FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In a week full of good matchups, the NFC showdown between the Falcons (7-4) and the Vikings (9-2) is right there among the best. As coach Dan Quinn put it during his Monday press conference, it should be "a hell of a fight."
Today's Early Bird Report includes the Falcons' latest movement in the power rankings as well as some advice Josh Norman had for Xavier Rhodes on defending Julio Jones.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Week 13 power rankings: Not much movement for Falcons
Atlanta's 34-20 victory over Tampa Bay doesn't appear to have moved the needle much with this week's power rankings. The Falcons stood pat in half of them and moved up just one spot in the other two. A win on Sunday against the Vikings would surely provide a much bigger boost. For our own Wildly Important NFL Power Rankings, click here.
"Who doesn't like it when Mohamed Sanu rares back and launches a moon ball, a la Steve Bartkowski circa 1980? Awesome stuff, man. Julio Jones (253 yards) looked like he might go for three bills a little over a year after doing just that against the Panthers. The huge day masks what has been a disappointing season for Jones, who, up to this point, has endured his worst campaign since missing a sizable chunk of the 2013 season. If he gets going, look out for the Falcons in the NFC."
"They are getting the offense going at the right time. They face a big one this week against the Vikings defense."
"Atlanta's specialty this season has been moving the chains. The Falcons have converted 48 percent of third downs, best in the NFL. It also would be the best by the Falcons since the 1998 team -- which made the Super Bowl -- converted 54 percent of third downs."
"Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman and Mohamed Sanu are rolling, and soon Devonta Freeman will be back to join the offensive fun they've been waiting to have under Steve Sarkisian. Dan Quinn's speedy defense is finally getting the required help from the other side at the right time."
The Ringer: It's time for the Wild-Card Weekend Threat Index
By Week 13, we have a good idea of the makeup of each NFL team and which ones are beginning to play their best ball at this point in the season. Each of the four teams who earn the wild-card spot in each conference can fit a number of stereotypes, but the most common of which are teams who back into the playoffs after a strong start to the year or those who overcame a slow start and caught fire to enter the postseason hunt. It's beginning to look like the Falcons are in the latter category – although it's still way too early to make any assumptions – and that's exactly where The Ringer's Robert Mays has them in his Wild-Card Weekend Threat Index.
In this piece, Mays sorts out the NFL's wild-card contenders, slotting them into five different tiers. He places the Falcons in the first tier, labeled: Teams no one wants to see in Round 1.
"Atlanta's 34–20 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday was its third in a row, and more importantly, marked the third consecutive game in which the Falcons offense got rolling," Mays writes. "Matt Ryan was excellent, completing 26 of 35 passes for 317 yards with a touchdown. Nearly two-thirds of that production came through connections to Julio Jones, who finished with a ridiculous 12 catches for 253 yards and two scores. Even if this team's offense isn't as potent as the one that went to last season's Super Bowl, the amount of talent in that huddle makes Atlanta a daunting challenge for any potential playoff foe."
Here are several more stories on the Falcons heading into Wednesday:
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Minnesota Vikings
*Minneapolis Star Tribune: *Jerick McKinnon wants to put on a show for his Atlanta family
When the Vikings come to town this weekend, it will be a homecoming for running back Jerick McKinnon. Minnesota's second-leading rusher attended Sprayberry High School in Marietta before going to college at Georgia Southern University. McKinnon has 651 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns for the Vikings this season, and he told Andrew Krammer of the *Star Tribune *that he would have plenty of people coming to watch him on Sunday.
"I can't lose, because if I lose I'll have to hear about it for a whole year," McKinnon told Krammer of his family, many of whom are Falcons fans. "I'm trying to do everything I can to make a play when I get a chance to. It'll be fun."
ESPN: Josh Norman's advice for Xavier Rhodes against Julio
Xavier Rhodes has the unenviable task of matching up with Julio Jones on Sunday, one week after the Falcons' star receiver had the third 250-yard game of his career. Jones has beaten plenty of elite cornerbacks over the years, and he's virtually impossible to guard with one defender. Ahead of the matchup, former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, now with the Redskins, had some advice for Rhodes.
"Not to take a freaking play off," Norman said, according to ESPN's Vaughn McClure. "If you do, that's your day."
Here is some more news on the Minnesota Vikings:
- *Star Tribune: *Case Keenum's surge: Five numbers that stand out
- The Undefeated: Are Goff and Keenum that good or was Jeff Fisher a QB killer?
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
ESPN: Panthers relaxed heading into stretch run of big games
The NFC South is about to get very exciting, mainly because the top three teams play each other several times over the final five weeks. This string of division games begins on Sunday with a matchup between the Panthers and the Saints, each team sitting at 8-3. After a tighter-than-expected game against the Jets in Week 12, the Panthers aren't panicking. According to ESPN's David Newton, they are "a loose bunch" heading into the weekend.
"You've got to believe. You've got to expect to win," Panthers receiver Russell Shepard told Newton. "There's a fine line between playing over the edge and right on the edge, and this team does an amazing job of playing right on the edge. They believe they're going to win.
"This team understands that line and how to play damn close to it."
*Tampa Bay Times: *What Jameis Winston should have learned from watching
Reports indicate that Buccaneers starting quarterback Jameis Winston will be cleared to resume throwing after abstaining from the activity for the last several weeks. Ryan Fitzpatrick went 2-1 in his time at quarterback, leaving Winston to watch and analyze from the sideline. Now that it seems Winston is closer to returning, Rick Stroud of the *Tampa Bay Times *shares his thoughts on what the third-year quarterback should have learned.
Among his many bits of advice is this:
"You can't win the game by yourself, but you can lose one. That's the message Koetter has preached to Winston for three seasons. Fitzpatrick has started 79 more NFL games than Winston. He makes quicker decisions, he checks the football down. He plays a team game. Winston sometimes plays as if he's the only guy on the field who can make something happen with the football."
Here is some more news from around the NFC South:
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