FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons returned to work on Monday, a bit more upbeat after a week off.
A look at the standings also gives them a reason to be hopeful.
Amazingly, the Falcons are still in the mix despite a five-game losing streak.
No one in the NFC South has a winning record midway through the season. The New Orleans Saints (4-4) lead pro football's weakest division, while the Falcons (2-6) are only two games back.
"As bad as we've played," running back Jacquizz Rodgers said, "we're still in it."
The Falcons are coming off one of their most discouraging losses in Mike Smith's seven years as coach. Playing in London before the bye week, Atlanta raced to a 21-0 lead on the Lions, only to lose 22-21 when Detroit kicked a field goal on the final play.
"We've all had some rough moments, including me," Smith said after Monday's practice, trying to muster a smile.
Given the brutal schedule, in which the Falcons have only one true home game in a two-month stretch, Smith gave his players the rest of the week off after they returned from Britain. But the coaching staff and front office did an assessment of the many areas that need improvement over the second half of the season.
"It's not good," Smith said. "There are a lot of things we've got to get better at."
In particular, he mentioned a lack of offensive efficiency, which was especially apparent when the Falcons squandered a chance to wrap up the game against Detroit. On their final possession, they ran only 22 seconds off the clock after the 2-minute warning — even though they started with a first down and Lions had only one timeout remaining. Atlanta stopped the clock twice — with a holding penalty and a dropped pass by Julio Jones — giving Detroit more than a minute longer than it should've had on its final drive.
Next up for the Falcons: A trip to Tampa Bay to face their division rival Buccaneers (1-7), the last team to lose to Atlanta.
In Week 3, the Bucs were thoroughly humiliated in a prime-time game at the Georgia Dome, falling behind 56-0 through the first three quarters. They scored a couple of meaningless touchdowns in the final period of the 56-14 blowout.
"They're going to come at us with their best shot," Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "Anytime you have a game like that, you know the opponent is going to come back with something to prove."
The Falcons practiced in shorts for a little over an hour on a sunny fall day, getting a head start on their preparations for Tampa Bay. Normally, Mondays are devoted to getting treatment and looking at film from the previous day's game.
Defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux, who didn't play against the Lions because of a foot injury, took part in the workout though Smith described him as limited. He is expected to be at full speed when the team practices again on Wednesday, the coach said.
Also, the Falcons are hopeful that receiver Drew Davis is close to returning from a broken foot after spending the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Barring any unforeseen setbacks, he'll take part in the next practice; that will start a 21-day countdown, after which the team must put him on the active roster or declare him out for the rest of the year.
Injuries have been a huge problem for the Falcons, especially along the offensive line. That unit has lost five players to season-ending injuries, leaving undrafted rookie James Stone as the starting center.
"It's crazy," Stone said. "I can't sit here and tell you I expected this to happen at the beginning of the year."
Even crazier, the Falcons are still a contender in the NFC South. If they can somehow find a way to turn things around the next two weeks — the Tampa Bay game will be followed by another road trip within the NFC South, against the Carolina Panthers (3-5-1) — the schedule finally takes a favorable turn. Four of the final six games are at home.
"This division is not winning as much as it usually does," Trufant said. "So we've still got a chance. We know that. We're going to continue to prepare, continue to fight."