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Monday July 23rd, 2018 5:20AM

Falcons look ahead to closing season against 3 division foes

By The Associated Press
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FLOWERY BRANCH (AP) — Falcons coach Dan Quinn likes his team's playoff chances heading into the final three games of the season.

At 8-5, Atlanta is one-half game behind Carolina for the second and final NFC wild-card spot. The Falcons are just one full game behind New Orleans for the NFC South lead, though they'll likely need some help to win the division for a second straight year.

The schedule closes against division foes — at Tampa Bay on Dec. 18, at New Orleans in Week 16 and at home against Carolina in the finale.

Beating the Saints 20-17 on Thursday put Atlanta at 2-1 in the division. And it helps the Falcons that they're 7-2 against the NFC. Only Philadelphia and Minnesota have better records.

"We'll clear the deck and put everything into Tampa," Quinn said Friday.

Quinn is still concerned about the lack of takeaways. Though linebacker Deion Jones saved Thursday's game in the closing minutes with an athletic, end-zone interception against Drew Brees, Atlanta dropped to minus-5 in turnover margin and ranks tied for 23rd.

Last year on their way to advancing to the Super Bowl, the Falcons were tied for fourth at plus-11.

Quinn saw improvement in other areas.

Atlanta's defense held New Orleans' tough screen game to just one big gain in eight tries, and its six missed tackles weren't too bad. The offense converted 58 percent of third downs a week after going a dismal 1 for 10 and failing to score a touchdown against Minnesota.

But other than two sacks, the defense didn't pressure Brees enough.

"When you're facing a quarterback like Brees, you're trying like crazy to knock him off his spot and get some push, so we've got to work to improve there," Quinn said.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had three picks and a 55.2 passer rating that was his worst performance in 39 games. It was a long way from his MVP season a year ago when his rating was over 117.

Quinn, though, wasn't too down on a passing attack that had at least four drops. One of the interceptions, a ball that went through tight end Austin Hooper's hands, wasn't Ryan's fault. Quinn also liked seeing Mohamed Sanu catch an 8-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.

Two-time All-Pro Julio Jones had five receptions for 98 yards despite being targeted 11 times.

"Matt had some good throws, and I thought the conversion on third downs was a big part of this game," Quinn said. "It wasn't all bad for us in the pass game."

Ryan's third pick came in a span of just seven official snaps. Jones was the intended receiver in the back corner of the end zone, but Ryan didn't throw the ball high enough for Jones to make play. Safety Marcus Williams pulled down an easy interception.

"I've got to make a better decision in that situation to know we have to put (at least) three points on the board," Ryan said. "So I'm disappointed in a couple of the plays, but that's part of it. Sometimes it goes that way and you have to keep battling and keep your mindset right. I was pleased with how I did that, and I was pleased with how our entire team did that."

NOTYES: Quinn said RB Tevin Coleman has been placed in the concussion protocol after getting hurt in the fourth quarter. ... The Falcons had just four penalties. New Orleans had 11, which led to nine first downs for Atlanta. ... Quinn gave the players four days off. They'll return on Tuesday for the next practice.

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