Falcons head coach Arthur Smith make no secret of the fact the road game at Carolina was massive. He also acknowledged that stakes are even higher for Sunday's game with the host 49ers.
The Falcons are a game behind San Francisco and a victory would even records and secure a huge tiebreaker in the NFC conference standings. If they're going to make a late push for the playoffs, a victory at Levi's Stadium is virtually essential.
It also might come down to the wire, as so many others games have this season. You wanted to discuss the Falcons closing out games this season, Kyle Pitts' role in the 2021 campaign and how Matt Ryan's deal can impact the future.
We get to all that in Wednesday's mailbag.
Christian R. from Atlanta, Ga.
What are your thoughts on Kyle Pitts' season to this point? Is his production what you expected during his rookie year?
Bair: Thanks for the question, Christian. I knew early on that Kyle Pitts was going to be a special player. It was evident back in training camp when he made one big play after another. He translated that to several games, especially against the Dolphins and Jets. He made some nice plays against the Saints as well. While every game hasn't gone like that and he only has one touchdown thus far, Pitts has still be a major contributor.
Making an instant impact is hard at any position, especially one as diverse as Pitts'. He mentioned going up against Stephon Gilmore earlier this year as a ‘welcome to the NFL’ moment, and opponents scheme hard against him. Some have made life hard, but he's a dynamic player who will continue to get better over time. And, for as good as he has been, I would expect far better in Year 2.
Ronald Shearer from Port Orange, Fla.
First off, I know you like Matt Ryan as I do. What do you think about extending his contract to gain some cap space? We know some want come back next year due to salary cap. We can't grab a top edge rusher in free agency, cap won't be enough, but maybe a solid offensive tackle or guard. I know a lot still depends on the Calvin Ridley status next season going into the draft. Don't you think the best edge rusher available just might be our best pick? I gotta believe more pressure on opposing quarterbacks will improve our defense drastically.
Bair: There's a lot to unpack, there, Ronald. Appreciate the questions, and I can see how they all bleed together. While restructuring Matt Ryan's contract (again) could create cap space in 2022, it won't help them get out of their salary cap situation any faster. It'll prolong the issue, actually, so a restructure would be a difficult choice. Staying disciplined and living with his $48.6 million cap number in 2022, per overthecap.com, might be the way to go. There's $15.612 in dead money if he's traded or released in 2023, which creates some flexibility.
That was probably more detail than you were looking for, but gaining some 2022 cap space might not be worth prolonging salary-cap issues. That's especially true with the salary cap going up significantly next year. The Falcons are set to have $14 million in space, per Over The Cap, though about half that will go to the draft class, so the team still has to be smart with its spending.
Now to your last point. They need edge rushers, and lots of them. I still think the NFL draft is path to acquiring them. While the Falcons will take the best player available in the first round, it would line up well if that's an edge rusher or someone who can get after the quarterback.
Check out the best black and white images from the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers game during Week 14 of 2021.
Willis Walker from Montgomery, Ala.
Long time, die hard, Falcons fan and really proud to be. We have a pulse for the playoffs, but I am concerned about our second half play, especially the 4th quarters. What happens to make us struggle so badly during the second half of play? Is it offensive play calls, defensive play calls, a combination of the two, or just not being able to close out a game? I love the wins this season, but they all seem to be a struggle in the end after playing so well during the first half of each game. Just curious about what you think.
Bair: It's an interesting topic, Willis, one that I'm also curious about. Most all of the Falcons victories have been close, coming down to the final possessions. That was most glaring against the Saints, when a big lead evaporated, and the Falcons had to make a huge play at the end.
There have been more instances like that, including recent wins against Jacksonville and Carolina. I think it's less about play calling and more about execution. A good run game will help you retain possession and close out games. So will an opportunistic defense with a quality pass rush. Those have been deficiencies for the Falcons that, if remedied, would help the Falcons maintain leads. They haven't been good enough there, especially late in games. I agree that they need to be better but, ultimately, a win's a win. Doesn't matter how close it is or how you get it. The Falcons are good at securing Ws, with a 6-2 record in one-score games.
Call for questions
Let's fill up the mailbag one more time before this huge game against the San Francisco 49ers. Submit your questions right here for inclusion in Friday's Bair Mail.