The Atlanta Falcons have to like their position approaching the midway point of the season.
Already matching their win total for all of last season, the Falcons can look toward a highly favorable schedule the rest of the way.
Other than two games against NFC South rival Carolina, which is 6-0 and leads the division by a half-game, Atlanta plays only one other team with a winning record.
Yet, given what the Falcons (6-1) went through the past two years — combining to go 10-22, which cost coach Mike Smith his job — they don’t want to let up now.
“We’ve found different ways to get it done week in and week out,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “The defense has stepped up on a number of occasions late in games, creating turnovers. We’ve run the football really effectively. It’s been a good team effort week in and week out.”
First-year coach Dan Quinn said one of the biggest reasons for Atlanta’s turnaround is the chemistry he feels in the locker room.
“You see how tight this team has become, the connection that they have for one another,” said Quinn, the former defensive coordinator in Seattle.
“Most of the good teams that I’ve been a part of, they have that connection, just knowing they’re just going to play as hard as they can for one another. That part, from the players and coaches connecting, I’ve been really pleased with so far.”
It’s a different story for Tampa Bay, which is coming off one of the worst losses in franchise history.
The Buccaneers (2-4) squandered a 24-point lead at Washington, losing 31-30 in a game that may take a while to get over.
Coach Lovie Smith is doing his best to make sure the sting doesn’t linger.
“Most of us have been in disappointing losses like that,” said Smith, whose team missed a chance to get to .500 at its latest point in the season since 2010. “There’s a mourning period that you go through. That’s right after the game, but … you can’t dwell on it much more.”
The Bucs appear likely to be without receiver Vincent Jackson, who sustained a knee injury in Sunday’s loss. If he can’t go, there will be even more of a burden on Mike Evans, who is looking to build on a career-best eight catches for 164 yards against Washington.
“It changes it a lot,” Evans said. “We’re losing one of the best in the game.”
Here are some other things to watch for in the NFC South matchup:
BALL SECURITY: The Falcons have turned it over eight times in the past three games, including four interceptions by Ryan. That’s a big reason the offense has bogged down, even though the average yards per game is basically identical to the first month of the season. The Falcons were fortunate to win two of three even while going minus-four in turnover margin. For Quinn, cutting down the turnovers — and getting a few more on the defensive side — is a top priority.
WINSTON’S PROGRESS: Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick, has gone through some of the expected growing pains in his rookie season, but the past two weeks have been more encouraging: 34 of 48 for 506 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, Winston hasn’t thrown an interception after being picked off seven times in his first four games. “When you take care of the football, it gives us a chance to win,” he said.
FABULOUS FREEMAN: Winston’s former Florida State teammate is also on a roll. Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman was honored as the NFC’s offensive player of the month after rushing for more than 100 yards in three straight games — the first Falcons back to do that since Michael Turner in 2009. The second-year player leads the NFL with 621 yards on the ground and already has scored 10 touchdowns.
NUMBERS LIE: Tampa Bay ranks fifth in the league in yards allowed, which sounds pretty good. Until you consider the Bucs have yielded the second-most points in the league, which is what really matters.
BRYANT’S MISSES: Atlanta’s Matt Bryant has been one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers over the past five seasons, making 141 of 157 field goal attempts (89.8 percent). After knocking through his first six attempts this season, the 40-year-old is in a bit of a slump. He banged the uprights with a pair of attempts against Washington three weeks ago, and missed again from 47 yards last Sunday.