FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons kicked off a critical three-game home stretch with an impressive 34-20 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Led by Julio Jones, who had 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns, the offense looked plenty explosive and continued to show improved efficiency on third downs and in the red zone.
Today's Early Bird Report includes plenty of reactions from Atlanta's victory and Jones' big outing as well as analysis from the other games around the NFC South.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
NFL.com: What we learned from Sunday's early games in Week 12
As we progress down the final stretch of the 2017 season, the games become more meaningful and the level of play ramps up a bit. There were a lot of takeaways from the early games in Week 12, and Nick Shook of NFL.com provided his thoughts on the Falcons' victory against the Bucs.
Unsurprisingly, Shook's first comment involved Julio Jones. Watching Jones and the Falcons' offense cruise for over 500 yards against the Bucs was the first time this season Shook was "wowed while watching Atlanta's offense." After mentioning the frustration he felt while watching Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick miss some open throws, Shook turned his attention back to the Falcons' offense – more specifically, to Tevin Coleman.
"Tevin Coleman deserves just as large of a role as Devonta Freeman when both are healthy," Shook writes. "Coleman again was the engine of the Atlanta running game, taking 19 totes for 97 yards and two touchdowns, including the final score that put the game away for the Falcons. Coleman's speed brought another dimension to Atlanta's rushing attack, serving as the difference on that final run and making him a constant threat that Tampa Bay had to honor. As FOX analyst Mark Schlereth said after the final score, it's just unfair for a running back to have such speed and vision."
*Sports Illustrated: *Julio Jones dominates Buccaneers and puts NFC South on notice
The Falcons' offense, and Jones in particular, made a statement against the Buccaneers. *Sports Illustrated's *Conor Orr was among those paying attention, and he believes the performance put the rest of Atlanta's division on notice.
"As Atlanta continues to chisel their way back into the NFC playoff picture, Jones's performance Sunday begs an important question: Of the teams set to matchup with the Falcons in January, which have the defensive depth to counter his heightened level of play," Orr asks. "Jones can rip through single coverage better than any receiver still in playoff contention aside from Antonio Brown. As the Sanu touchdown showed, his tracking ability is second to none. When the ball is in the air, Jones' hand-eye coordination and upper body strength are an advantage over any defender."
The Ringer: Falcons WR Sanu is a better passer than half the quarterbacks in the NFL
When Atlanta added Mohamed Sanu in free agency prior to the 2016, his ability to throw the football was discussed as a potential wrinkle for the offense. Against the Bucs, the wrinkle was fully realized in the form of a beautiful 51-yard touchdown pass to Jones. It was a pass that led Danny Heifetz of The Ringer to arrive at the conclusion that Sanu throws a better ball than half of the NFL's quarterbacks.
"In his six-year NFL career, Sanu is 6-for-6 for 228 yards and three touchdowns," Heifetz notes. "His teams are undefeated when he attempts a pass, and his 100 percent completion percentage, 158.3 career passer rating, and 38 yards per pass attempt are all tops in league history. (Yes, it comes on just six passes, but we all know that efficiency is more important than volume. Plus, he's undefeated, so he clearly has the *it *factor.)"
Here are a few more stories following the Falcons' victory against the Buccaneers
- ESPN.com: Coleman scores 2 TDs for his twins
- CBS Sports: Grades from Week 12 in the NFL
- *USA TODAY: *4 takeaways from the Falcons' win against the Bucs
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Minnesota Vikings
*Minneapolis Star Tribune: *This Vikings team steps up where last year's team fell apart
Last year, Minnesota jumped out to a 5-0 record, despite losing starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater before the start of the season. After their great start, the Vikings folded and ended up with an 8-8 record. This year, Ben Goessling of the *Star Tribune *believes Minnesota has shown a level of resiliency that it didn't possess last season.
"The Vikings have steamrolled over some of the same issues that caused them to trip a year ago, on their way to a 9-2 record and a division lead that grew to three games when they withstood the Lions' comeback attempt in a 30-23 win on Thursday," Goessling writes. "They have the best record in the NFC behind the Eagles. A first-round bye, or even home-field advantage, is a legitimate possibility for a team that has put Bradford and Dalvin Cook on injured reserve."
Here is another piece from the Vikings' Thanksgiving Day win over the Lions:
- Vikings.com: 10 takeaways from the Vikings' win against the Lion
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
*The Charlotte Observer: *Panthers TE Greg Olsen aggravates foot injury
Panthers star tight end Greg Olsen returned to the field for the first time on Sunday since going on injured reserve after breaking his foot in Week 2. Olsen lasted just two full quarters in the Panthers' win against the Jets before aggravating his injury and exiting the game, according to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer. *Although he was forced out of action, Olsen does not believe he will miss extended time because of the setback. * **
"I was ready to come back. I felt good. It just wasn't quite exactly where it needed to be to play in the NFL," Olsen said, according to Person. "So live to play another week. Hopefully it's better next week."
NFL.com: Rams stifle Drew Brees, beat Saints in key NFC game
New Orleans' impressive eight-game win streak came to an end on Sunday, as the Saints fell to the Rams 26-20 on the road. The Rams' defense held Drew Brees and the Saints' offense in check, especially on third down, where they converted a shockingly low 23 percent of their opportunities. As he did for the Falcons' win, NFL.com's Nick Shook had five takeaways from the game.
He started by mentioning the impressive bounce-back win for the Rams, who lost in Week 11 to the Vikings in another high-profile NFC showdown. When discussing the Saints, Shook first pointed out that rookie running back Alvin Kamara is the real deal. Kamara exploded for 188 all-purpose yards (87 rushing and 101 receiving) and two touchdowns on just 11 touches for New Orleans. Shook also noted that the Rams were able to get to quarterback often during the game, sacking him three times and causing him to look unlike himself for much of the afternoon.
Here are some other pieces from around the division on Sunday:
- *The New Orleans Advocate: *Saints' comeback falls short this time
- *The Washington Post: *Masked by middling play, the Panthers lurk near top of NFC
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