FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- While many in the media are still reflecting on last weekend's games, the Falcons (7-4) have already turned the page and are focused on their big upcoming NFC matchup with the 9-2 Minnesota Vikings.
Today's Early Bird Report includes praise for the perfect quarterback on the Falcons' roster as well as Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhode's thoughts on his upcoming matchup with Julio Jones.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
*Atlanta Journal-Constitution: *Falcons' defense woke up in time to make key stop
After a strong performance in the first half, Atlanta's defense surrendered back-to-back long touchdown drives to the Buccaneers on their first two possessions after halftime. The scoring drives spanned 70 and 80 yards, and they helped Tampa Bay erase a large deficit and make it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter.
On the Buccaneers' third possession of the second half, however, the Falcons' defense made a pair of crucial plays that helped secure the team's third straight victory. As the *AJC's *D. Orlando Ledbetter put it, the defense “woke up” at the right time.
On a third-and-2 at the Falcons' 19-yard line, safety Ricardo Allen, who had moved to the nickel spot due to injuries, made a splendid tackle to hold Bucs receiver Adam Humphries to a 1-yard gain. When Tampa Bay opted to go for it on fourth-and-1, Dontari Poe pressured quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into throwing an off-target pass to tight end Cameron Brate, which was knocked away by Keanu Neal.
"It was huge," Neal said of the stop, according to Ledbetter. "We came together and finished. That's part of what we do here. We've been talking about finishing and the opportunity was there and we took advantage of it."
*Sports Illustrated: *Sanu: Good WR, perfect QB
Outside of Julio Jones’ historic statline, the moment from Sunday's win that seems to have drawn the most attention is Mohamed Sanu's 51-yard touchdown pass. The pass was Sanu's first of the season, but it continued what has been a perfect start to his side-job as an NFL quarterback. After Sunday, Sanu is 6-of-6 passing for 228 yards and three touchdowns for a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
In his Monday Morning Quarterback column, Peter King correctly noted that Sanu is a good wide receiver but a perfect quarterback.
"The throw was incredible," King writes, "the kind a strong-armed passer like Elway or Favre or Vick would have made. And the accuracy … it could not have been placed better had it been affixed there by a Pixar artist. It traveled 57 yards exactly, landing in Jones' arms at the goal line. Touchdown. The Falcons never trailed the rest of the day."
ESPN.com: Ranking NFL teams that could sneak into the playoffs from 11-1
Although the Falcons currently hold the second wild card spot in the NFC playoff race, they are still on the outside, looking in, according to ESPN's FPI projections. Per the FPI projections, Atlanta has a 54.7 percent chance to make the postseason – 5.7 percentage points below the Seattle Seahawks, who are projected to make the No. 6 seed.
Because of this FPI snub, the Falcons were eligible to be included in Bill Barnwell's piece for ESPN ranking the top candidates to sneak into the playoffs. Atlanta earned the top spot on Barnwell’s list, while the Detroit Lions were the next-highest NFC contender at No. 4 with a 19.2 percent chance.
"The real improvement has come on defense, particularly with the pass rush," Barnwell writes. "Atlanta was 25th in pressure rate during the first half of the season, racking up 31 knockdowns in eight games. During this three-game winning streak, though, the Falcons have been 10th in pressure rate and generated 25 knockdowns.
"Last season, Atlanta hit a new level in January when its defense suddenly took a leap forward and started getting after the quarterback. It's entirely possible we're witnessing the Falcons' young, speedy defense make the same sort of jump two months earlier in 2017."
Here are some more stories on the Falcons, as we head into Week 13:
- CBS Sports: NFL Week 12 grades
- ESPN.com: Week 12’s best rookie performances
- Pro Football Focus: Falcons grades in win vs. Bucs
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Minnesota Vikings
ESPN.com: Julio Jones has 'no weakness' but Xavier Rhodes isn't intimidated
After torching the Bucs, Julio Jones will go up against one of the NFL's top corners in recent seasons when he squares off with Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes. Since last year, Rhodes has seven interceptions, which ties him for fourth among all cornerbacks in that time, and he's considered by many to be a shutdown defender.
Rhodes is coming off a rare bad outing on Thanksgiving, when he allowed Lions receiver Marvin Jones to catch six passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. The last time Rhodes and Jones lined up across from one another was in 2015. In that game, a 20-10 win for the Vikings, Jones was held to five catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns.
"Julio is Julio," Rhodes told ESPN’s Courtney Cronin. "Big, fast, physical. Gets the ball once it's in the air. I don't believe he has any weakness at all. He's focused. Doesn't really talk much on the field, so it's hard to get in his head.
"Same regimen, same thing. Don't believe in the hype, don't be afraid of the name. I know he's one of the best receivers in the league and I just have to go and play with that mindset, having confidence."
*Minneapolis Star-Tribune: *Stop saying the Vikings QB issue is a media creation
Since Teddy Bridgewater's return from a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2016 season, there have been constant stories regarding the Vikings' quarterback situation. Case Keenum is 7-2 as Minnesota's starting quarterback and has led the team to seven straight victories. And yet, the controversy began anyway.
According to Michael Rand of the *Minneapolis Star-Tribune, *the media shouldn’t be blamed for its creation. Instead, he believes head coach Mike Zimmer, "the one person who could put it to rest" has failed to do so.
"The minute Vikings coach Mike Zimmer says Keenum is the starter, period, he will stop getting asked who is the starting quarterback and it will get less interesting," Rand writes.
"But Zimmer continues to stop short of saying that. For a few weeks he has said he has a plan. And on Friday, a day after Keenum played very well (again) in leading the Vikings to their seventh straight victory, Zimmer would only say of Keenum, 'He'll be the starter the next week, yeah.'"
Here are a couple more stories on the Falcons' upcoming opponent:
- *Star-Tribune: *Third-down success has boosted Vikings’ offense
- *Pioneer Press: *Keenum: ‘I’m not looking over my shoulder’
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
*The Charlotte Observer: *Update on tight end Greg Olsen's foot after evaluation
Panthers Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen underwent an evaluation on his foot Monday, after he reaggravated an injury that had sidelined him since Week 2 during the team's win against the Jets. According to Jourdan Rodrigue of *The Charlotte Observer, *Olsen’s initial tests came back negative and a source said the foot is "OK."
ESPN.com: Now that eight-game win streak is over, Saints' season is just beginning
The New Orleans Saints' eight-game win streak was snapped in their loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, but ESPN's Mike Triplett says their season is just now beginning. Triplett's reasoning is this: Despite the big win streak, the Saints created very little separation in the NFC South and the upcoming stretch will determine their postseason fate.
Here are some more headlines from around the division:
- *The Times-Picayune: *Coby Fleener suffers concussion vs. Rams
- Buccaneers.com: Jameis Winston could soon resume throwing
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