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Julio Jones dominates, but Falcons still find closing a challenge

ATLANTA -- It wasn't supposed to be this difficult.

The Atlanta Falcons seemingly had everything working in their favor on a day in which their best player dominated.

When Julio Jones scored a pair of touchdowns in the first half, then surpassed 200 receiving yards in the fourth quarter, you figured the Falcons were set to coast to victory to kick off a three-game home stretch. But suddenly, a glance at the scoreboard saw the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a chance to drive for the game-tying score.

Fortunately for Atlanta, free safety Ricardo Allen, who also played outside and corner and nickel, came up with a crucial third-down stop, then fellow safety Keanu Neal knocked the ball away from Cameron Brate on fourth down -- aided by pressure on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick from Dontari Poe up the middle -- to help keep the Buccaneers from scoring when they took a questionable, fourth-down gamble

The Falcons actually couldn't breathe easily until Tevin Coleman dashed to the corner of the end zone on a 14-yard run with just under two minutes to play, securing a 34-20 victory.

"The perfectionist in our standard is, 'Why do we have to go through those games? Why do we have to fight through those games?,'" Allen said. "We've got to play our ball for four quarters. We just have to stop pulling off of people.

"We're never satisfied. Not even close. We have things we know we need to work on."

The Falcons (7-4) now have strung together three victories in a row as they march toward securing a playoff spot. But coach Dan Quinn would be the first to say his team has to do a better job of finishing after almost blowing a 27-6 lead.

Sure, there were factors working against the Falcons on Sunday. Top cornerback Desmond Trufant absorbed a blow from teammate Neal and was knocked out of the game with a concussion. And nickelback Brian Poole was lost to a lower-back injury. The Falcons obviously missed both of them as the Bucs made a comeback. And the pressure up front was nonexistent until rookie Takk McKinley came up with a key sack late.

But on the positive side, the Falcons should be able to survive any challenge with Jones playing at the level he played on Sunday. He had a season-high 253 receiving yards on 12 receptions with two touchdowns, doubling his touchdown total through the first 10 games. He also had a 15-yard run, with his 268 total yards a huge chunk of the Falcons' season-high 516 total yards. Going 11-of-14 on third down was another sign of the offense ascending to the same level it played at last season, at the right time.

Jones talked about the defensive coverage by the Buccaneers, with their defensive coordinator being former Falcons head coach Mike Smith.

"I was just open," Jones said. "They were just playing quarters. They mixed a little man in. They didn't make any adjustments, so we just kept throwing the ball."

And let's not forget about fellow wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Jones in the second quarter that ignited the Falcons to a hot start. Sanu is now 6-for-6 for his career throwing passes while lining up in the Wildcat -- or 12 gauge, as the team calls the formation.

"I wasn’t confident in it when I saw him bobble that snap, but I knew when he ripped it down the field we had a pretty good chance at it," Quinn said of Sanu's touchdown toss. "He can throw it. He can punt it. He can kick it. And he can damn sure catch it."

Matt Ryan, who completed 26-of-35 passes for 317 yards with a touchdown and passer rating of 111.2, made the key throws when needed. Backup running back Terron Ward made up for what could have been a costly fumble by picking up some tough yards late. And Coleman, who rushed 97 yards on 19 carries while starting for Devonta Freeman (concussion), scored two touchdowns on the same weekend he became the father of twins.

The Falcons still have to make up ground in the NFC South while entering the day behind both New Orleans and Carolina. The Panthers improved to 8-3 with a win over the New York Jets.

The injuries could catch up to them, especially a player the caliber of Trufant. But the biggest issue moving forward is maintaining sizable leads. They are far from clinching a playoff spot and can't afford to blow leads down the stretch.

"We've lost games before by being up and not finishing," Allen said without referencing the Super Bowl loss to New England by name. "That's something we have to work on. Even though we finished the last three weeks, we've got to take [the lulls] out of our game. We push our standard a little higher. We've got to play harder for four quarters."