ATLANTA - If the Atlanta Falcons go on to secure the NFC's top record and postseason homefield advantage, they will no doubt recall Sunday's ugly 23-19 win over Arizona, a game head coach Mike Smith admits they had no business winning.
The Falcons, improving to an NFC-best 9-1, overcame a five-interception game from Matt Ryan and another anemic running game (55 yards) to pull out the improbable win. As bad as the offense was, the Atlanta defense was stellar, holding the Cardinals to 178 total yards and repeatedly bailing out the turnover-prone offense.
"We'll take the win and go back to work on the things we can improve," Smith said with a shake of his head. "We can't turn the ball over the way we did. You normally don't win games with those stats; it's rare in this league. But give credit to our defense. They were put in some very difficult situations and bailed us out."
The Cardinals (4-6) began five different drives in Atlanta territory and managed only one touchdown - LaRod Stephens-Howling's 3-yard run off Ryan's first interception on his first attempt of the game. The Falcons found themselves down 13-0 late in the first quarter after Ryan's second pick set the Cardinals up at the 18, but quarterback John Skelton missed a wide open Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone on third down and they had to settle for a Jay Feely field goal.
"They're a very good defense, but we - specifically me - didn't play very good offense most of the day," said Ryan, was 28-for-46 passing and 302 yards. "We put the defense in a tough spot time and again, but they responded, what, five times, and kept us in the game. It was ugly, but sometimes that's the way it goes and you have to keep fighting."
It was the Atlanta defense that also scored the team's first touchdown when John Abraham sacked and stripped relief quarterback Ryan Lindley at the 10, with Jonathan Babineaux scooping and scoring to cut the lead to 13-10. Lindley, a rookie from San Diego State, was just 9-of-20 for 64 yards.
The score was tied at 16 when Arizona's Daryl Washington cut in front of a Ryan pass for the interception at the Atlanta 16. The defense again stiffened and Feely's field goal gave the Cardinals a 19-16 lead with 14:36 to play. The missed opportunity did not sit well with Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt.
"You don't win many games in this league with 170 yards," said Whisenunt, whose team managed to convert just two of 16 third-down conversions. "We missed some open plays early and could have taken control late, but we didn't get it done. We have to make more plays."
The Atlanta offense finally made the Cardinals pay with a 70-yard touchdown drive that took barely three minutes. Ryan, whose arsenal was reduced with an injured Julio Jones on the bench, hit Harry Douglas with consecutive passes to the Arizona 33, then found Roddy White to the 15. Tony Gonzalez, quiet for most of the game, then made the game's biggest play with a third-down catch and run to the 1, where Michael Turner bulled over for a 23-19 lead with 6:40 to play.
"We made the plays in the fourth quarter, thankfully," Ryan said. "You can't worry about what went on earlier. You have to block those things out and keep making throws. I thought Harry did a great job and Roddy did also on that drive."
The defense, though, had to make one final stand after Ryan's fifth pick - his third off a tipped pass - set up the Cardinals at the Atlanta 32 with four minutes to go. Howling, who had a career-high 127 yards rushing, was topped on third-and-3 and Fitzgerald couldn't hold onto a Lindley pass on the sideline at the 4.
The Falcons, much to the delight of what was mostly a quiet Georgia Dome crowd, converted a third-and-short run to seal the game.
"We did everything wrong we could do, but we still gave ourselves a chance to go win this thing, and we did that," Smith summed up. "We've got a lot of things to fix, but that's what coaching is all about and we're looking forward to a division game against Tampa."
The Falcons, in addition Jones, had several players miss time with injury during the game, including starting center Todd McClure and cornerback Asante Samuel. The trio's availability for next week's game at Tampa, according to Smith, was unknown.