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Falcons have chance at franchise history
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Falcons at Buccaneers

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

On TV, radio: FOX; 92.9-FM, 550-AM

FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan doesn’t consider himself an expert on Atlanta Falcons history.

The 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year understands, however, that part of his job description is serving occasionally as a team spokesman.

The 24-year-old Ryan grew up in suburban Philadelphia and cheered for the Eagles before Atlanta made him the league’s No. 3 overall draft pick. Fans and reporters want the former Boston College standout to explain how a professional sports franchise can exist 44 years without managing consecutive winning records.

This season is Atlanta’s 35th out of the playoffs.

“Whether it’s hard to grasp or whatever, it is what it is,” Ryan said after a 31-3 victory over Buffalo. “We want to be the first team and we want to set it straight with the organization that we’re going to have back-to-back winning seasons here and hopefully for a long time.”

A victory this weekend at Tampa Bay would end the ignominious streak. Both the Falcons (8-7) and Buccaneers (3-12) have won two straight. Five weeks ago at the Georgia Dome, Atlanta needed all but the final minute to beat Tampa Bay.

“I think every team, regardless of their record, is dangerous,” second-year coach Mike Smith said Monday. “When two NFC South teams get together, they’re going to be hard-fought, close games.”

A turf toe injury sidelined Ryan in consecutive home losses to Philadelphia and New Orleans before he started Dec. 20 and beat the New York Jets with a 6-yard touchdown pass in the final minutes. Against the Bills, Ryan completed 18 of 35 passes for 250 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and was sacked three times.

The toe injury Ryan suffered in the first Tampa Bay game made him a healthy scratch after 28 consecutive starts. This week will mark the third straight that the team’s medical staff will keep practice time limited.

“Matt’s work will be very similar to last week,” Smith said. “He will not practice on Wednesday, we’ll get him some limited reps on Thursday and try to increase him on Friday and see if he’s ready to go.”

Buffalo’s injured defense struggled against an Atlanta offense missing Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner. Turner is unlikely to play in the finale, and the Falcons are uncertain of Tony Gonzalez’s status after the star tight end left Sunday with a calf injury.

Smith believes punter Michael Koenen will return against Tampa Bay despite missing the second half Sunday with a concussion. Kicker Matt Bryant, who injured a hamstring while handling punting duties in the third quarter, was only available for extra points.

The Falcons used defensive end Kroy Biermann as the kickoff specialist.

Bryant was excused from work Monday because of a family death.

“His father passed over the weekend, so I don’t have an update on regards to where Matt is (health-wise),” Smith said. “Michael, we think he’s going to be fine. We’ll know more in a couple of days.”

Ryan, who finished 2009 with a 5-0 record at home and 13-1 in his career, hopes to improve his play on the road. He’s just 2-5 this year away from the Georgia Dome, 6-11 in his career.

“Coach Smith preaches to us all the time that there is a lot to learn week to week,” Ryan said. “I learned a lot this year and will as much against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I feel that if I can end the season a better quarterback than I started, then it will be a successful year.”

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