ATLANTA (AP) — As the Atlanta Falcons learned so painfully in last season's playoffs, the key is peaking at the right time.
Maybe they'll get it right this season.
With their best effort of an up-and-down 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.
"I feel like we've hit our stride," said Roddy White, who had 10 catches for 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
A year ago, the Falcons won the NFC South with a conference-leading 13 wins. But they were one-and-done in the playoffs, blown out at home by the Green Bay Packers in the division round.
The Packers went on to claim the Super Bowl title and haven't lost since.
Atlanta would like to follow their lead.
"You know, Green Bay did a heck of a job last year peaking at the right time," White said. "I feel like we haven't hit our stride. The last two games, we've been hitting it."
Atlanta led 27-0 at halftime and stretched it out 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.
Atlanta (9-5) strengthened its hold on an NFC wild card and clinched its fourth straight winning season.
Ho hum. This team has much higher goals than finishing above .500.
"I'm glad we've been able to accomplish that as an organization and a football team," coach Mike Smith said. "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 victories 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.
"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," the coach 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, Gabbert and the shell-shocked Jaguars (4-10) saddled with a net passing total of minus-1 yard. It got as bad as minus-29 before Jacksonville piled up some meaningless yards on its final two possessions.
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 scooting 13 yards 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. Rookie Julio Jones had the other TD on a 29-yard reception, his third score in the past two weeks.
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 an irrelevant final drive, which resulted in Jacksonville's only offensive touchdown: 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 in a deal that was unanimously approved by NFL owners a day earlier.
Michael Turner had a 5-yard touchdown run and Matt Bryant kicked a pair of field goals to account for Atlanta's other scoring in the 41-point barrage.
"We didn't execute good against a good team and you saw what happened," Lewis said. "Nothing really more to it. Things got out of hand way too fast and we weren't able to recover.
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