Early Bird Report 12/12: Falcons eye playoff push; Gerald McCoy's season may be over

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After Week 14, the Falcons are back among the six projected playoff teams in the NFC. A tough three games still lie ahead, however, beginning with an upcoming Monday night matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Today's Early Bird Report includes the Falcons holding the key to their playoff destiny and reports that Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will miss the rest of the season. Enjoy!

FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY

ESPN: Falcons can make their playoff surge with three games remaining

Following the results of Week 14, the Falcons control their playoff destiny. By winning their three remaining games – all against NFC South opponents – the Falcons can finish 11-5 and win their division for the second straight season. In previewing the upcoming three-game stretch, ESPN's Vaughn McClure gave his keys to each matchup.

Against the Bucs, McClure says Atlanta's defense can't give Jameis Winston time to make plays outside of the pocket. In their rematch against the Saints, McClure believes the Falcons should turn to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to make plays for the offense. When it comes to the season-finale against Carolina, shutting down the Panthers' rushing attack would be a good place for the Falcons to start, McClure says.

*AJC: *Payton's conduct toward Freeman, officials to be reviewed

Thursday night's edition of the Falcons-Saints rivalry carried with it a few unexpected storylines. Near the end of the game, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton made a choking gesture in the direction of Devonta Freeman. According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the *AJC, *the NFL will review Payton's gesture and determine if any punishment is necessary for breaking the league's conduct policy.

Payton was also critical of the officiating in the Falcons' victory. On Thursday night, the Saints were called for 11 penalties, nine of which resulted in a Falcons' first down. Per Ledbetter, NFL executive vice president of communications Joe Lockhart held his weekly press conference on Monday and referenced Payton's criticism of the officials.

"I think everyone is aware of the rules that are in place on public criticisms of our officials, and those who need to be reminded occasionally are reminded," Lockhart said, according to Ledbetter.

Here are some more stories on the Falcons:

NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

*Tampa Bay Times: *The Winston-Koetter relationship: It's complicated

Under Dirk Koetter's tutelage, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was expected to flourish and develop into one of the league's premier talents at his position. After a 4-9 start, the tensions have begun to surface within the locker room and Winston's relationship with his head coach has become strained, according to Rick Stroud of *The Tampa Bay Times. *

Stroud reports that Koetter seemed surprised when asked about the reports of his relationship with Winston, saying:

"That's obviously news to me. I think Jameis and I have an extremely consistent relationship for the last few years and I don't think anything is different about it, but that's just my opinion.

"I know the truth about our relationship but my big concern is our football team."

*USA TODAY: *Gerald McCoy believes he has torn his biceps

The Buccaneers could be without their best defensive player for the rest of the season. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that McCoy will miss the rest of the year due to a torn biceps. According to Bonnie Mott of USA TODAY, this is what Rapoport said:

"The belief from those who have spoken with Gerald McCoy is that he has torn his bicep which will more than likely mean he will be out for the remainder of the season. "This is an injury you can have surgery or you may not necessarily need surgery. My understanding is that Gerald McCoy does not believe he needs surgery which means he could return in a few weeks."

Here is some more news on the Falcons' upcoming opponent:

BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH

*The Charlotte Observer: *Panthers' best players come up big in victory over Vikings

The Panthers earned a huge 31-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday to keep pace in the NFC South. According to Joseph Person of *The Charlotte Observer, *it was the Panthers' best players that came through to secure the big win. Cam Newton pulled away for a 62-yard run late in the game to help put the Vikings away, and Luke Kuechly recorded a game-high 14 tackles. The other notable performances that Person noted came from the defensive line and cornerback Daryl Worley.  

*The Times-Picayune: *Alvin Kamara expects to play vs. Jets

Although he remains in the concussion protocol, Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara told *The Times-Picayune's *Josh Katzenstein that "yes" he expects to be back for the next game. Katzenstein also reported that "A Saints spokesman said that Kamara was still in the concussion protocol as of Monday afternoon, and he'll still have to clear certain benchmarks before being allowed to play, including practicing in a limited basis and then practicing fully. Kamara's participation in practices this Wednesday through Friday will ultimately determine his availability against the Jets." 

Here are some more pieces from around the NFC South:

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