Defense is carrying the load as the Falcons tighten their grip on 1st place in the NFC South


ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are back at .500 and have a bit of breathing room atop the NFC South.

Their defense deserves all the credit.

The first-place Falcons (6-6) continue to struggle with the ball in their hands, but the guys on the other side of the line bailed them out again in an ugly 13-8 win over the New York Jets on Sunday.

It was Atlanta's fewest points in a victory since a 10-7 triumph at Tennessee in 2015.

“Obviously we want to score 100 points, we want to score every drive,” coach Arthur Smith said. “At the end of the day, the positive side, when we needed to make some plays, we did.”

In the NFL’s weakest division, the Falcons are another step closer to making the playoffs for the first time since 2017. They have a one-game lead over both Tampa Bay and New Orleans, and it’s more like a two-game edge since they hold all the major tiebreakers with five weeks to go in the regular season.

“Each and every one of these games is a playoff game for us,” linebacker Bud Dupree said.

The Falcons turned in a dominating defensive performance against the Jets, though it certainly helped to be playing perhaps the most hapless offense in the NFL.

With Tim Boyle and Trevor Siemian overmatched at quarterback, New York (4-8) managed just 259 yards and 14 first downs.

Then again, Atlanta put up even worse numbers on offense, slogging on a rainy day to a mere 194 yards — its second-lowest output of the season.

Granted, the Jets have a stout defense, but it was another sign that the Falcons — even if they make the playoffs — would have to show dramatic improvement offensively to have any chance of avoiding an ugly one-and-done in the postseason.

The game's lone touchdown came after New York fumbled the ball away at its own 47. Desmond Ridder connected on a 20-yard scoring pass to MyCole Pruitt.

Otherwise, it was largely a punting duel.

After a 51-yard drive — their longest of the game — set up Younghoe Koo's second field goal, Atlanta managed only 26 yards and one first down on its last five possessions before a kneel-down ended the game.

An offseason spending spree to bulk up the defense is clearly paying big dividends. The Falcons rank in the top 10 in points allowed (20 per game) and total yards (315.9). Safety Jessie Bates continued his stellar play with five solo tackles and an interception.

Ridder has won both starts since reclaiming the starting quarterback job, but it's hard to get excited about his numbers.

He completed 12 of 27 passes for 121 yards against the Jets and was sacked three times. The only promising development for the NFL's 26th-ranked passer was he didn't throw an interception.

The Falcons host division rival Tampa Bay on Sunday in a game that could solidify their playoff hopes.

A third straight victory would give them a two-game lead over the Bucs and a sweep of the season series after a 16-13 victory in October. Also, it would push Atlanta to 4-0 in division games, providing another potential tiebreaker edge over Tampa Bay and New Orleans.

The Falcons haven't had a three-game winning streak since 2019.

“It's a huge game for us,” Smith said. “That's what you want to be in.”