This time, the Falcons got that scrawny little yard when they needed it the most.
On a day when they were clearly not at their best, the Falcons imposed their will over the struggling Arizona Cardinals. After his team trailed all day, running back Michael Turner marched into the end zone from a yard out midway through the fourth quarter to lead the Falcons to a 23-19 victory Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons improved to 9-1 despite Matt Ryan throwing a career-high five interceptions. The last time the Falcons won while committing at least five turnovers came 25 years ago against the Los Angeles Rams.
“I can tell you that we can’t turn the ball over the way we turned the ball over today,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “You can’t be minus-four in turnovers. Normally you’re not going to win those games.”
With six games to play, the Falcons have three-game lead over the Buccaneers in the NFC South and a four-game game lead over the Saints. The Panthers, who are 2-8, are out of the title race.
Atlanta trailed 13-0 early in this one and was down 19-16 inside the last seven minutes. They embarked on the decisive drive knowing that last week, with the game on the line in New Orleans, Turner was stuffed on a third-and-goal from the 1. A fourth-down pass to Roddy White was batted down in the 31-27 loss.
The Falcons had a dramatic meeting this week about their short-yardage woes.
“I don’t want to get into the specifics of it, but when it came down to that segment, there was some serious talk,” Turner said. “We felt embarrassed that we couldn’t get it done. Coach (Smith) just reminded us that’s the time that you have to dig down deep and give it all that you’ve got.”
The offensive line also accepted the challenge.
“(Offensive coordinator) Dirk (Koetter) called the run (on the last touchdown),” center Todd McClure said. “He had faith in us and we got it done.”
The Falcons also picked up a key third-and-2 while they were trying to run out the clock. Jacquizz Rodgers ran for 6 yards near the two-minute mark, settling the issue.
“That confidence is going to go a long way with this group,” McClure said.
The accomplishment of Turner’s run, in the wake of how the team lost its only game thus far, was not lost upon Smith.
“We were able to get some movement and we were able to get that precious 1 yard,” Smith said. “They are hard to come by. It was blocked correctly. The offensive line did a nice job and Michael was able to step in.”
The Falcons did not appear ready to play against the Cardinals, who were coming off their bye week and had dropped fifth straight games. Though the Cardinals converted Ryan’s first interception into a touchdown just 66 seconds into the game, the Falcons limited Phoenix to just two field goals following the other four picks.
“I just felt like our energy wasn’t there,” White said. “I felt that we came out flat. We can’t have another one of these episodes, I’ll tell you that.”
Veteran linebacker Mike Peterson noticed a lax attitude early and called the team out during pregame warmups.
“We have to get ourselves mentally ready to play,” said White, who finished with eight catches for 123 yards. “I don’t think we came in thinking that we had to be on our A-game. That was part of it.”
With the five interceptions, Ryan had a passer rating of 40.5.
“Part of playing this position in this league is knowing that there will be times when you make mistakes and fall flat on your face,” said Ryan, who completed 28 of 46 passes for 301 yards. “You just have to get up and keep playing.”
After Ryan’s fifth interception, the defense had to hold the Cardinals on last time. On fourth-and-3 from the Atlanta 24 with 3:13 left, a pass intended for Larry Fitzgerald was thrown incomplete.
Thanks to a defensive score — defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux ran back a recovered fumble — and three Matt Bryant field goals, the Falcons tied it 16-16 at halftime.
Ryan’s fourth interception led to a 27-yard Cardinals field goal for a 19-16 lead with 14:56 to play.
After an exchange punts, Ryan, shaking off one of his worst days, drove the Falcons 69 yards in six plays, Turner slamming into the end zone on the seventh play.
Nearly lost in the shuffle: the victory clinched the Falcons’ fifth straight winning season.
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