FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons’ path to the playoffs is simple — win this week at New Orleans, and they’re in.

If only it were that easy.

Atlanta (9-5) has yet to figure out how to put away opponents on the road. Monday’s 24-21 win at Tampa Bay gave the Falcons a fifth road victory, but each of them has been decided in the closing seconds.

Coach Dan Quinn sees a positive in the close calls.

“Here’s what I like about that,” Quinn said Tuesday. “There is a hardening that takes place, a confidence from coming through in those environments to know that this is our time to stand up and make opportunities count.”

The tough part for Atlanta is changing the script. Building a lead hasn’t been hard to accomplish, but the offense, despite leading the NFL in third-down efficiency, inevitably has to punt late in the fourth quarter.

Then the defense gives up a few big plays to set up a frenzied finish. Monday marked Atlanta’s second straight road game to end with a missed field goal that would’ve forced overtime.

Overall the Falcons have played 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, most in the NFL, and they’re 6-4 in those situations.

One quick fix is obvious — the defense ranks next-to-last with 12 takeaways and ranks last with just four interceptions. Improve those numbers, and Atlanta might reduce its penchant for drama.

“I think we did well,” strong safety Keanu Neal said. “There were a few plays we left out there, but no game is perfect. It’s about learning from those and moving forward, but I think overall we had a decent game.”

Neal had the lone takeaway against the Buccaneers, stripping the ball from Peyton Barber and recovering the fumble at the Atlanta 9-yard line in the second quarter. Free safety Ricardo Allen picked off Jameis Winston on the next Tampa possession, but cornerback Robert Alford was flagged for holding to nullify the interception.

It marked the sixth time this season the Falcons have lost a pick because of a penalty.

“That’s a big difference,” Quinn said. “That part of our game we’ve got to clean up.”

Despite their difficulties, the Falcons have won five of six and head into Week 16 with a chance to repeat as division champions for the first time in their 52-year history.

They must beat the Saints and then knock off Carolina at home in Week 17. Both opponents are 10-4 and tied atop the NFC South.

“We made enough plays to get it done,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “It keeps us right where we want to be and now we have to find a way to get better this week and try to get a win next Sunday down in New Orleans.”

Notes: K Matt Bryant improved to 7 for 8 on field-goal tries of 50 yards or more. He’s tied with Buffalo’s Stephen Hauschka for the best percentage in those scenarios. … Quinn wants Ryan to improve his accuracy by not forcing so many passes to WR Julio Jones. Jones has been targeted 19 times in the last two games but has just eight catches. … RB Tevin Coleman is still in the concussion protocol and could miss his second straight game. … Quinn expects LG Andy Levitre to return to practice later in the week. Levitre has missed the last two games with a triceps injury. Ben Garland has started in his place.


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