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Early Bird Report 11/30: Expert pickers behind Falcons; battle royale in the NFC South

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Week 13 NFL slate is full of enticing matchups, and the Falcons NFC battle against the Vikings is among the very best. Both teams are well-rounded and playing good football as of late, and it figures to be a tightly contested game that offers plenty of entertainment.

Today's Early Bird Report includes expert picks for this weekend's battle between the Falcons and Vikings as well as Xavier Rhodes' plan for containing Julio Jones.



Week 13 expert picks: Experts behind Falcons in tough matchup

Now on a three-game win streak, the Falcons have regained the faith of expert pickers around the country. With a tough matchup coming up on Sunday, however, there is a bit of a divide among those weighing in on the outcome. Of the six experts at CBS Sports who submitted a pick, three favor the Falcons and three favor the Vikings. CBS Sports' senior NFL insider Pete Prisco has been high on the Falcons all season, and he isn't quitting on them this week. He thinks Atlanta's defense will be the difference on Sunday, picking the Falcons to emerge with a 26-16 win.

FiveThirtyEight's projection model also likes the home team on Sunday. According to the statistics site, the Falcons have a 61 percent win probability against the Vikings. ESPN is bullish on Minnesota, however, as six of the eight expert pickers like the Vikings to win on the road against the Falcons. Offensive Line of the Week: Falcons overwhelming foes again

Each week, NFL Network analyst and former Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara ranks the five best offensive line from the latest slate of NFL games. In Week 12, no offensive line stood out more to O'Hara than the one in Atlanta. The Falcons scored 34 points for the second straight week and gained 516 yards of offense against the Buccaneers. Impressively, Matt Ryan was not hit even once against Tampa Bay, let alone sacked.

"This offense is starting to look like the unit that took the NFL by storm last season," O'Hara writes. "The Falcons (7-4) absolutely needed a big game against Tampa Bay to stay afloat in the NFC South race -- and that's exactly what they got. Atlanta scored 34 points for the second consecutive week and piled up 516 yards of total offense, the team's highest output this season. Steve Sarkisian's group was phenomenal on third down, converting 11 of 14 attempts. This continues a very encouraging trend for the Falcons: During the current three-game win streak, they've converted 65.9 of third-down attempts."

Here are a few more stories on the Falcons:


*Sports Illustrated: *The Vikings QB controversy that shouldn't be

Teddy Bridgewater appeared to be the future at the quarterback position for the Minnesota Vikings until a devastating knee injury cost him the entire 2016 season and put his NFL career in doubt. Now, Bridgewater is back to full health and available if the Vikings need him, but *Sports Illustrated's *Andy Benoit doesn't believe he can match the level at which Case Keenum is currently playing for Minnesota.

"But there should be no debate about what to do this season," Benoit writes. "The Vikings have the NFC's best defense and an offense that, thanks to an overachieving fill-in QB, is playing great. And, as long as Bradford is shelved, there isn't a better alternative on the roster anyway."

*Pioneer Press: *Xavier Rhodes' plan for Julio: More of the same

Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes has shadowed some of the top receivers in the league this season, including Antonio Brown and Mike Evans, and he's got a tough task ahead against Julio Jones. This isn't the first time these two have competed against each other. The Falcons and Vikings played in 2014 and 2015 with Jones averaging 69 yards in those two contests. According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the *AJC**, *Jones caught a combined four passes for 45 yards in those two games while covered by Rhodes.

"It's the same regimen, same thing," Rhodes said of preparing to play Jones, according to Chris Tomasson of the *Pioneer Press*. "Go into the game, don't believe in the hype, don't be afraid of the name, just believe in the game. I know he's one of the best receivers in the league, and I've just got to go out and play with the mind-set of having confidence going against him.

"(He's) big, fast, physical. I don't believe he has any weakness at all. He's focused. Doesn't talk much on the field. So it's hard to get in his head. Yeah, he's just Julio."

Here is more news on the Falcons' upcoming opponent:


The Ringer: The best division in football is about to beat itself up

In 2017, the NFC South has easily been the best division in the NFL. The Falcons, Panthers and Saints would all make the postseason if the playoffs started today, and they each look capable of beating good competition. Before they will get the opportunity to do that, however, they have to beat up on each other first. With only five games remaining, The Ringer's Danny Kelly detailed how the NFC South’s upcoming slate of games could shape the playoff picture.

"Five weeks left," he writes. "The 'play a few division opponents near the end of the year' thing is a pretty common scheduling strategy leaguewide nowadays, but it's hard to remember one division having a more brutal or competitive stretch run than what the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons now face. Buckle up, because what happens from here on out will not only shape the playoff race in the NFC South, but it could change the complexion of the playoff picture in the conference at large."

*Tampa Bay Times: *Bucs place C Ali Marpet and OT Demar Dotson on IR

The Bucs didn't just lose to the Falcons on Sunday, they lost several key players. Starting running back Doug Martin left the game due to a concussion, and he wasn't the only player to be forced out due to injury. Two players who didn't leave the game, however, were starting center Ali Marpet and offensive tackle Demar Dotson. Both battled through knee injuries and finished the game, but Rick Stroud of the *Tampa Bay Times *reports that they have been placed on injured reserve and will miss the rest of the season.

Other news from within the division:


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