ATLANTA — After the Atlanta Falcons reached the midpoint of the regular season Thursday night with only two victories, Matt Ryan dared to suggest the second half of their schedule could be very different.
The veteran quarterback believes there's no game remaining the Falcons — last in the NFC South Division — can't win.
Clearly, Atlanta's success in Thursday night's 25-17 road win against the Carolina Panthers to avoid a season sweep against their division rivals did wonders for Ryan's confidence. Can the Falcons (2-6) make a run?
"Absolutely," he said. "We've been in every game we've played this year. We've had some crazy losses, just to be frank. I really believe we've got the caliber of team to be in every game we're going to play the rest of the season."
Ryan's confidence may not be as farfetched as some might think. The Falcons, after blowing big leads late multiple times early in the season, have won two of their past three games. They could have beaten the Detroit Lions last weekend in Atlanta if not for running back Todd Gurley's inability to keep himself from scoring late in the game, leaving the visitors time for their last-minute winning drive.
The Falcons return to competition next Sunday, Nov. 8, with a home game against the Denver Broncos, with Atlanta's open date in Week 10. An unlikely turnaround would be needed to save the Falcons from their third consecutive losing season, but interim head coach Raheem Morris, like Ryan, was inspired by the performance against the Panthers.
The Falcons followed the script he laid out by having their offense finish each half with the ball and having their defense deliver the necessary big play. Blidi Wreh-Wilson's interception with less than a minute remaining clinched the win, and Morris was still beaming with pride a day later.
"It all boils down to getting the win," Morris said. "So, to see the guys come out and make plays is something that I expect every single week. We have so much talent and so many good players on this football team, I always wonder which one is going to make the play."
If the Falcons had made better use of their talent and not started the season 0-5, Dan Quinn probably would still have his job as head coach. The challenge for Morris is to build momentum from the win at Carolina, where Atlanta posted lopsided advantages in first downs, 28-18, and time of possession, holding the ball 13 minutes longer than the Panthers.
Ryan completed nine throws of 16 yards or longer while passing for 270 yards, and there was good balance with 131 rushing yards, but the Falcons continue to struggle in the red zone. The offense reached the end zone on only two of six possessions that crossed inside the opposing 20-yard line, including an unlikely 13-yard touchdown run by Ryan.
However, as the offense stalled too many times near the goal line, Atlanta kicker Younghoe Koo capitalized with four field goals.
Although Gurley scored on a 3-yard run in the fourth quarter and had 18 carries for 46 yards, he watched many plays from the sideline as Brian Hill had 11 carries and led the team with 55 yards on the ground. It appeared Gurley was often trying to stay loose when on the sideline, and he said his time out of the game was not his decision.
Morris was asked if Gurley was limited by an injury.
"You just never know with Gurley," the coach said. "I don't know what happened, injury wise. I just know he's got to get himself going, and he got himself going late. He had a couple really good runs at the end and finished the game for us, and that's what he was brought here to do."
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley hurt his left ankle in the second quarter and missed the second half — Morris said he would know more about the third-year standout's status next week — but the injury again tested Atlanta's depth. Christian Blake filled in for Ridley, just as Brandon Powell and Olamide Zaccheaus moved up after recent injuries to receivers Russell Gage and Julio Jones, respectively.
Jones was healthy and ready to go for the second straight game, and he had seven catches for 137 yards, his 58th career game with at least 100 receiving yards, which ranks fourth in NFL history and first among active players. The three players with more 100-yard receiving games are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jerry Rice (76), Randy Moss (64) and Marvin Harrison (59).
Morris sees a bright spot on the other side of the ball, saying Friday that linebacker Foyesade Oluokun "is making the hard plays look easy" and is an emerging leader of the defense. Oluokun, a sixth-round pick in 2018 out of Yale, had five tackles against the Panthers, including a key fourth-down stop when he flashed his speed to drop quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Morris said he spoke with Oluokun early in the game when the coach was worried about the defense focusing on forcing fumbles instead of making tackles. He said it was "refreshing" to know Oluokun would pass the message along to others on defense.
"I think that part of his leadership game has really stepped up," Morris said, "and really fires a coach up, really fires the people up around him."