Of course, it’s sure easier to fix the problems when you’re still unbeaten.
Asante Samuel returned an interception 79 yards for a touchdown in the closing minutes and Matt Bryant connected on a 55-yard field goal with 1 second remaining, allowing the Falcons to escape with a sloppy 23-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
Overcoming three interceptions by Matt Ryan, the Falcons (6-0) extended the best start in franchise history.
It wasn’t easy against the pesky Raiders (1-4), who bounced back from Samuel’s pick to tie the game with less than a minute to go, but left a little too much time on the clock for Atlanta’s final possession.
Ryan completed four short passes, the last of them a 13-yarder to Tony Gonzalez that got Bryant in range for his longest field goal since joining the Falcons in 2009 – and his second game-winning kick in three weeks.
Bryant beat the Panthers 30-28 on a 40-yard field goal with 5 seconds left.
“He knows how to get himself prepared, how to calm himself down, how to get it through those pipes,” Ryan said. “He’s made a lot of clutch kicks for us through the years.”
Bryant actually missed one early, pulling a 43-yarder wide left to break a streak of 23 consecutive field goals going back to last season. He bounced back to connect from 41 and 20 yards before making the one that really mattered.
“Missing that one early kind of woke me up a little bit to focus even harder,” Bryant said.
Ryan finished 24 of 37 for 249 yards and equaled his career high for picks, matching the three he had against New Orleans in 2009.
But he was cool as can be with the game on the line.
“We’ve been in these situations before,” Ryan said. “We know what we need to do.”
After a mostly ugly game, the final 3 minutes were thrilling. Tied at 13, the Raiders were in position for a go-ahead field goal when Samuel stepped in front of Carson Palmer’s pass at the Atlanta 21 and returned it for a touchdown, racing to the end zone right in front of the Falcons’ bench.
Palmer shook off that huge mistake, leading the Raiders down the field for the tying score. He connected with Derek Hagan on a 38-yard pass to the Atlanta 5, and Darren McFadden scored on a 2-yard run with 40 seconds left.
Just enough time for the Falcons, it turned out.
Palmer was 23 of 33 for 353 yards, putting up much better rating than Ryan. But the Raiders quarterback was kicking himself for that one devastating play: the pick by Samuel.
“Put the blame on me,” Palmer said. “It’s completely my fault.”
Ryan came into the game with three interceptions in the first five weeks. He doubled his total by halftime.
On the fourth snap of the day, Ryan went over the middle looking for Harry Douglas but didn’t see cornerback Joselio Hanson. Atlanta’s third possession ended the same way. Ryan made an ill-advised decision to throw deep to Julio Jones, despite triple coverage. Michael Huff made an easy interception at the Oakland 2. Late in the second quarter, with Atlanta clinging to a 7-6 lead, Ryan got popped by blitzing linebacker Philip Wheeler just as he released the ball. The fluttering pass settled right in the arms of safety Tyvon Branch, giving Oakland the ball at the Falcons 28.
The Raiders quickly seized on the third interception. Palmer flipped a short pass to Denarius Moore, who took it all the way to the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown that gave Oakland a 13-7 lead at halftime. Sebastian Janikowski connected on field goals of 52 and 22 yards, while the Falcons’ lone score was Ryan’s 4-yard pass to Roddy White, capping a 10-play, 80-yard drive.
The third quarter turned into a defensive slog, the only points coming on Bryant’s first two field goals.
John Abraham had a huge day on the Falcons’ defense. He sacked Palmer three times and gave Atlanta’s sputtering offense a chance to retake the lead in the third when he stripped the ball away from the quarterback just before his right arm came forward. Ray Edwards scooped up the fumble and rumbled to the Oakland 2.
But the Raiders held. Michael Turner was stopped just short of the goal line and, even after an offside penalty moved the tip of ball just short of the end zone, Atlanta couldn’t get it in. Jason Snelling was thrown for a 2-yard loss on third down, forcing Atlanta to settle for Bryant’s 20-yard field goal that tied the game at 13.