FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons are back in the playoffs for the second straight season. A strong defensive performance helped Atlanta earn a 22-10 victory over Carolina in front of an enthusiastic crowd and set up a trip to Los Angeles for a wild-card matchup with the Rams.
Today's Early Bird Report includes takeaways from the Falcons' playoff-clinching win over the Panthers as well as early thoughts from the Rams on the wild-card matchup.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
*USA TODAY: *Falcons fly back into playoffs, but with new identity
The Falcons are the only NFC team to make a return trip to the playoffs in 2017 after playing past Week 17 last year. As *USA TODAY's *Jarrett Bell writes, though, the Falcons' identity heading into the postseason this year feels much different than last year.
"Still, just getting back to the playoffs is a positive testament to the psyche of these Falcons, who have heard too much about Super Bowl hangovers, the Super Bowl collapse and the fact that you'd have to go back to the Bruce Smith-Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills of the 1990s to find a team that returned to the Super Bowl the season after losing in the big game," Bell writes.
"At midseason, the Falcons were 4-4 and seemingly destined for a season on the scrap heap. But they won six of their final eight games to charge into the postseason with a healthy dose of momentum that will make them a tough out. New year, different identity."
ESPN: Falcons' defense takes baton and runs into the postseason
Defensively, the Falcons have shown the level of improvement many hoped to see after last season's unit made strides heading into the postseason. Now, it's the defense that appears to be Atlanta's biggest strength. Speaking with several defenders after Sunday’s victory, ESPN's Vaughn McClure detailed how that side of the ball has become the driving force behind the Falcons' playoff berth.
"We always said, on the defensive side, we don't ever want to take nothing away from our offense -- we're not battling with them because that's our offense -- but one thing we did say: We want to make this be known as a defensive team, too," safety Ricardo Allen told McClure.
Here are some more stories on the Falcons:
*Sports Illustrated: *Analyzing NFC playoff matchups
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Los Angeles Rams
*Los Angeles Times: *Rams sit starters, lose to the 49ers
With most of their key starters sitting, the Rams dropped their final regular season game to the 49ers, 34-13. Despite the loss, the Rams completed one of the best single-season turnarounds in recent memory under first-year head coach Sean McVay. Due to the Buccaneers' upset victory over the Saints, the Rams will host the Falcons in the first round of the playoffs.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us," McVay told Gary Klein of the *Los Angeles Times*, "but one that our guys will be extremely excited for, and can't wait to get to work on the preparation for that one."
Here is some other news on the Rams:
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
ESPN: Panthers must 'turn the page fast' to prepare for Saints
Despite a poor performance in the Panthers' loss to the Falcons on Sunday, Cam Newton is already looking ahead to his team's first-round playoff matchup with the Saints. Following the loss, he explained his mindset heading into the postseason.
"It's all about growth," Newton said, according to ESPN’s David Newton. "There's no need to sob over something that you know I could have been better at. These are the days that pointing the blame, pointing the finger and even being harsh on yourself, you kind of stay stagnant.
"I'm going to do that and focus on the next opponent."
*Tampa Bay Times: *Bucs' season-ending win over Saints feels like start of something
The Buccaneers have decided to stick with head coach Dirk Koetter for another season, and his team responded with last-second 31-24 upset victory over the Saints in Week 17. According to Rick Stroud of the *Tampa Bay Times, *the win may just be the start of something special.
"The things we overcame tonight are the same things that hurt us all season," Koetter said after the game, per Stroud. "Some of those things are things we're going to have to address. At the same time, it starts with the competitive fire to hang in there.''
Here is more news from around the division:
*Tampa Bay Times: *Koetter doesn’t expect staff shake up
*Times-Picayune: *Saints open as favorites in matchup with Panthers
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