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Sunday February 7th, 2016 8:10AM

Falcons in danger of dubious first-to-worst label

By The Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons have sole claim to the NFC's worst record at 2-9, a dramatic decline for a team which owned the conference's best mark one year ago.

Coach Mike Smith said Monday he has no interest in completing a first-to-worst run for the Falcons, even if it brings the top pick in the NFL draft as a reward. Atlanta was 13-3 last season.

"I can assure you this: We're not concerned about our draft status," Smith said. "We're concerned about winning the next game and putting a string together here at the end of the season."

The Falcons will take a five-game losing streak into Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto.

Jacksonville and Houston of the AFC also are 2-9 and tied with Atlanta for the NFL's worst record.

The Falcons had a long weekend following Thursday night's 17-13 loss to the Saints. They watched on Sunday as Tampa Bay beat Detroit to move out of a last-place tie with Atlanta in the NFC South. Jacksonville had the lead for the No. 1 pick until it beat Houston Sunday for its second win.

Smith said some young players could earn additional playing time in the final five games. He declined to identify those players.

"We will continue to evaluate all of our players," Smith said. "There are some guys who have done nice jobs, young guys that haven't had an opportunity to participate in games or have a lot of participation. If they continue to work like they have, they're going to get an opportunity to play on game day."

Among rookies who could see a boost in playing time are defensive ends Stansly Maponga and Malliciah Goodman and tight end Levine Toilolo. Second-year defensive tackle Travian Robertson also could earn more snaps.

"I think anyone that's on our 53-man roster is going to get an opportunity to play as we move forward," Smith said. "It's going to be based on how they work in practice. It's going to be based on previous games for some of our older players, but it will be an evaluation process that's ongoing, just like always."

Smith said fans shouldn't expect to see a decline in playing time for such established stars as tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is in his final season.

"Again our No. 1 goal is going to be to win the games and having Tony Gonzalez on the field gives us the best opportunity to win," he said.

Toilolo could play with Gonzalez if the team uses two-tight end sets.

Smith said the focus hasn't shifted to preparing for the future.

"We're not going to not try to win the football game and just go into a complete evaluation mode," Smith said. "We're going to put the best players out there."

Injuries have been the major cause for the fall of the Falcons, who played in last season's NFC championship game.

Offensive tackle Sam Baker, who was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury on Nov. 12, was the fourth starter to be lost for the season. Atlanta previously lost star receiver Julio Jones, defensive end Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing. Projected starting offensive tackle Mike Johnson suffered a season-ending leg injury during training camp.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, receiver Roddy White and running back Steven Jackson also missed three or more games. Weatherspoon has made two starts since missing eight games on short-term injured reserve.

The close loss to the Saints provided encouragement following ugly defeats against Carolina, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

Asked what motivated the Falcons against the Saints, Gonzalez said "Because we've been getting embarrassed. I hope that's the reason why."

Notes: Smith said Baker is expected to be ready for the start of offseason team activities in April. Smith said Baker's knee injury is not seen as a long-term concern. ... The Falcons' fall from prominence was reflected in a TV scheduling change announced Sunday. The kickoff time for the Dec. 8 game at Green Bay was changed from 8:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. "We're going to play the game when the league tells us to play the game," Smith said. "But we are disappointed in the way that we've played through the first 11 ballgames, which I think I've stated many times, too many times."
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