- Associated Press - Thursday, December 21, 2017

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - The Falcons know they need to start winning the turnover margin if they want to return to the playoffs.

Starting this Sunday at New Orleans would be a good time.

Falcons linebacker Deion Jones jumped to make a game-clinching interception in the end zone to help the Falcons hold off the Saints for a 20-17 win on Dec. 7 in the first matchup.

Atlanta knows that committing three turnovers and getting one takeaway is unlikely to work again in a game where a win would clinch a playoff berth.

And the Falcons (9-5) have been dealing with this issue all season. Their minus-4 turnover margin is tied for eighth-worst in the NFL.

“For us to finish at minus-2, that’s hard to win,” Quinn said. “So, we know we lost possessions and we didn’t gain enough to give it back to the offense. The turnover margin, we’ve had a couple games where it was really out of whack where we had three.”

This is one of the biggest differences in Atlanta this season vs. 2016, when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl with a plus-11 margin (22 takeaways, 11 turnovers) that ranked No. 5.

In fact, when they won their final four regular-season games and in the playoffs against Seattle and Green Bay, the Falcons committed just one turnover and had 13 takeaways.

Atlanta is tied for the fourth-fewest takeaways this season with 12.

They have just four interceptions in 14 games, tied with the Raiders for fewest, after an interception by safety Ricardo Allen in Monday night’s 24-21 win at Tampa Bay was overturned because cornerback Robert Alford was called for holding Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans on the play.

Quinn said that was the sixth Atlanta takeaway of the season nullified by a defensive penalty, something he lamented this week and not for the first time.

Allen said Alford apologized to him Monday night, but that wasn’t necessary.

“Rocky said something to me when we got to the sideline … he said like, ‘That’s my bad, man. I should’ve done better.’ I said, ‘I appreciate that and all, but man, let’s move on. It ain’t that big of a deal.’”

The Falcons are tied for the fifth-fewest turnovers in the NFL with 16, although quarterback Matt Ryan’s 11 interceptions - he threw three against the Saints - are four more than he threw all of last season.

Atlanta’s bigger problem has been the shortage of takeaways, something Quinn preaches repeatedly in practice as the Falcons prepare for a game where a victory would keep alive the team’s chance to win the NFC South heading into a home game against the Panthers (10-4) on Dec. 31.

There was only one turnover in Monday’s game against the Bucs, and it was critical.

Atlanta safety Keanu Neal hit Tampa running back Peyton Barber after a 4-yard run that would’ve created a first-and-goal at the Falcons 5 in the first quarter, forcing and recovering a fumble to thwart a red zone drive.

With that in mind, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said that there’s no need for apologies or pep talks, and the Falcons aren’t going to change anything.

“That’s football. We’re an aggressive team. Just keep going. You can’t worry about stuff like that,” he said. “Rock is aggressive, and we understand that … It’s obviously not hurting us right now. It’s not a big deal.”

Allen even said Alford’s penalty was a good play because without it Evans might have gotten open down the field.

“If you jump a route and it’s not the route you were thinking and they run a double-move, the smartest thing to do is to get a penalty,” he said of Alford’s play.

NOTES: Falcons running back Tevin Coleman cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol, and after missing Monday’s game in Tampa Bay he is expected to play Sunday against the Saints. … Wide receiver Julio Jones (ankle, thumb) was a limited participant in Thursday’s practice, and is expected to play. … Left guard Andy Levitre (partially torn left triceps) continues to practice with the starters and will likely return to the starting lineup after missing two-plus games.

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