HOUSTON — You can't take anything away from the Falcons or the Patriots. Like the ball, for example.
In what is not a coincidence, each of those teams committed only 11 turnovers in the regular season, the fewest in the NFL. The Bucs had about that many in September.
No matter what you think about Jameis Winston, he has to do a better job of protecting the ball if the Bucs are going to the Super Bowl with him at quarterback.
You love Winston's competitiveness and his unwillingness to give up on any play. He has always been a bit of a gunslinger. So was Brett Favre, you say? But this season, his second in the same system under offensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach Dirk Koetter, Winston threw 18 interceptions and lost six of the Bucs' nine fumbles, the latter tying Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles for the most in the league.
Each Winston turnover has a story. A couple of his interceptions were Fail Marys at the end of a game or half. A few fumbles were the result of blind-side sacks. But those count, too.
Every team emphasizes protecting the ball. The most important statistic at the end of a game is the giveaway-takeaway ratio. Win that and a team likely has won the game. But you can't talk players into not throwing interceptions or fumbling.
"We reminded (our players that) teams are 9-0 in this postseason when they're in the plus in the turnover margin," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "It's a great stat, one that I love sharing with the team because it's not offensive-stat driven or defensive-stat driven. It's totally team related."
It's probably not surprising that the Patriots finished atop the league with fewest giveaways. Quarterback Tom Brady has been with coach Bill Belichick for 17 seasons. Brady has had a few different offensive coordinators, but the offense's basic principles haven't changed much.
On the other hand, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw 21 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions in 2015. His team fumbled 26 times and lost 13, matching the Bucs. This season, Ryan's second under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the quarterback has thrown 45 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions, including the postseason.
What was the difference? A lot of things.
"Familiarity with the offense has certainly helped," Ryan said. "I think being real comfortable with what we're doing goes a long way. No. 2, I think collectively as individuals we've all done a better job with it. Our ballcarriers have been spot on all year, really conscious of guys going after the ball and trying to create takeaways.
"As a passer, to me it's about making really good decisions. We feel like we've done a good job with that the entire season."
Ryan is 31, and Brady is 39. Winston is 23. But at least in the case of the Falcons, the organization made a conscious effort to build around its quarterback.
Already armed with receiver Julio Jones, Atlanta signed free agent receiver Mohamed Sanu. The Falcons claimed Taylor Gabriel off waivers from the Browns, adding speed and six touchdown receptions. They fortified the offensive line by signing free agent Pro Bowl center Alex Mack.
The Falcons also have drafted arguably the best backfield tandem, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
"It makes your job a lot easier, and I'm really fortunate to be surrounded by an awesome supporting cast," Ryan said.
So here is what the Bucs must do: Give Winston more weapons, be it through free agency or the draft. Protect him better. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith may have to make do with his personnel for another season because the offense needs to be the focus.
Some sage advice from Ryan:
"If (a play isn't) there, we don't need to force it. Let's (just) keep the chains moving. Because I really like there's a belief that we're going to create a play at some point. … And when we get it, don't hesitate. But until then, let's make the right decision and keep going."