Falcons still in playoff mix despite another loss

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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are headed for their second straight losing season.

They're not in first place anymore, either.

Yet, there's always hope in the hapless NFC South.

Even with a 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the Falcons can still make the playoffs by winning their final two games against division rivals New Orleans and Carolina.

"We can't worry about anything other than this week," said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for 310 yards but had an interception returned for a touchdown. "We know what's in front of us. We know what we've got to do."

Playing without star receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons (5-9) slipped behind Carolina (5-8-1), which defeated Tampa Bay 19-17, and the Saints (5-8), who play at Chicago on Monday night.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 360 yards to eclipse his previous career high for yards in a season. He sealed the win with a 25-yard pass to Heath Miller on third-and-1 from the Atlanta 39.

"We've got two games," Falcons receiver Roddy White said. "If we win two games, we're in. If we lose, we're not going to the playoffs. It's all on us."

Pittsburgh led 13-0 after William Gay picked off Ryan's pass on the first play of the second quarter, returning it for a 52-yard TD. The Steelers extended the lead to 27-13 with Le'Veon Bell's second touchdown, a 13-yard run in the opening minute of the fourth period.

The Falcons made a game of it when Ryan hooked up with White for a 4-yard touchdown. It was White's 62nd TD, breaking a tie with Michael Turner the franchise record.

But the Steelers (9-5) wrapped up their second straight victory by running the final 4:34 off the clock, remaining a half-game behind Cincinnati in the AFC North. They converted twice on third down, the clincher coming when Roethlisberger passed to Miller with the Falcons expecting a run.

"We're not a perfect group by any stretch," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said, "but we're a group that will fight to the end together."

With Roethlisberger, they always seem to have a fighting chance.

He's on a mission to get Pittsburgh back to the playoffs after they missed the past two years, going 8-8 each time. This was his third straight game with more than 300 yards passing, and eighth of the season.

Roethlisberger completed 27 of 35 and increased his season total to 4,415 yards, surpassing his previous franchise record of 4,328 from 2009 with two games to go. Bell also scored on a 1-yard run, but fell short of becoming the first player in NFL history with four straight 200-yard games in total yardage.

The back finished with 47 yards rushing and 72 yards receiving, leaving him and Walter Payton as the only players with three straight 200-yard games from scrimmage.

Antonio Brown had 10 receptions for 123 yards, also setting a Steelers record for catches in a season: 115, eclipsing the 112 by Hines Ward in 2002.

Ryan completed 26 of 37 even though he didn't have his top receiver. Jones sat out with a hip injury sustained in the closing minutes of a 259-yard performance against Green Bay.

"It's tough when he's not in," Ryan said. "He's such a special player, such a dynamic player for us."

Early on, Ryan looked out of sync, most noticeably on a pass over the middle intended for Harry Douglas. Gay stepped in to grab it — and kept right on running until he reached the end zone.

The Steelers were up 20-7 at the half, but Atlanta put together a pair of impressive drives in the third quarter. Unfortunately for the Falcons, they couldn't get to the end zone, settling for short field goals by Matt Bryant.

That was crucial when Roethlisberger guided the Steelers on an 80-yard drive, completing a 26-yard pass to Miller, then a 30-yarder Markus Wheaton to start the fourth quarter. On the next play, Bell took it around the left end for the score.

After Ryan's touchdown pass to White with 10:21 remaining, Atlanta got the ball only one more time. The Falcons went three-and-out, and the Steelers ran out the clock.

NOTES: Starting in place of Jones, Douglas had 10 catches for a season-high 131 yards. ... Bell pushed his total yards for the season to 2,043, eclipsing Barry Foster's team record of 2,034. ... Falcons CB Josh Wilson went out with a hand injury while covering a kickoff. ... Getting more time at receiver with Jones out, Devin Hester had 85 yards on five catches, including a 17-yarder for Atlanta's first touchdown.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL


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