ATLANTA (AP) – A loss is never a good thing.
Yet some are better than others.
Take the Atlanta Falcons, who showed plenty of fight at Lambeau Field before their second-half comeback came up just short against the Green Bay Packers.
The 43-37 setback didn’t bump the Falcons (5-8) out of first place in the woeful NFC South, and it actually gave them a positive outlook heading into Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5).
“There’s no give-up,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “There’s a belief that regardless of the situation, we can make things happen.”
The Falcons were embarrassed in the first half by the Packers, falling behind 31-7, but nearly pulled off an improbable rally on a night when Julio Jones set a franchise record with 259 yards receiving.
If the Falcons are feeling that positive about a loss, just imagine what kind of high the Steelers must be on. They’re coming off an impressive 42-21 victory at Cincinnati that pulled Pittsburgh within a half-game of division-leading Bengals in the jumbled AFC North.
“We just have a hungry bunch that wants to take advantage of the opportunity in front of us,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I think everybody knows we have to take advantage of this from here on out. The playoffs start now for us.”
The Steelers are eager to get back to the postseason after missing out the past two seasons. They haven’t endured a three-year playoff drought since 1998-2000.
While tough to figure out, Pittsburgh has already matched its win total from each of the past two seasons. Unfortunately for the Steelers, their division is the exact opposite of Atlanta’s, the only one in the NFL in which all four teams are above .500.
“I’m not going to reflect on the season right now or what’s beyond this game. It’s the here and now,” said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw three TD passes against the Bengals.
He said there’s no chance of a letdown against Atlanta, even though the Steelers have some inexplicable losses on their record.
“They’re a division leader,” Roethlisbrger said of the Falcons, “so they’ve got everything to play for as well.”
Plagued by tackling issues, the Atlanta defense will have its hands full trying to bring down Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell, who has put together three straight games of at least 200 yards in total offense.
How impressive is that? Hall of Famer Walter Payton is the only other player in NFL history to do it.
Here’s some things to watch for when Falcons host the Steelers at the Georgia Dome:
JULIO’S HEALTH: Jones went out with a hip injury late in the game against the Packers, and it will be a huge loss if he can’t go Sunday. Falcons coach Mike Smith said his top receiver was making good progress less than 48 hours after the game and it’s not imperative that he get any practice time this late in the season. Jones leads the NFL with 1,428 yards receiving on 93 catches. “He kept us in the game,” fellow receiver Roddy White said. “Especially the last five or six weeks, he’s been really turning it on.”
DEFENDING BIG BEN: Roethlisberger is on track for the best season of his career. He’s already thrown for 4,055 yards, second only to Andrew Luck, with 29 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Now he’s going against a Falcons defense that has given up more passing yards than any other team and is tied for the fewest sacks with 15.
FALCONS LINE: Atlanta’s patchwork offensive line has made significant improvement when it comes to protecting Ryan and opening up holes for the running game. They have been together for six games and are performing much better than was expected from a group that has undrafted rookie James Stone at center and undrafted second-year player Ryan Schraeder at right tackle.
BELLWETHER BELL: Bell, the NFL’s second-leading rusher, might be the only one not concerned about his sizable workload. Sure, it’s a lot, but in some ways it’s a scaled-back version of the burden he carried during his college career at Michigan State. Bell is on pace for 385 touches, which is actually less than the 436 he had during his final season with the Spartans in 2012. The Steelers are 5-1 when Bell has at least 20 carries.
CHANGE UP: The Steelers have struggled against underachieving teams this season, with losses to the woeful Jets and Buccaneers. While coach Mike Tomlin insists he has not altered his approach against the Falcons, there was a noticeable uptick in attendance on scheduled day off.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.