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Falcons look to notch winning record
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Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez dunks the ball through the goalpost after scoring the winning touchdown during Sunday's game in New York. - photo by Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Coach Mike Smith is grateful the Atlanta Falcons have one major goal in reach.Eliminated from playoff contention before Sunday's road win over the New York Jets, Atlanta hopes to have consecutive winning records for the first time in its 44-year history.The Falcons (7-7) must beat Buffalo (5-9) this weekend and win Jan. 3 in Tampa Bay to stop one of professional sports' most inglorious streaks."We're disappointed in terms of not having an opportunity to play past 16 regular-season games," Smith said Monday. "We still have a lot of internal goals that can be reached. Those are things we talk about as a team. We don't talk about them publicly."Smith doesn't know if Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner will play again this season after his tender ankle succumbed on the first possession and forced him to the sideline.But the coach indicated quarterback Matt Ryan, who returned after missing nearly three full games with a toe injury, should be ready this week despite expected soreness Monday.Ryan completed only 16 of 34 passes for 152 yards against New York, but he and tight end Tony Gonzalez exploited the Jets' soft zone coverage for the winning 6-yard touchdown in the final two minutes on fourth-and-goal."He ran a perfect route and was in the right spot — the split in the zone — and I threw the ball high and away, and he brought it down," Ryan said. "That's what he does in those kinds of situations. He seems to step up and make plays."The Falcons, who went a surprising 11-5 last season and earned an NFC wild-card berth, overcame obstacles in the fourth quarter to beat a New York team that began the game with high playoff hopes:— Cornerback Brent Grimes overcame two straight sluggish games with two interceptions of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Grimes' second pick ended New York's chances with 1:05 remaining;Atlanta withstood the disappointment of watching Matt Bryant's 48-yard field goal sail wide left early in the period when Chauncey Davis ended the Jets' next possession by blocking Jay Feely's 37-yard attempt;— Starting the final drive at their 27, the Falcons converted two third downs before advancing to the New York 17 on Jason Snelling's 20-yard run up the middle.Smith was particularly pleased that Ryan benefited from strong protection throughout the game as the Falcons didn't allow a sack for the first time five games.According to the coaching staff, the Jets managed just one clean hit on the second-year quarterback, who completed passes to convert four of their final six third downs."Especially in the fourth quarter, when it was time to get the win, he was able to execute and get the ball down the field," Smith said. "Those two drives were very impressive in the fourth quarter."And in breaking a two-game losing streak overall, Atlanta also snapped a four-game slide on the road. In Smith's first season last year, the Falcons went 4-4 away from the Georgia Dome, but they are just 2-5 in '09.Beating the Jets restored some self-respect."We have not talked in depth about the situation in depth about the playoffs, but you get what you earn in this league," Smith said. "We say it all the time."