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Falcons have concerns heading into big game
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan is struggling. Michael Turner is hurting. Jason Elam can’t seem to make a field goal.

Yep, the Falcons definitely have plenty of things to worry about as they head into a decisive stretch of the season.

Atlanta (5-4) was down in the dumps Monday after a sloppy 28-19 loss at Carolina, knowing it had wasted an excellent chance to gain an upper hand in the NFC wild-card race.

“We had several opportunities to win that game,” coach Mike Smith moaned. “But we made way too many mistakes.”

Now, at a time when some doubts may be creeping into the team psyche, the Falcons face three games over the next four weeks that will likely determine the course of this season.

Next Sunday, they travel to the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants, one of four teams tied for the wild-card lead at 5-4. Philadelphia — another 5-4 team — visits the Georgia Dome on Dec. 6 for a game that will feature the return of Michael Vick to Atlanta. The following week, the Falcons host the unbeaten New Orleans Saints (9-0).

“This,” said running back Jason Snelling, “is no time for us to start getting nervous or think about the past.”

Ahh, the past.

Coming off a surprising trip to the playoffs last season, the Falcons were convinced this would be the year they finally broke the franchise’s streak of never having consecutive winning seasons. A 3-1 start certainly bolstered those hopes, but two wins in the last five games have undoubtedly caused some to wonder if that ignominious streak will continue.

“It’s not about just being average,” receiver Roddy White said. “A lot of us are going out there saying, ‘I’ve got one job, I’ll just do that.’... We’ve all got to get out there and do more, be more productive.”

Atlanta’s most pressing concern is Turner.

After a sluggish start, the Falcons’ leading rusher was on a major roll with three straight 100-yard games — until he went down with a sprained right ankle against Carolina. Now, Atlanta could be without its top two backs, since No. 1 backup Jerious Norwood has missed the last four games with a hip flexor (on top of sustaining two concussions this season). Snelling will start if Turner can’t go.

Turner had only nine carries against Carolina — and still managed to gain 111 yards. Over the last three games, he averaged 9.1 yards every time he got the ball.

“We need that guy,” White said. “He’s our MVP. As long as we’ve got him, the offense rolls smoothly.”

So begins a week of speculation about Turner’s playing status. Even if the injury is not as serious as initially feared, the Falcons can hardly afford to be without their top running back for even one game. Smith was vague about Turner’s status, saying he’ll provide an update Wednesday when the initial injury report comes out.

“Mike’s a warrior,” White said. “Ignore the injury report. Mike is going to be playing Sunday.”

If Turner is the first concern, Ryan is 1-A.

The second-year quarterback already has thrown more interceptions through nine games (12) than he had in his sensational rookie season (11). His level of play has really gone down over the past five weeks — a completion rate of just under 55 percent, with 10 interceptions and only seven touchdowns.

Ryan has struggled with accuracy, leading some to wonder if there’s an issue with his mechanics or that perhaps he is suffering from a tired arm after a strenuous offseason program. In particular, he’s had a problem with passes sailing high over the intended receivers.

White pointed to Ryan’s competitive nature, saying it’s part of his makeup to attempt throws that other quarterbacks might shy away from.

“It’s like I told him yesterday, ‘Hey, man, don’t stop trying to make plays just because bad things are happening for us right now,”’ White said. “He was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to keep making the throws that I make.’

“There’s nothing wrong with Matt,” the receiver added. “It’s tough playing quarterback in this league.”

Elam’s struggles are just downright mystifying.

One of the most accurate kickers in NFL history — including a 29-of-31 performance in his first season with the Falcons — Elam is a dismal 5 of 10 on kicks from 30 yards and out this year. If not for his reputation, the team surely would have brought in a replacement already. While the team has switched long snappers this season because of an injury, the problems seems to run deeper.

“You just try to keep doing what got you here,” Elam said. “If you get down on yourself, then it’s over. I’ve been through these little valleys before. It’s not a lot of fun. But you just keep your head up and keep going.”

Good advice for the entire team.

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