Falcons at Panthers
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bank of America Stadium; Charlotte, N.C.
On TV: Fox
FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan was chatting at his locker when a teammate walked by, making a gesture that caused the Atlanta Falcons quarterback to crack up in the middle of a sentence.
"I just got bombed by Jason Snelling," Ryan said, breaking into a big smile. "He made me lose my cool."
If things don't turn around, it might not be the last time.
And that's no joke.
Matty Ice must feel like he's going it alone in Atlanta's staggering offense. Star receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White are injured. The running game is the worst in the league. The guys up front tend to buckle at the slightest hint of pressure.
All those forces came together last week, resulting in one of the worst performances of Ryan's career. He threw four interceptions in a 27-13 loss at Arizona, a dismal game that essentially put the Falcons (2-5) in must-win mode the rest of the year.
"You're ready to get back on that practice field and get going quickly after you play poorly," Ryan said Wednesday, reflecting on a 47.2 rating that was the fourth-lowest of his career. "But I've played bad before. I'll play bad again.
It's all about trying to eliminate those games and trying to make them very few and very far between. That's my goal now. Put that one behind us and get back to playing the way I can play."
While Ryan took most of the blame on his shoulders, that's hardly fair.
The Falcons gave up three touchdowns in the second quarter, forcing Ryan to go almost exclusively to the air after halftime. He wound up throwing a career-high 61 passes.
"We don't want to throw the ball 61 times a game, I can assure you of that," coach Mike Smith said. "That's not what we're built to do. We're built to run the football when we have to."
At the moment, the running game is stuck in reverse. Steven Jackson returned after missing a month with a hamstring injury, but he might as well have stayed on the sideline. With nowhere to run, he finished with just 6 yards on 11 carries. The Falcons are averaging a mere 62.4 yards per game on the ground.
The offensive line didn't do much better at protecting Ryan. He was sacked four times, hit 11 other times, and threw away countless passes just to avoid going down.
It doesn't get any easier Sunday, when the Falcons hit the road to face the streaking Carolina Panthers (4-3).
Their defense has surrendered the fewest rushing yards in the league (79.3) and ranks second in both points allowed (13.7) and total yards (301.4)
"We can't let this offense get on track," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
He need not worry if the Falcons don't figure out a way to improve their offensive line.
Hemmed in by the salary cap, the Falcons pushed longtime center Todd McClure into retirement and released starting tackle Tyson Clabo, hoping younger, cheaper players could fill the void.
That has turned out to big a big mistake.
Second-year player Peter Konz has struggled mightily in McClure's old spot, getting beat over and over while not being nearly as adept making the calls his predecessor handled so flawlessly. Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes have not developed as quickly as the Falcons were hoping, either.
Left tackle Sam Baker, the team's best lineman, has missed extensive time with injuries.
The Cardinals were able to tee off on Ryan.
Carolina can dole out the same sort of pressure with Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Thomas Davis.
"That's a very personal thing," Reynolds said. "That's something we recognize and have to continue to work on as a unit, just to make sure we keep our quarterback clean."
Ryan is focused on the things he can do to get better.
"We've got a lot of guys out there pulling their weight," he said. "I made mistakes that put us behind the eight-ball. I can't do that. I've got to play better than I did."
Smith, for the most part, has no complaints about the way Ryan is playing.
He might be the only hope of turning this season around.
"We need for him to continue to play at a high level," Smith said, "to get where we want to be."
NOTES: White (ankle, hamstring), RB Snelling (ankle) and LB Stephen Nicholas (thigh) missed practice Wednesday. ... Ryan said he wasn't surprised that TE Tony Gonzalez was still with the team after Tuesday's trade deadline. There was plenty of speculation the Falcons might trade Gonzalez to a contending team to finish out his farewell season, but there were apparently no serious discussions. "I didn't anticipate anything would happen," Ryan said. "I'm happy he's here."