FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan and the Falcons are expecting better offensive production in Atlanta’s important final regular-season game against Carolina.
The Falcons can win the NFC South division title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs by beating the Panthers on Sunday. A loss wouldn’t be the end to the season, but it would definitely take away much of the luster.
Ryan has thrived in clutch situations this season, but when his last two passes fell incomplete in Atlanta’s loss to New Orleans Monday night, it put new importance on Sunday’s contest against the Panthers.
Ryan’s nickname gained popularity as he led Atlanta to six wins this season with go-ahead scores in the fourth quarter or overtime. “Matty Ice” needs another strong showing Sunday.
Ryan said the 17-14 loss to the Saints showed that late-game victories can’t be taken for granted.
“There’s nothing given,” Ryan said Thursday. “There’s nothing automatic in this league. But with that said, we have the same expectation that in a tight game, late in the game, we’re going to make the plays that we need to win. We just didn’t do that at the end of the last game. We had some chances and just didn’t make the plays that we needed to.
“It’s a learning experience. It keeps us motivated and hopefully we do a better job of it this week.”
Ryan’s clutch performances helped lead to his first Pro Bowl selection this week. Late-game heroics from Ryan have become so common Atlanta players say they were shocked to see the Falcons stopped late in the loss to the Saints.
“There was never a doubt in our mind we were going to win,” said fullback Ovie Mughelli. “It just didn’t happen in this game. It hurt so much because we’re so used to winning after eight wins in a row.
“We fully expected to drive down there and somehow to at least get in field goal range. When it didn’t happen, I think a lot of us were stunned.”
The Falcons were held to 215 total yards and Ryan completed 15 of 29 passes for only 148 yards and a touchdown in the loss.
The Saints contained Roddy White, who leads the NFL with 109 catches. White was shadowed by an extra defensive back and had only three catches for 43 yards, including a 7-yard catch for a touchdown.
The Falcons say they must do a better job with their running game and passing to tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Michael Jenkins and Douglas when defenses focus on White.
The Falcons have five newly named Pro Bowl players from their offense: Ryan, Mughelli, Turner, White and Gonzalez. Ryan said an offense with so many weapons shouldn’t be held to 14 points.
“I think we just need to play better,” Ryan said. “We had opportunities to take advantage of some of the things they were doing against us, and we just didn’t play well enough.
“I think it comes down to us. ... We need to execute better and if we do that we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith said the Panthers may try defensive strategies that worked for the Saints, including extra attention on White.
“That’s been going on for quite some time and over the last couple of weeks probably more snaps of it,” Smith said.
“Again, when you’re a Pro Bowl player and you have the production Roddy has, you’re going to get that attention.
“We have to be prepared to make sure we have a plan to offset that. ... I think when they take something away they’re going to leave something open, and we’ve got to make sure we can find it and go ahead and execute because they can’t take everything away.”
The Falcons won 31-10 at Carolina on Dec. 12.
If Carolina beats Atlanta and New Orleans beats Tampa Bay, the Falcons would lose home-field advantage and the first-round bye.
Ryan said there’s no danger of taking the Panthers lightly with so much on the line.
“I think everybody in here knows what’s at stake,” Ryan said. “We don’t need to talk about it. I don’t think anybody is looking further than this week.”
Notes: White and LB Curtis Lofton were given routine days off from practice. DT Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) and center Todd McClure (ankle) also did not practice. DE John Abraham (groin) and DE Kroy Biermann (calf) were limited. ... Smith said he was proud to have seven players on the Pro Bowl team. He mentioned Babineaux, PK Matt Bryant and OT Tyson Clabo as also deserving.