Updated Dec. 16, 2011 @ 12:29 a.m. ET
By Paul Newberry, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Ho hum, another winning season for the Atlanta Falcons.
That's not such a big deal anymore.
This team has much higher goals.
Putting together its most complete effort of the season, the Falcons clinched a fourth straight winning record with a 41-14 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night. Matt Ryan had another big game, throwing three touchdown passes in less than three quarters of work, and John Abraham terrorized rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert with 3½ sacks.
Atlanta (9-5) strengthened its hold on an NFC wild card, shrugging off the immediate accomplishment of another above-.500 finish.
``Our expectations are much higher than winning seasons,'' coach Mike Smith said. ``I'm glad we've been able to accomplish that as an organization and a football team. But believe me, It's not one of those expectations we really want to talk about. If we're where we think we are as an organization and a football team, that's expected each and every year.''
It wasn't so long ago that nine wins was a big deal. The Falcons went through the first 42 years of their existence without so much as back-to-back winning seasons. All that changed when Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff took over in 2008.
Since then, Atlanta has been to the playoff two times and is closing in on a third appearance.
``I can't speak to the people who came before, but I know since Thomas and I had the opportunity to be here, we've just kind of put our heads down and gone to work,'' Smith said. ``When you do that, good things usually happen. We are not finished, believe me. Our expectations and internal goals are much higher than having a winning football season.''
This one was over by halftime. Atlanta led 27-0 when the teams trotted to the locker room, Blaine Gabbert and the shellshocked Jaguars (4-10) saddled with a net passing total of minus-1 yard.
Atlanta stretched out its lead to 41-0 before Jacksonville scored on a blocked punt. Going back to the previous week, when the Falcons overcame a 16-point halftime deficit at Carolina, they ripped off 65 points in a row over five quarters.
Now that's more like it from a team that was projected as a Super Bowl contender but had not quite lived up to expectations.
``I feel like we've hit our stride,'' said Roddy White, who had 10 catches for 135 yards and became just the eighth receiver in NFL history with 80 receptions and 1,000 yards in five straight seasons.
Gabbert had one of his worst games in a miserable rookie season, coughing up the ball twice on hits by Abraham. Both fumbles led to Atlanta scores, with defensive tackle Corey Peters scooping up the second one and trotting to the end zone early in the third quarter for a touchdown that ended any thought of the Jaguars getting back in the game.
``It wasn't just me,'' said Abraham, who came into the game with only five sacks on the season. ``The whole team was able to get to the quarterback.''
Ryan was 19 of 26 for 224 yards and three touchdowns, with a season-high rating of 137.3. White caught two of the scoring passes, Julio Jones the other.
Gabbert was 12 of 22 for 141 yards, also throwing an interception during a truly awful night full of bad decisions when he wasn't running for his life. He was sacked five times and got most of his yards on a meaningless final drive, which resulted in the only offensive touchdown of the night: a 16-yard pass to Chastin West with 59 seconds remaining.
``It wasn't our best night,'' Gabbert said. ``We've just got to learn from it, take the positives out of it and just get better.''
The injury-riddled Jaguars, playing out the season with an interim coach and a new owner, were coming off their best performance, having scored 41 straight points in a 41-14 victory over Tampa Bay. But, playing for the third time in 11 days, they couldn't build any momentum for a strong finish.
Shahid Khan must have been wondering why he paid an estimated $760 million to buy the team from original Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver, a deal that was unanimously approved by NFL owners a day earlier.
``You've just got to keep fighting,'' Gabbert said. ``Things didn't go our way early, but what can you do? It's football.''
On the first snap of the game, Michael Turner burst off left guard for 15 yards, and the Falcons were off and running. Ryan capped the opening drive by stepping up to avoid the pressure, flipping a short pass to Jones, then watching the rookie turn on an impressive burst of speed for a 29-yard touchdown.
Gabbert got an idea of what he'd be up against on his first snap: Abraham shrugged off a blocker and threw the quarterback for a 10-yard loss. The rookie finally completed a pass on the final play of the opening quarter, but Sean Weatherspoon sniffed out the screen and slammed Marcedes Lewis for a 4-yard loss.
Matt Bryant kicked a 33-yard field goal that made it 10-0, then another brutal mistake by the Jaguars early in the second quarter helped turn this one into a rout. Jarett Dillard let a punt slip right through his hands, and Weatherspoon fell on it at the Jacksonville 5. The next play, Turner rumbled into the end zone standing to make it 17-0.
The Falcons weren't done, not by a long shot. Ryan capped a nine-play, 72-yard by hooking up with White in the back on the end zone on a 6-yard touchdown, a pass that Tony Gonzalez was nearly in position to catch as well.
Now down 24-0, the Jaguars couldn't even get off the field without turning it over again. Abraham popped the ball loose from Gabbert, and after a wild scramble Curtis Lofton finally fell on it at the Jacksonville 19. That set up Bryant's second field goal, a 31-yarder on the final play of the half.
``I've just got to get rid of the ball,'' Gabbert said. ``I can't take those sacks and those fumbles. That's completely on me.''
NOTES: Jacksonville had negative net yards passing most of the game and finished with just 91, actually lowering what was already the NFL's worst passing average. ... Jones finished with five catches for 85 yards. ... Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL's leading rusher, had 112 yards on 17 carries.
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