- Associated Press - Monday, November 22, 2010

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. (AP) - The Atlanta Falcons are at their best when playing takeaway.

The NFC-leading Falcons (8-2) have outscored opponents 73-30 in the fourth quarter. Coach Mike Smith attributes much of the late success to a turnover margin that ranks second in the league.

When winning the turnover battle, Atlanta is 17-1 in three years under Smith. This season, the Falcons have a plus-10 margin in takeaways, which trails only Philadelphia.

Coming off a 34-17 victory at St. Louis, the Falcons have a four-game winning streak and lead New Orleans and Tampa Bay by one game in the NFC South heading into Sunday’s big contest against another division leader, the Green Bay Packers.

Like every coach, Smith recites a familiar mantra to his players every spring when they report for mini-camp: Win the turnover battle, and you win games.

The team has clearly taken the message to heart. Atlanta is 7-0 this season when it has fewer turnovers than the opponent.

“We’re plus-one this week, so we’re now plus-10,” Smith said Monday. “We’re second in the league, and when you get the turnovers and don’t turn the ball over and you’re on the plus side, you’re basically stealing possessions.”

Not that it’s been easy. The Falcons have needed fourth-quarter magic to beat St. Louis, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.

Safety William Moore was the latest hero, picking off Sam Bradford’s shuttle pass at the Atlanta 1 before Michael Turner’s 39-yard touchdown run one possession later sealed the win.

“We just got away for a minute in the end there,” Turner said, “but it was pretty tight throughout the whole game.”

The Falcons aren’t just satisfied with multiple takeaways and minimal giveaways. Ranking second in time of possession, second in third-down offensive efficiency and seventh in rushing, Atlanta has found a strong formula for winning.

Defense creates turnovers. Offense scores points.

But it also helps that quarterback Matt Ryan is becoming a master at making the correct pre-snap reads, calling plays from no-huddle formations and making use of several targets.

Ryan benefits from having three elite playmakers in Turner, NFL receiving leader Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, but he also gets starting wideout Michael Jenkins and several reserves involved in the passing game.

Against the Rams, a four-man tandem of reserves _ tight end Justin Peelle, running back Jason Snelling and receivers Brian Finneran and Eric Weems _ combined to catch seven passes for 70 yards, two touchdowns and three third-down conversions.

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