FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Focused has been the term heard often around the Falcons' practice facility this week as they prepare for an important divisional game against the Carolina Panthers, which will mark the beginning of a stretch that will make or break their season.
Today's Early Bird Report includes several picks for this Sunday's matchup as well as how the NFC South's quarterbacks can get back on track for the stretch run.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Week 9 picks: Experts split between Falcons and Panthers
The Falcons have been favored in most of their games so far this season, but there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus among those picking their matchup against the Panthers. At CBS Sports, four of the seven experts like Atlanta to pick up a win on the road, which is the slimmest majority. Senior writer Pete Prisco is among those at CBS Sports who picked the Falcons; he predicts a 24-17 victory for the road team.
"This is a big NFC South game, but the Panthers get a big edge with the Falcons playing a third straight road game," Prisco writes. "Even so, I think the Falcons got the offense untracked against the Jets and will grow from there. The Panthers are having trouble scoring. Falcons take it."
FiveThirtyEight's projections for this weekend also favor Atlanta by the smallest possible margin. The statistics site gives the Falcons a win probability of 51 percent this weekend, matching the New York Giants for the lowest probability among favorites.
At ESPN, three of their five NFL insiders – Mina Kimes, Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert – chose Atlanta over Carolina as their top upset pick of the week. Here is what Kimes had to say about the matchup:
"While Matt Ryan fumbled three times against the Jets this weekend -- in part because of the rainy weather -- he looked surprisingly sharp, and it was promising to see Tevin Coleman get more involved in the offense. The Panthers' defense looks terrific, but their offense underwhelmed again, and I think both Newton and the rushing attack will struggle to fend off the increasingly disruptive Grady Jarrett."
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers
Panthers.com: Why the Panthers agreed to trade Kelvin Benjamin
After news broke that Carolina traded its top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to Buffalo for a pair of draft picks, many people had the same reaction: Why? It's not as though the Panthers are in the basement of the NFC. Quite the contrary, they are among the few teams with five wins at this point in the season. Max Henson and Bill Voth wrote a piece for the Panthers' website detailing why the team agreed to trade Benjamin.
The first reason they mention is that Carolina currently lacks a consistent vertical threat in its offense. Although Benjamin and fellow receiver Devin Funchess are big, physical players who can elevate to catch passes, they don't really run by defenders. By trading Benjamin, the Panthers have created room for speedy rookie Curtis Samuel to get more touches at receiver.
The other reason involves the similarities between Benjamin and Funchess. They both have nearly the same skill set and essentially operate best at the same receiver position. With two of them on the field, however, only one of them can occupy that role at once. Now that Benjamin is gone, Funchess is undoubtedly the Panthers' "X" receiver.
*The Charlotte Observer: *Greg Olsen taking next steps in recovery
Carolina will surely benefit from the return of Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who broke a bone in his foot during a Week 2 game against Buffalo, and he appears to be progressing towards a return. According to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer*, *Olsen is eligible to begin practicing this week, although he is really just taking it slowly with the hope of being able to play on Nov. 26 against the Jets, which would be the first game he's allowed to play due to IR rules.
"We didn't do much. Just kind of went outside and moved around a little bit," Olsen told Person on Monday. "I think as the rest of the week goes and the next couple of weeks we'll just kind of progress based on how it feels and how it responds. But so far we're feeling pretty positive about what we've been able to do."
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
ESPN.com: How NFC South QBs can get back on track in wide-open division
In the first half of the season, none of the NFC South's quarterbacks consistently played up to their potential. With the division race about to seriously heat up, ESPN's NFC South writers detailed how each team's quarterback can get on track and help his team make a serious push.
Saints reporter Mike Triplett says that although the team is on a five-game win streak, Drew Brees hasn't looked as dangerous as he has in the past. He hasn't been as sharp on deep passes as he has throughout his career, but if Brees can turn that around in the second half, New Orleans will be very hard to beat.
For Cam Newton, Panthers reporter David Newton says turnovers have been the biggest issue. He already has 11 interceptions this season with just 10 touchdown passes. Newton writes that Carolina's MVP quarterback has often been better in the second half of the season, and the addition of tight end Greg Olsen back into the lineup should only help.
After the year he had in 2016, it would have been very difficult for Matt Ryan to put up a repeat performance. Vaughn McClure notes that Ryan hasn't been as sharp down the field as he was last year and is just 7-of-22 for 298 yards and two touchdowns this year on passes that travel 20 yards or more in the air. Last season, he was 30-of-60 for 1,116 yards and 10 touchdowns on those same passes. With a critical stretch forthcoming for Atlanta, McClure says "the feeling-out process with (Steve) Sarkisian should be over by now."
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