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Falcons have time to rest after big wins
Falcons head into bye week on a two-game winning streak
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FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons have overcome injuries to several starters in getting out to a 4-3 start.

They’re just grateful they haven’t had to test their depth at quarterback.

Matt Ryan dodged a huge injury scare in the Falcons’ 23-16 win at Detroit last week in part because of a decision he made at Boston College to wear a brace on his left knee.

Ryan’s left foot and knee were twisted when left tackle Will Svitek stepped on Ryan’s foot during the game. Ryan’s foot briefly came out of his shoe, helping to relieve pressure on his ankle. The brace protected the knee, and Ryan missed only a few plays in Atlanta’s second straight win.

While there was much postgame talk about the alleged taunting by Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh when Ryan was on the turf, the key issue for the Falcons’ hopes of returning to the playoffs was that Ryan missed only a few snaps, completing a pass to Harry Douglas for 29 yards on his first play back in the game.

With tests showing no structural damage to the knee, Ryan would have started if the Falcons had played this week and will be ready when the team returns to practice Monday, a team spokesman said Thursday.

The Falcons, who had the NFC’s best regular-season record at 13-3 last season, would face a far more dour outlook for returning to the playoffs without their star quarterback.

"That was scary," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "The way he went down, and the way he was walking, I was thinking it might be a season-ending injury, maybe an ACL. To see him run back out was a breath of fresh air, and then for him to get back on the field and immediately hit that big pass to Harry, that’s an inspiration.

"That’s why we are 100 percent behind that guy."

The Falcons’ new concern in their bye week is Pro Bowl fullback Ovie Mughelli’s season-ending knee injury.

Versatile Jason Snelling is expected to start in his place. Snelling, who has 12 receptions this season, rushed for 613 yards and four touchdowns in 2009, when he had two starts and 142 carries behind running back Michael Turner.

The Falcons also signed fullback Mike Cox, who played for Kansas City the past three seasons. With Snelling primarily a blocking back, there also could be more opportunities for rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers to play behind Turner.

Turner is enjoying another productive season. He already has four 100-yard games and appears to be a lock for his third 1,000-yard season in the last four years.

The Falcons seemed to stray from their run-first philosophy with Turner early in the season as coach Mike Smith had Ryan targeting rookie first-round pick Julio Jones in heavy doses. The Falcons traded up to make Jones, the former Alabama star, the sixth overall selection in the draft.

Jones had 24 catches through four games, including 11 for 127 yards at Seattle on Oct. 2. The rookie missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.

The Falcons also have had two key veteran linemen — center Todd McClure and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux — each miss three games. And defensive end John Abraham and left tackle Sam Baker also have missed starts.

Improved depth and the rise of two key 2010 draft picks, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters, have helped the Falcons weather the injuries to enter the bye week with their first two-game winning streak of the season.

Peters had a key interception, the first of his career, in a win over Carolina two weeks ago and used his long reach to come up with a key tip in the win at Detroit. The tip negated a key pass interference call against Atlanta.

Weatherspoon, with 59 tackles, and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, with 64, rank among the league leaders in stops. Safety Thomas DeCoud has three interceptions and cornerback Brent Grimes has deflected nine passes.

"It’s week-to-week in this league, but I really like the way that our guys have played defensively and I think that it’s been a steady climb for the most part," Smith said. "The arrow’s going up, although sometimes it statistically doesn’t necessarily look like that."

The Falcons entered the break one game behind New Orleans in the NFC South and have two games remaining against the Saints. The only other teams left on Atlanta’s schedule with winning records through Week 7 are Houston (4-3) and Tampa Bay (4-3).

"If you had told me before the season we’d be 4-3 going into the bye week, I would say that’s not good enough," Peters said.

"But I think we struggled a little out of the gate with some inconsistencies on the part of everybody. I think at this point, after going through that, 4-3 is something we can be proud of, but we also know we have to continue to build and everybody knows that.

"If we want to be the kind of team we all want to be, that is a playoff team, a Super Bowl-caliber team, we have got to continue to get better each and every week."

The Falcons will play at Indianapolis next week before playing home games against New Orleans, Tennessee and Minnesota.

Atlanta’s outlook is bright — especially with Ryan leading the team.

"Without a doubt, Matt Ryan is a leader of our football team and to see him be able to get up from some of the unfortunate hits that he’s had to take throughout the year, I think it not only energizes the offense, but it energizes the defense and our entire football team," Smith said.

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