TAMPA, Fla. - Standing in a winning locker room for the first time in nearly two months, Matt Ryan stopped short of saying the Atlanta Falcons are back on track after ending a five-game losing streak.
There's still a lot of winning to do to get back into the NFC South race, but beating the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the second time was a start Sunday.
The 27-17 victory was the first for the Falcons (3-6) since they embarrassed their NFC South rivals 56-14 on Sept. 18, a game in which the Bucs (1-8) lost quarterback Josh McCown to a thumb injury.
And as strange as it might sound, it kept the team's hopes of creeping back into the division race alive.
"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," Ryan said after throwing for 219 yards and one touchdown without an interception. "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 conceded he's 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 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. 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 and try to be 1-0 next week."
McCown completed 27 of 43 passes, threw a pair of interceptions in the final two minutes and was sacked four times. Rookie Mike Evans had a big game for the second straight week with seven receptions for 125 yards, including a 22-yard TD catch that gives him five in his past five games.
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.
"You stand in moments like this in your life where things don't go the way you said that you wanted them to go, and that's the reality of where we are," McCown said.
"You have two choices. You can curl up in a ball and hide and hope that it goes away and it's over or you can do something about it," the 35-year-old quarterback added. "I believe that the men in our locker room, and the leadership that we have, and it starts with Lovie, will do that. It's a hard thing to do. But with our actions, not our words, with the way that we work, that will be the measure of us."
The Bucs went 1-4 with Mike Glennon at quarterback in McCown's absence, but an anemic offense hasn't been the only reason they've struggled.
A leaky defense, which was expected to be the team's strength in their first season under Lovie Smith, has had problems getting off the field on third down and also has a knack for allowing opponents to put together long scoring drives at critical points of games.
It happened again Sunday in both halves.
McCown's TD pass to Evans made it 10-10 with 46 seconds remaining in the second quarter. But Ryan encountered little resistance in moving the Falcons downfield to kick a 43-yard field goal for a three-point lead at the half. The Atlanta quarterback led a 10-play, 65-yard drive after McCown's TD pass to Seferian-Jenkins put Tampa Bay ahead less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
Evans was the seventh pick in the draft after being Johnny Manziel's favorite target at Texas A&M. He's caught at least four passes in each of the eight games he's played. Vincent Jackson had eight receptions for 75 yards for Tampa Bay.
NOTES: McCown was Tampa Bay's leading rusher with 39 yards on five carries. ... Ryan improved to 10-4 against Tampa Bay. ... The Bucs were a season-best 12 for 17 on third-down conversions.