Staff Photo: Jason Braverman — Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Turner (33) is congratulated on the go-ahead touchdown by teammates Mike Cox (42) and Parkview grad Michael Palmer (81) during Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are tied for the best record in the NFL. They have a comfortable lead in their division. They've already clinched another winning season.
Nothing much to complain about, right?
For a team that has built such a lofty mark, the NFC-leading Falcons (9-1) had plenty of high-profile issues to deal with Monday coming off an ugly win over Arizona. Like a feeble running game, a defense that keeps giving up big running plays, injuries to Asante Samuel and Julio Jones, plus a four-game suspension for backup center Joe Hawley.
Then there was Matt Ryan's career-high five interceptions, though Falcons fans hope that was just an aberration rather than another cause for concern.
"We're very, very fortunate," coach Mike Smith acknowledged. "You've just got to keep fighting. It's amazing. The NFL is so close."
The league announced Hawley's penalty after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, yet another distraction for a team that must address its trouble spots to avoid a repeat of the one-and-done playoff troubles of recent years.
Even so, Smith focused on the positive side of winning a game that was closer than expected.
"We're very resilient," he said. "There was never any doubt in anyone's minds that we would not get the result we wanted if we just kept working at it."
The Falcons will continue to work on running the ball, a strong point in years past but now the most obvious weakness. The Falcons worked on it a lot in practice last week after a dismal performance at New Orleans, but there wasn't significant improvement against the Cardinals.
Michael Turner carried 15 times for 46 yards and was booed several times by the home crowd. Change-of-pace back Jacquizz Rodgers was held to 16 yards on five carries. Jason Snelling was thrown for a 1-yard loss on his only handoff, when the Falcons merely needed about a foot on a third-down play in the third quarter.
Overall, the Falcons managed just 58 yards on the ground, dropping their season average to 89.2 per game as they rapidly sink toward the bottom of the league rankings. They are down more than 25 yards a game from last year's average.
There were some encouraging signs in the fourth quarter.
With Atlanta trailing 19-16, Ryan guided the offense down the field through the air, setting up first-and-goal at the Arizona 1. Those sort of short-yardage situations have given the Falcons all sorts of problems, but Turner rumbled into the end zone standing for the winning score with 6:40 remaining.
"You've got get back on the horse when you're thrown off it," Smith said.
Then, after the Cardinals were stopped on downs, the Falcons managed to run out the final 3:06 to preserve the 23-19 victory. Turner took a sweep around right end for 7 yards and Rodgers converted on third-and-2, speeding around left end for a 6-yard gain that finished off Arizona.
"Being able to run the ball on that last drive to run out the clock was huge," Ryan said.
The Cardinals, who benched quarter John Skelton in the second quarter and went with rookie Ryan Lindley, are an abysmal offensive team. They managed just 178 yards and scored 13 points off Ryan's turnovers. Even so, the Atlanta defense gave up two long runs to LaRod Stephens-Howling, who broke off gains of 52 and 40 yards, setting up a couple of field goals.
"Both of those plays, we missed a tackle," Smith said. "We've just got to get better at cleaning up some things in our run defense."
If Atlanta had been facing a more prolific offense — in other words, just about anybody else in the NFL — those plays could have changed the outcome. Reducing those breakdowns will be a key on Sunday, when the Falcons travel to Tampa Bay to face the streaking Buccaneers and rookie sensation Doug Martin, who already has rushed for 1,000 yards.
"Their rookie running back has had some really explosive games," Smith said. "It will be a challenge for us."
The defense clearly misses linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who sat out his third straight game with an ankle injury. He's not the only player hurting, either.
Samuel, the team's best coverage player, went out in the first half with an injured right shoulder after delivering a hit to Larry Fitzgerald. Jones, who pairs with Roddy White to give Atlanta one of the league's most dangerous receiver tandems, hobbled off in the second half after reinjuring his ailing right ankle. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry (thigh injury) also came out.
Smith never discusses the specifics of injuries on Monday, but he doesn't think any of those three will miss significant time. Also, he is confident that Weatherspoon will be back at practice this week, giving him a good chance to play against Tampa Bay (6-4), which has won five of six to climb into playoff contention.
Even Smith made a big mistake against the Cardinals, mistakenly throwing his challenge flag on an Atlanta fumble that would've been subject to review anyway. Under the rules, he was assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the play was not reviewed, costing the Falcons a chance to get the ball back.
"That's totally on me," Smith said.
Ryan was feeling the same way about his performance.
He became the first quarterback since Bart Starr in 1967 to win a game while throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns, though Ryan was quick to note "that's good company to be in." He had never thrown more than three picks in a game, and his quarterback rating of 40.5 was the second-lowest of his career, surpassed only by his second game as a pro in 2008.
"As a quarterback, you don't want to ever have those kind of games. But they happen," Ryan said. "It's how you respond to it. I think it says a lot about our football team. I made the mistakes I did, but I'm surrounded by 52 other guys who show up and make plays. I'm fortunate to have those guys around me."