Early Bird Report 12/18: Jerry Richardson selling Panthers; Falcons get some help

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Falcons will bring Week 15 in the NFL to a close with a rematch against the Buccaneers on "Monday Night Football." The Panthers and the Saints each won on Sunday afternoon, meaning the Falcons must win to keep pace in the NFC South.

Today's gameday edition of the Early Bird Report includes several important pieces detailing the latest with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and his decision to sell the franchise as well as recaps from the games on Sunday.

FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY

*Atlanta Journal-Constitution: *While Falcons idle, more wild-card contenders falter

Although the Falcons didn't get any help in regards to the NFC South standings on Sunday, they now have a bit more breathing room in the wild-card race. Steve Hummer of the *AJC *explains in depth how Sunday's results impacted the Falcons, and the losses by the Packers and Seahawks are certainly noteworthy.

"Los Angeles Rams 42, the team formerly known as Seattle 7 – With this rout, the Falcons got a little more secure in the wild-card standings," Hummer wrote of the Seahawks' loss. "And Seattle, falling to 8-6, its heart removed at home Sunday, seems more certain to miss the postseason after five straight playoff appearances. All in all, good news here, three time zones away."

Here are some more stories on the Falcons from over the weekend:

NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

ESPN: Buccaneers rule David, Hargreaves and McCoy out vs. Falcons

Tampa Bay will be without three of its best defenders on Monday night. The team officially ruled out linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, writes ESPN's Jenna Laine. While McCoy expressed his desire throughout the week to play through his biceps injury, the star defensive lineman will not be able to go.

"A five-time Pro Bowler, McCoy has a team-leading 5.0 sacks this year," Laine writes. "His 22 quarterback hits this season are also a career high. There is the possibility that McCoy's backup, Clinton McDonald, could return this week after missing the past two games with a back injury. McDonald practiced on a limited basis all week."

*Tampa Bay Times: *Bucs fans call for Gruden – why was he fired to begin with?

As the Buccaneers prepare to play on Monday night, many members of the fan base are caught reminiscing about the past and hoping to recreate it in the future. The calls for Jon Gruden to return to Tampa have grown louder over the past several months, although he's continued to deny any interest in returning to coaching.

Given the increasing desire to have Gruden back with the Bucs, Rick Stroud of the *Tampa Bay Times *spoke with the former head coach about what led to his dismissal. One of the primary reasons highlighted in his piece is Gruden's distance with the players on a personal level.  

Here is some more news on the Bucs:

BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH

*The Charlotte Observer: *Jerry Richardson selling Panthers amidst NFL investigation

Shortly after the Panthers' 31-24 win against the Packers at home, the game was all but forgotten. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson announced in a statement released through the team that he would be selling the franchise after the season.

"There has been no greater mission or purpose in my life than to have brought an NFL franchise to Charlotte," Richardson's statement began.

"I believe that it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership. Therefore, I will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of this NFL season. We will not begin the sale process, nor will we entertain any inquiries, until the very last game is played. I hope everyone in this organization will be firmly focused on just one mission: To play and win the Super Bowl."

As the staff at The Charlotte Observer notes, Richardson's statement came just hours after a damning report published by *Sports Illustrated *that claims the Panthers' owner allegedly made monetary payments to at least four former staffers in an attempt to remedy inappropriate workplace conduct.

NFL.com: What we learned from the Saints' victory over Jets

In the other game featuring an NFC South team on Sunday, the Saints bounced back from their loss to the Falcons with a 31-19 victory against the Jets. Although the score may indicated a comfortable win for New Orleans, NFL.com's Dan Hanzus mentions in his first of three thoughts from the game that it wasn't quite so easy.

Three turnovers by the Saints stalled drives and kept things close for much of the afternoon, as did a pair of Michael Thomas touchdowns that were overturned by replay after he was determined to be just inches short of the end zone. While it wasn't the cleanest game for the Saints, running back Mark Ingram did surpass 1,000 yards for the second straight season with a 50-yard touchdown run late in the game. With the win, New Orleans remains atop the division.

Here are several more stories from a hectic day off the field in the division:

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