New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates his touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Meachem in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in New Orleans, Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Now that the Atlanta Falcons have played their worst game of the season, quarterback Matt Ryan is looking for a complete turnaround.
The Falcons returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since suffering a blowout loss at New Orleans on Monday night, and Ryan wanted to see if the team would respond appropriately with a playoff road trip looming next week.
"You're going to have weeks where you don't play as well as you would like and don't have the outcome that you expect to have," Ryan said. "But part of being a professional is putting it behind you, focusing in on the next opponent, and I think guys have done a great job."
When Atlanta (9-6) hosts Tampa Bay (4-11) on Sunday, Ryan will try to improve to 6-1 in his past seven starts against the Buccaneers. Even though the Falcons are coming off a decisive loss to the Saints, Ryan seems to be playing some of his best football of the season.
He has completed 75 of 116 passes for 917 yards and eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a 111.9 quarterback rating in Atlanta's past three games though the numbers include a pair of lopsided victories over two opponents, Carolina and Jacksonville, with a combined 10-20 record.
"The key is to focus on ourselves and make sure that no matter what they do, we play at a high level and we're prepared and ready to execute," Ryan said. "That's where my mindset is, and that's how I think we need to be this week."
One concern for the Falcons is restarting a rushing attack that's underperformed the past five weeks. Michael Turner has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and 56 yards per game over that stretch.
In a 16-13 loss at Tampa Bay in Week 3, Atlanta had a season-worst 30 yards rushing on 15 carries. Turner's 20-yard game still stands as his least productive performance with at least 11 attempts in four years as the Falcons' feature back.
Turner insists that he feels fine despite being listed occasionally on the injury report in recent weeks with a sore groin. He hasn't missed a game, however, since a high ankle sprain kept him out of the 2009 finale.
"My health has nothing to do with it," Turner said. "It's just the way the game has been going the last couple of weeks. Against a team like New Orleans, obviously you want to keep them off the field, but we weren't able to do that with the way the situations turned out during the game. We need more production out of the running game."
Turner ran just 11 times for 39 yards at New Orleans. Because the Saints dominated the line of scrimmage, Turner's space closed quickly, and he rarely broke through the first level of the defense.
Atlanta ran the ball only four times in the second half as New Orleans' lead grew larger.
"That's just how the game was flowing," Turner said. "They got a score right before halftime and then they had the ball again (early in the third quarter) and they scored again. Your time is limited to come back. The fastest way is to get some deep passes down the field."
Tight end Tony Gonzalez, the lone Falcon selected this year to the Pro Bowl, believes the offense can succeed against any team if it can dictate the game's tempo.
The line has undergone some personnel changes with left tackle Sam Baker losing his job to Will Svitek and right guard Garrett Reynolds losing his to Joe Hawley, but everyone seems to be relatively healthy.
Gonzalez and the receiving tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones have combined for 201 catches, 2,681 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns.
"When we're consistent, we play some really good football and we're tough to beat," Gonzalez said. "When you look at it and try to figure out why, it's not just one guy, and there's beauty in that to me because we can correct it. Hopefully we do get it consistent."
"We kind of understand where we're at and know that we'll be playing in January," the quarterback said. "But it's important for us to play well this week heading into the playoffs."
The Falcons will learn Sunday where they will play next week. San Francisco and New Orleans are each 12-3 still trying to earn the No. 2 seed and a bye. The Dallas-New York winner will earn the NFC East title.