer stark contrast to last year's experience, when the Falcons were playing out the string to close a no-good, very-bad season where they struggled mightily, lost several heartbreakers and had a head coach fired during the campaign.

These Falcons are right in the NFC playoff picture with six games to go, as the calendar turns past November. That was only possible with a victory here in Jacksonville.

While there's no such thing as a must-win without mathematical elimination on the line – don't let anyone tell you different – this was a simply-have-to-freaking-have-it game.

The Falcons were in some trouble following two straight losses. Another defeat, especially against a Jaguars team that doesn't win much, could've sent the season south without a chance to make up ground lost.

That was hanging overhead for the 10 days between the Patriots loss and this Jaguars win, but the Falcons weren't shaking in their shoes. They were focused on rebounding well, as they had following consecutive losses to start the season. They were able to channel proper energy into a performance worthy of a win.

"It's what we needed," Ryan said. "I feel like we have good group of guys in the locker room, I really do, guys with the right mindset who work really hard. I think there's a lot we can improve on from today and clean up for next week. But I'm proud of the guys. You hear a lot of positive things when things are going good and a lot of [crappy] things when things are bad. I'm proud of the guys to continue to work and not hear all that stuff."

Head coach Arthur Smith is not an excuse maker. He doesn't spend time feeling sorry for himself or his lot, demanding the same worldview of his players. That's an important mindset during tough times, when a passionate, productive response is required.

"You can't live and die with the day-to-day narrative," Smith said during his postgame press conference. "You have to see the big picture. You look at the minor obstacles that get thrown your way during a long NFL season, it says a lot about this team that we're chipping away. We're right in the mix. We have six games to go and we're playing meaningful football in December. That's where you want to be.

"Sure, you want your record to be better, but this team grinds. Whether it's starting 0-2 or dipping to 4-6, the easy thing to do would be to rationalize. Nope. We're going to continue to work and try to get better."

The Falcons simply must be better in December in order to play meaningful games in January.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees was right a few weeks back when he said there's no such thing as an ugly win. Any effort that increases the win total is a beautiful thing.

That was the case here in Jacksonville. Make no mistake about that. There's no such thing as style points in this league. Just win, baby.

Here comes the "but" that you probably saw coming. There was a real opportunity to wrap Sunday's game without all the drama, to dominate in a way the Falcons haven't done this year. The Falcons had a three-score lead in the third quarter, as they did in New Orleans, and yet the result still came down to the final plays.

The Falcons' quest for a complete game remains elusive despite an opportunity to display one here at TIAA Bank Field.

It also must be said here that the Jaguars aren't a great team. Even good sounds like a stretch.

They'll have to beat some quality opposition coming up, with the Detroit Lions as the only team left on the schedule not in the playoff chase. They'll need more complete efforts, combining some encouraging signs we saw Sunday with others unveiled earlier in the season.

Getting the run game going against Jacksonville was a real plus. The defense has been stingy giving up points, with two touchdowns allowed in the last two games. That's a positive sign. The air attack has to find itself again and in a hurry. Tackling must be better overall. The offensive front must build on Sunday's strong showing.

In short, the Falcons have to put it all together to beat the level of competition coming up, starting with next week's home game against Tampa Bay. That's how the Falcons can stay in it down the stretch. They've got the right mindset. Can that translate to more wins and better play. It'll have to.

"We try to be meaningful in everything we do, whether it's in meetings or practice, understanding that we still have a race for the playoffs," cornerback A.J. Terrell said. "The key is not getting complacent, practicing well and playing well."


Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast

Break down the hottest topics surrounding the Atlanta Falcons and how they can impact the team's success with Falcons Insiders Scott Bair, Tori McElhaney and Terrin Waack. Like and subscribe to join us for the lively debate on Falcons Final Whistle.

Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.

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