Sunday loomed as a big test for the Atlanta Falcons defense, which appeared vulnerable to the running attack of the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Behind running back Doug Martin, the Bucs have the kind of top-10 rushing attack that the Falcons might have to face at some point in the postseason, which now seems all but a certainty, and a loss would have tightened the NFC South race to within shouting distance.
Yet in their latest skin-of-their-teeth victory, the Falcons prevailed 24-23 on the road over their division rivals, getting the kind of performance they needed from their defense, which was bolstered, significantly, by the return of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, and overcame turnovers and a couple of uncharacteristic missed field goals.
The win improved Atlanta to an NFC-best 10-1, giving them a four-game lead over second-place Tampa Bay (6-5) with five games remaining. The Falcons also own at worst a 1-game lead over San Francisco for the conferences best mark and a two-game bulge over the likes of Chicago (8-3) and Green Bay (7-3), pending the outcome of the Packers game later.
In the early part of the season, the Falcons defense helped to pile up victories by generating plenty of turnovers, as they led the league at one point in that category at plus-10. However, for the seventh straight week the Falcons failed to win the turnover margin, going minus-2 on Sunday. The Falcons held the rookie Martin the only player to carry the ball for Tampa Bay on the day to 50 yards on 21 carries. That was the second-lowest output of the season by Martin, who entered the game with 1,000 yards, and his lowest since rushing for 33 on Sept. 30 in a 24-22 loss to Washington.
Weatherspoon, who was the Falcons top tackler when he injured his ankle on Oct. 28, had sat out the last three games and the teams running defense had suffered. The Falcons allowed 137 yards against Arizona last week and 148 the week before to New Orleans in their only loss of the season, leading to questions as to whether they could play big boy football with a run defense ranked No. 26 in the league.
Sundays performance will help to quell those questions, at least for the moment, as Weathespoon made six tackles, just one off the team lead of seven by fellow linebacker Stephen Nicholas, in helping to stymie the Bucs.
By himself, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman could not beat the Falcons. Atlantas Matt Ryan might have had one blemish on his day -- an interception by cagey veteran defensive back Ronde Barber but otherwise outplayed Freeman in what is continuing to be an MVP-caliber season for Ryan.
Ryan rebounded from last weeks career-worst five-interception showing to complete 81 percent of his passes (26-of-32) for 353 yards and a touchdown an 80-yard bomb to Julio Jones for a 110.0 rating, the eighth time in 11 games he has gone over 100. In the last two weeks, Ryan has thrown for 764 yards.
For his part, Freeman continued an excellent season by going 19-for-30 for 256 yards without a touchdown or interception for a 90.4 rating, but it was not enough even with help from his defense as he could not translate turnovers into touchdowns.
Tampa Bay earned six points via turnovers, the first coming when they cashed Barbers interception in for a field goal in the second quarter. Even on that possession, the Falcons defense stiffened. The Bucs took over at the Falcons 31 and had a first down at the Atlanta 3. However, Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters stopped Martin for a two-yard gain on first down, the defense forced an incomplete pass on second and then 36-year-old veteran Mike Peterson stopped Martin for a three-yard loss on third, forcing a 22-yard field goal.
The other turnover came when Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers came in unblocked on a blitz from the right side of Atlantas line and sacked Ryan, forcing a fumble in the process with 11:25 left in regulation and the Bucs ahead, 20-17. Tampa Bay recovered at the Atlanta 36, but the Falcons defense came up with a stop again in the form of a three-and-out, keeping the game within six points at 23-17 after another Connor Barth field goal.
On the following drive, Atlanta took the lead for good on Michael Turners three-yard touchdown run with 7:55 left, as Ryan accounted for 59 yards in the air on that drive.
So, for the seventh time this season the Falcons prevailed in a game decided by a touchdown or less. They continue to do it in different ways this time with an improved run defense helped by the return of a key, newly healthy player.