FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On a gloomy, overcast day in Charlotte, N.C., the Falcons (4-4) couldn't make the most of their opportunities in a 20-17 loss to the Panthers (6-3), their first divisional loss of the season. After the game, Falcons coach Dan Quinn mentioned third downs and penalties among the improvements the team can make as they seek to move forward from the loss.
Today's Early Bird Report includes reactions from the Falcons' loss as well as takeaways from the Saints' and Cowboys' wins.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
NFL.com: Panthers outlast Falcons behind resurgent run game
There were a lot of factors in the Falcons' loss to the Panthers, several of which NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal highlighted in his takeaways from the game. Carolina gained 201 yards on the ground, a good portion of which came via Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey. Rosenthal also mentions a pair of potentially big plays the Falcons missed, saying: "Big games often come down to the plays a team doesn't make. Matt Ryan had Julio Jones wide open for a long touchdown on the game's first drive. Ryan overshot him. Jones got deep on a crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter and dropped a similarly wide-open would-be touchdown."
Finally, he says Atlanta's inability to have success on short-yardage situations played a big role in the loss. To see what we had to say on that subject, click here.
*Sports Illustrated: *Panthers hand Falcons a division loss, NFC South unfolding like nobody predicted
Entering the season, many expected the Falcons and the Buccaneers to compete for an NFC South title. So far, that has not come to pass. Carolina handed Atlanta its first division loss of the season, and SI's Jonathan Jones had three thoughts on the game.
The first thing he mentions is the game plan offensive coordinator Mike Shula put together for the Panthers, which Jones says is the best so far this season. He was especially impressed with how Shula used McCaffrey, who finished with 94 total yards and a touchdown. Jones then mentions the drop in the end zone by Julio Jones. Finally, Jones adds that everybody got the NFC South wrong this preseason.
"At 4–4 the Falcons remain hungover from February," Jones writes. "The Bucs' season is done at 2–6. The Saints are suddenly a juggernaut and the Panthers have never missed the playoffs after beginning the season with at least six wins in the first nine games. Goes to show you what we know."
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Dallas Cowboys
ESPN.com: Elliott, Prescott give Cowboys life in big win over Chiefs
Dallas was in jeopardy of letting a 14-3 lead turn into a stunning home loss on Sunday against Kansas City, as the Chiefs stormed back at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half to pull ahead 17-14. After the Chiefs pulled ahead, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott combined for 58 yards on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Elliott.
That scoring drive pulled the Cowboys ahead for good, and they tacked on another score in the fourth quarter to emerge with a 28-17 victory. "The Cowboys learned last year they can do magical things with Prescott and Elliott," ESPN's Todd Archer wrote of the game. "They saw it again Sunday. Elliott left with 93 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns. Prescott completed 21 of 33 passes for 249 yards and two scores."
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
ESPN.com: Saints deliver knockout blow to Buccaneers for sixth straight win
After dropping two games to star the season, the Saints have rolled off six straight win, including a 30-10 victory against the spiraling Buccaneers, who mustered just 200 yards on offense. Per ESPN's Mike Triplett, it was a dominant performance in all phases. The Saints' defense has really been the story so far this season, and that continued to be the case on Sunday, but the emergence of rookie running back Alvin Kamara provides yet another great weapon for the offense. Kamara finished the game with 152 total yards and two touchdowns.
*Tampa Bay Times: *Bucs look like a team that has lost its way
As unexpectedly good as the Saints have been this year, the opposite is true for the Bucs. Now sitting at 2-6 and in last place in the division, Tampa Bay looks like a team that's lost its way, according to the staff at the Tampa Bay Times. *Nearly every person who contributed to the *Times' rapid reaction piece following the game had little positive to say about the team. Greg Auman summed it up this way:
"At 2-6, with five straight losses, the Bucs have proven themselves to be so much less than fans had hoped they would be. On the road, they're barely competitive. What's left? How does a team stay together with no shot at the playoffs? Can Koetter salvage enough wins to save his job? Like so many games, this first half of 2017 has had little to be positive about."
USA Today: Winston sparks skirmish, Mike Evans launches into Marshon Lattimore
During the Saints' win over the Buccaneers, a fight broke out on Tampa Bay's sideline. Jameis Winston, who had previously left the game due to injury, appeared to poke Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the back of the helmet after a play. Lattimore responded by turning around and shoving Winston. A few moments later, wide receiver Mike Evans flew in and blind-sided Lattimore, sending him to the ground.
"I thought 23 was trying to pick a fight with my quarterback, and I just let my emotions get the best of me," Evans told reporters after the game, according to Tom Schad of USA Today. "It's something I shouldn't have did. It's very childish. I shouldn't have (done) that. Unprofessional."
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