FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons return to practice on Wednesday to prepare for their first division game of the season, a 1 p.m. matchup with the Carolina Panthers. Sunday marks the beginning of an important stretch for the Falcons (4-3), who will play all six division games in the final nine weeks of the season.
Today's Early Bird Report includes a look at several notable power rankings as well as a major trade that will impact the Falcons upcoming game.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Week 9 power rankings: Falcons hanging around the top 10
It seems many of the pundits who write weekly power rankings have varying opinions on Atlanta. Some had the Falcons climb by a few spots after the road win, while others were less convinced and see a tough road ahead. If you want to see our own Wildly Important NFL Power Rankings, check them out here.
"The Falcons gutted out the road win in New Jersey, which tells you that the Jets are better than people think or Atlanta is mediocre. One player who flat refuses to be mediocre is Grady Jarrett. On a key third down in the fourth quarter, Jarrett ran from across the formation -- after pass rushing -- to tackle Bilal Powell on the opposite sideline short of the first down. That Falcons stop forced a Chandler Catanzaro field goal to keep Atlanta in the lead. Great team runs are started by little things. Tevin Coleman hasn't been talked about much this season, but the explosive back made a few big plays in the run game and the pass game."
"Was that a season-saving victory against the Jets? They face a brutal division game this week on the third of three straight road games against Carolina."
"The Falcons righted the ship following a three-game losing streak, but the road ahead looks daunting. No team has a remaining strength of schedule more difficult than Atlanta's (.591 opponents' win percentage)."
"They are trying to shake nightmares of the Super Bowl loss, and their offense has still yet to have a dream season. Good thing the defense has been more daunting to control the haunting."
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers
NFL.com: Panthers trade wideout Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills
Just before the NFL's trade deadline passed on Tuesday afternoon, the Panthers made a huge splash by trading top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the Buffalo Bills. Benjamin was Carolina's leading receiver for the first eight games this season with 475 yards and two touchdowns on 32 catches. In return for Benjamin, the Panthers acquired the Bills' third- and seventh-round draft picks for 2018.
*The Charlotte Observer: *A little good news, a little bad news for Panthers at halfway point
With the first half of the season come and gone, Jourdan Rodrigue of *The Charlotte Observer *looked back at the first eight games for the Panthers. She found both good and bad.
The good news, she writes, is that Carolina appears to be learning how to use rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Instead of forcing him in between the tackles, the Panthers used him as a receiver more often against Tampa Bay and it worked fairly well. Also working for Carolina so far is the pass rush. The Panthers are second in the NFL with 27 sacks, and ageless wonder Julius Peppers, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks, has been a welcome addition.
What's not going so well for Carolina, according to Rodrigue, is consistency on offense. After a strong, 82-yard scoring drive early on against the Bucs, the Panthers gained just 172 yards on their ensuing possessions. While she doesn't go so far as to say this is bad news, Rodrigue notes that the Panthers have been blitzing frequently and a good quarterback may take advantage of the one-on-one matchups outside.
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
ESPN.com: NFC South race has yet to begin
Although we are already halfway through the 2017 season, the battle for the NFC South has yet to really begin. This weekend's matchup against the Panthers marks the beginning of a home stretch for the Falcons that includes all six division games, including four in the final four weeks. As ESPN's Dan Graziano writes, there is a lot left to be determined in the NFC South.
"The Saints have won five in a row since their 0-2 start and need to go just 3-6 the rest of the way in order to surpass their win total of each of the past three seasons," Graziano says. "They're legit. But so is Carolina's defense, and the Panthers have five home games left. Don't forget, the Falcons went 6-2 in the second half last season and rode that wave to the Super Bowl."
*Tampa Bay Times: *No clear-cut answer to whether ailing Bucs QB Jameis Winston should play
Among the most notable injury situations in the NFL is the one Tampa Bay is dealing with. Starting quarterback Jameis Winston left the Bucs' loss against the Arizona Cardinals after suffering an AC sprain in his throwing shoulder, and although he's played the past two games, he didn't look right in last week's loss to the Panthers. Winston hasn't been able to practice consistently since the injury occurred, and *Tampa Bay Times *write Rick Stroud is asking if the Bucs should sit him to allow him to fully heal.
"There's three factors in that," Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter told Stroud. "First and foremost is what the medical staff says. That's for every player. Jameis is at the front of the list. Second is the player. The player knows if he can go or not. And then third, when we're watching practice, if it doesn't look like they can go or it looks like they can't go at a success rate good enough for us to win. … But we haven't had any of those things."
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