Falcons still have playoff hopes

A spectacular comeback helped put the Atlanta Falcons in position for their third playoff berth in four years.

With coach Mike Smith expected to be on the sideline after a medical scare, the Falcons will try to hold on to that spot Thursday night against a visiting Jacksonville Jaguars team that showed it’s not just content to play out the string.

Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have installed the Falcons as 11-point home favorites, with the total set at 42 1/2.

It appeared that Atlanta’s playoff hopes might take a hit this past Sunday when it trailed 23-7 at halftime in Carolina. The Falcons, though, responded with 24 unanswered points in a 31-23 victory and received additional help later in the day with Chicago’s stunning overtime loss in Denver.

Matt Ryan had three of his career high-tying four touchdown passes over the final 24 minutes against the Panthers, including two to Julio Jones in the fourth quarter.

“We approached it as the first of four legs,” Ryan said of the team’s remaining games. “We’ve knocked the first leg out and now we’ve got to move on and keep going.”

Atlanta (8-5) enters this week tied with Detroit for the NFC’s final playoff berths, and leading Chicago and Dallas by one game. The Falcons have a trip to NFC South leader New Orleans remaining on their schedule, which could make winning this week’s game crucial to their postseason hopes.

Judging by their most recent performance, the Jaguars (4-9) might not make it easy for Atlanta. Jacksonville is coming off its highest-scoring game in nearly four years, a 41-14 rout of Tampa Bay on Sunday that snapped a three-game skid.

Maurice Jones-Drew scored a career-high four times while helping interim coach Mel Tucker earn his first win and set a franchise record with his 71st career touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Rookie Blaine Gabbert threw two of those TDs to the running back while topping 200 yards for the third time this season.

“This is what we expected to have all year,” defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “It didn’t work like that, but hopefully it will be good momentum for us.”

While the Jaguars will seek to win consecutive games for the first time this season, the Falcons will try to claim their seventh victory in nine contests and will likely have Smith to help them in that attempt.

The 52-year-old Atlanta coach checked into a Charlotte hospital after he reportedly became ill and walked off the team plane following Sunday’s win. The Falcons released a statement that Smith was examined for a “non-emergency matter” but did not offer further details.

He returned to Atlanta early Monday morning on owner Arthur Blank’s private jet and was back at practice that night.

“I’m really embarrassed to have to even be talking about it,” Smith said. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’d prefer to talk about the way our guys played in the second half and we’ve got a short week and we’ve got to get ready for Jacksonville.”

Smith had the Falcons ready to play on three days’ rest last season when they beat Baltimore 26-21 during an eight-game win streak. However, they weren’t ready the last time they faced the Jaguars, losing 13-7 during a 4-12 campaign in 2007.

Smith was hired after that season and led the team to an 11-5 record in his first year.

Atlanta finished last season with the NFC’s best record (13-3) but needs to win out and have New Orleans lose its remaining games to repeat as division champs.

They’ll try to take a step toward fulfilling at least one part of that scenario by earning their second win in five games against Jacksonville. Atlanta claimed that victory during the previous matchup at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 28, 2003.

Ryan, who has topped 300 yards in three of the last five games, will try to lead his team to another win by setting a single-season mark. He needs 232 yards to top last year’s 3,705.

Top receiver Roddy White is 35 yards shy of his fifth straight 1,000-yard season and had four catches for 81 yards against the Jaguars in 2007.

Jones-Drew needs 170 yards to top his career high of 1,391 set in 2009.