FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- At the midway point of the season, the Falcons (4-3) are still right in the thick of the NFC race. With division play beginning this weekend, Atlanta can make a statement on the road and build some momentum heading into the back stretch.
Today's Early Bird Report contains a small amount of worry from the Falcons over the Panthers' trade as well a ranking of the NFL's 10 best offenses through the first eight weeks.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
*The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: *Falcons less concerned by Panthers' trade than Newton, McCaffrey
Just days before an important NFC South clash, the Panthers made headlines by trading away top receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The move altered Carolina's offense, and Atlanta will be the first team to face the new version. According to Matt Winkeljohn of the AJC, the Falcons aren't giving the trade much thought and don't expect Benjamin's absence to impact the Panthers' game plan.
"Nah. They believe in their philosophy, and they put people in the same positions as other people, so you've got to try and figure out who's going to switch and take the roles that everybody else took," free safety Ricardo Allen told Winkeljohn.
"We'll do what we'll typically do. At the end of the day, we don't let people convert our coverages or anything. We've got good enough corners here that we felt they can match up and play against anybody."
ESPN.com: Rankings the NFL's 10 best offenses and outlook for rest of 2017
Although Atlanta's offense is still statistically among the best in the league, it hasn't yet operated at the stratospheric level it did so often in 2016. That's OK. Some level of regression was expected and, according to ESPN special contributor Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, the Falcons remain a top offense. In a recent ranking of the NFL's top 10 offenses, according to Football Outsiders DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), Atlanta has had the seventh-best offense through the first eight weeks.
"What feels like the Atlanta Falcons struggling is just an offense going from world-beaters to run-of-the-mill 'pretty good,'" Schatz writes. "It feels like the Falcons don't pass to Julio Jones enough, but Jones is among the top 10 in receiving yards again this season. It feels like the Falcons need to use their running backs in the passing game more, but the difference from last season isn't that large: 6.6 targets per game in 2016 and 5.9 so far in 2017."
He goes on to say that the main difference between this year and last is the play of Matt Ryan. The reigning NFL MVP has gone from completing 70 percent of his passes with 13.3 yards per completion to completing 66 percent of his passes with 12.1 yards per completion. As Schatz puts it, "Ryan is playing at a Pro Bowl level instead of (an) MVP level."
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers
*The Charlotte Observer: *Devin Funchess set to be team's top dog at WR. Is he ready?
Now that Kelvin Benjamin has headed up north, third-year receiver Devin Funchess is ready to take over his role as the Panthers' No. 1 receiver. The question Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer asks: Is he ready?
"It's cool. I don't get too high or low, though. You can ask anybody in the building," Funchess told Person. "I'm rolling with the punches. I'm just going to keep trying to make plays for the team.
"But I don't look at it that way. I don't say, 'I have to step up to the plate because he's gone.' I'm still going to play my game. I'm not going to do anything different. I'm just going to play ball."
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
*The New Orleans Advocate: *Navy veteran declines award at Saints game over player protests
The New Orleans Saints were prepared to honor disabled veteran and executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy John Wells during their game against the Chicago Bears last week. Well stated Thursday that he no longer supported the NFL due to the kneeling or sitting that players across the league have done during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
"Although I am touched and honored to be selected for such an award, the ongoing controversy with NFL players' disrespect for the national flag forces me to decline to participate in the presentation," Wells said in a release, according to *The Advocate*. "I am unable, in good conscience, to enter an NFL stadium while this discourtesy prevails. Since this award is tainted with the dishonorable actions of the NFL and its players, I cannot accept it."
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