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Bair: Why critical mistakes must be minimized to maintain control of NFC South

The Falcons pull out a dramatic win despite three fumbles lost in the red zone, but winning while playing this way is unsustainable. 

TAMPA, Fla. – The Falcons made a bunch of mistakes on Sunday against Tampa Bay that are typically fatal.

Losing the turnover battle is a no-no. So is poor red zone play. Those two issues were tied together at Raymond James Stadium with three Desmond Ridder fumbles lost in goal-to-go situations.

Can't have that and realistically expect to win. Critical errors, as head coach Arthur Smith calls them, proved costly in last week's loss to Washington.

They overcame them here in Tampa, earning a dramatic 16-13 victory secured with yet another game-winner from Younghoe Koo as time expired.

While the Falcons acknowledged they must improve their ball security and avoid explosive plays and penalties on defense, they weren't taking half-credit for the win.

"Winning in this league hard and we don't take that for granted," left tackle Jake Matthews said. "We won a road game. We're undefeated in the division. Those are all pluses. If we can (home) in on a couple of things, I think we'll like where we're at even more."

The Falcons must fix some issues fast for one important reason. Winning this way is not sustainable.

While I'm no fan of style points – just score one more than the other guy – the Falcons were the better team on Sunday and should've won by multiple scores. They were in position to take that type of advantage in the fourth quarter when Ridder got the ball punched out and fumbled into the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback. Then the Falcons had to fight just to eke out a win.

They're rolling up tons of yards and they're playing stingy defense in important moments. As Tori McElhaney points out in her takeaways, it shouldn't be this hard. They statistically dominated the Commanders and lost because of three Ridder interceptions, including one in the end zone.

They beat the Bucs despite similar mistakes. But, let's be honest here. When you make a high volume of critical mistakes, you're going to lose a lot more than you win.

Matthews is right. Winning is really hard. They shouldn't apologize for getting one. But they have to cut way, way down on the negative plays.

"You continue to work," Smith said. "When you have those things happen, you can't let up. There are things we have to clean up, but I will say this about Des: he stood in there and delivered some big-time throws today.

"…Let's give (Desmond) some credit. Let's give this team some credit. We're not going to make this some negative narrative. We found a way to win."

We can say this about Ridder, when the Falcons simply had to have it, he threw a perfect strike to Kyle Pitts that set Koo up. He understands the importance of protecting the football, stating that point over and again in his postgame press conference. He also understands the importance of finishing strong no matter what happened previously.

"We're never out of the fight and [we came back] to win," Ridder said. "[We] always stayed calm cool and collected no matter what happened and [were] able to go out there and get a win on the road."

That they did, and it was a big one. The Falcons are in sole possession of first place in the NFC South. They're undefeated in the division. Those things matter in a quest for the first postseason berth since 2017. The only way they'll get there, though, is if they minimize critical mistakes.

If they do, this team will be pretty darn good. They have top skill players on offense. They can run the ball and stop it well. They tackle about as well as any defense out there, and you saw Sunday and in Week 6 that the pass rush is starting to come alive.

The next step is getting more consistent quarterback play and maintaining possession. That's essential because playing the way the Falcons have the last two weeks has .500 written all over it. This team is better than that. They should contend for a division title and the playoff spot that comes with it.

Beating a tough Tampa Bay team on the road is big. They'll have to show well in two meetings with New Orleans, playing the Panthers in Charlotte and, of course, stay ahead of the Bucs to maintain their current standing. They are in a decent spot right now but could find a better one by avoiding the pitfalls that have plagued them recently.

This team has a minus-seven turnover differential. Their red-zone percentage is below 50% (technically 48.7). Those numbers don't portend winning football and could prove hurtful in the long run.

They've found a way to first place despite those facts but could secure it by improving in deficient areas.

"There's still a lot of football left to play," defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "Whether we're on top of the division today does not matter. We just have to keep fighting and playing better ball, you know, find a way to keep improving. But I will say, getting a win on the road in the division is huge."

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Week 7.

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