It hasn't always been pretty, but Falcons two wins shy of NFC South crown

TAMPA, Fla. -- A three-game losing streak in October was portrayed to be the end of the world for the Atlanta Falcons and the ultimate sign of a Super Bowl hangover.

So much for that.

Over and over during the skid, coach Dan Quinn preached resetting following losses. His words kicked in eventually. Now the Falcons find themselves in a positive place as the postseason approaches.

Not every victory has been pretty, but the Falcons' 9-5 record after Monday night's 24-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has them in better position to earn their second consecutive NFC South title.

"We've got a lot of work to do," running back Devonta Freeman said. "I still feel like we haven't played our best ball. But it's a lot of football out there for us, man. Hopefully, we're trying to be here for February."

Just two games remain on the regular-season schedule, with a Christmas Eve showdown with New Orleans and the season finale at home against Carolina on New Year's Eve. A pair of wins over the Saints and Panthers would send the Falcons into 2018 with a division title and at least one home playoff game, either in a wild-card matchup or in the divisional round.

The Falcons entered Monday night sixth in the NFC playoff picture and maintained their standing behind the fourth-seeded Saints and fifth-seeded Panthers, both 10-4. They can surpass both teams by handing each of them a loss the next two weeks.

If all three teams finish 11-5, which is possible, the Falcons would get the nod based on what would be a season sweep of the Saints and an overall record of 5-1 in the division. In that scenario, the Falcons would have a season split with the Panthers but a better division record, with the Panthers having lost two NFC South games to the Saints.

"We are right where we need to be at this point of the season," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Two games to go in the regular season, and we have to find a way to get back to work this week, try to improve and make sure that we play the best we are capable of playing next Sunday to try and get a win."

The Falcons' chances of making the playoffs increased even before Monday night, with losses by Green Bay and Seattle on Sunday. The Falcons' win eliminated the Packers from playoff contention, and the Falcons hold tiebreakers over all current 8-6 teams -- the Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit Lions -- based on wins against those teams in the regular season. If the Falcons beat the Saints on Sunday, they are in the playoffs.

Pulling off the close games is always key, and the Falcons played their 10th game decided by seven points or fewer on Monday night, the most in the NFL. It wasn't over until the Buccaneers' Patrick Murray missed a 54-yard field goal attempt as time expired.

The question now is can the Falcons close with strong efforts against the Saints and Panthers? They'll have to play better than they did against the depleted Buccaneers, who were without star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David due to injury and without running back Doug Martin for disciplinary reasons. Then Tampa Bay lost receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard during the game, so the Falcons were expected to win.

Getting Freeman going in the running game -- he rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown and had another 68 yards receiving on Monday -- is important for the stretch run, but he must stop putting the ball on the ground. He has three fumbles -- all of them recovered by teammates -- the past two games.

Ryan looked better against the Buccaneers than he did last week against the Saints and showed some nifty footwork running the ball -- he noted that he has probably made two or three people miss his entire career -- but he still isn't the MVP-caliber player we saw last season. Also, Julio Jones shouldn't ever get shut out in a half, like he did in the second half Monday after catching three passes for 54 yards in the first half. Then again, the Falcons had the running game going, compiling a season-high 201 rushing yards.

Defensively, Keanu Neal's forced fumble and recovery in the red zone marked a key play in the game and the kind of turnover the Falcons need to force to beat the Saints and Panthers.

There were breakdowns, though. The Falcons gave up two 30-plus-yard touchdown receptions and a 130.5 passer rating to Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. Big plays, poor tackling and shoddy special-teams play will catch up to the Falcons if they don't get them corrected. Such issues could decide just how far they go, division title or not.

"It's just cleaning up the details," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "We just detail our work and stop the explosive plays."