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Falcons thriving as NFL's least-penalized team
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith yells instruction during the first half of Atlanta's game with the Green Packers on Nov. 28 at the Georgia Dome. - photo by The Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons continue to win close games as their opponents keep drawing penalties.

Opponent penalties are big reason why Atlanta (10-2) has won six straight by an average of seven points. Tampa Bay discovered as much last week.

Falcons receiver Brian Finneran isn't complaining.

"I think we take more shots down the field, and you get more defensive pass interferences," Finneran said Friday. "We'll take as many freebies as we can get."

Atlanta's offense, which leads the NFL with 31 first downs drawn by penalty, picked up 25 yards on their winning drive when Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber was flagged for pass interference and linebacker Quincy Black for a personal foul.

After Black's penalty moved Atlanta to the 16-yard line, quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Michael Jenkins hooked up for a short touchdown pass.

"We made mistakes across the board at the end," Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said, "and weren't able to finish it out."

Those type of mistakes have helped the Falcons improve to 9-0 this season when opponents commit more penalties. The Bucs had nine for minus-102 yards and Atlanta six for minus-55.

On Sunday at Carolina (1-11), Atlanta hopes to take advantage of a Panthers team that's committed 24 penalties that converted first downs, fourth-most in the NFC. The Falcons have allowed just 12 first downs via penalty, but the offense has been particularly blessed of late.

During the six-game winning streak, opponent penalties have led to 74 of Atlanta's 174 points.

"We take pride in doing everything right," receiver Harry Douglas said. "It's a big part of our identity, and we've been doing that. You can't have penalties."

Falcons coach Mike Smith isn't concerned so much with the total number of penalties as he is with the situation, but he is proud that Atlanta has been flagged just 60 times, an NFL low, and that only 48 were accepted.

"The three things that we really emphasize are third-down penalties, fourth-quarter penalties, and special teams penalties," Smith said. "Special teams penalties are big because they're not necessarily a 5-yard penalty or a 10-yard penalty. They are spot fouls. That can really change the field position."

That certainly was the case in a three-point win over Green Bay two weeks ago. Eric Weems returned a kickoff 40 yards, but a facemask penalty on Matt Wilhelm let Atlanta start the winning drive at the Packers' 49.

But Weems, who last week ran back a kickoff 103 yards, knows the dark side of penalties, too. In the fourth quarter of a five-point win over Baltimore four weeks ago, a 53-yard punt was wiped out when Weems went out of bounds on the coverage team.

The Ravens' ensuing drive began at their 28 instead. Eight plays later, Baltimore took a one-point lead with barely a minute remaining.

Like Weems against the Ravens, Atlanta strong safety William Moore was bailed out by his teammates in the Nov. 7 win over Tampa Bay. He was flagged for pass interference, but the safety ended the Bucs' chances a few plays later by stuffing running back LeGarrette Blount on fourth-and-1 at the 2.

"It can cut both ways," Moore said. "I've been fortunate to be in position to make some good plays on defense (with four interceptions), but I'm not perfect, and sometimes we make mistakes. What killed me was that the pass interference call came in the fourth quarter."

That's because Smith is always preaching about avoiding penalties that are less timely than others.

"We place a big emphasis on staying in a positive direction," Falcons receiver Harry Douglas said. "When you start going negative, that's when you find more losses."

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