Early Bird Report 12/21: Falcons top 10 in power rankings; Payton regrets choking gesture

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's unusual for two NFL teams to play against one another twice in a three-week span, but that's exactly where the Falcons and Saints find themselves in Week 16. The short turnaround from their first meeting means less unseen film for the coaches and players to watch, and the familiarity between these two teams should be apparent on Sunday.

Today's Early Bird Report includes a look at the power rankings and expert picks for Week 16 as well as an apology from Sean Payton for his choking gesture towards Devonta Freeman.

FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY

Week 16 power rankings: Falcons rise just inside of the top 10

After their win against the Bucs, the Falcons climbed inside of the top 10 in the various power rankings we track each week. Most of the rankings cite a less-than-stellar performance on Monday as the reason they didn't make a bigger jump, but they will have the opportunity to do so over the next two weeks. For our own Wildly Important NFL Power Rankings, click here.

"The Falcons survived the Bucs. Is there a more appropriate way to describe Monday night's win? At times, the offense mirrored the track team from 2016. Then Matt Ryan would miss an easy throw, or an on-field connection between the reigning MVP and his intended receiver would be slightly off. Or maybe the audience would catch an errant F-bomb when somebody wasn't getting lined up. Then Terron Ward sprints for a sweet first down run and all is right with Atlanta's world again. What an odd team Dan Quinn's 53 guys comprise this year. When they commit to the run, though, the Falcons can beat anybody. Next up: Saints, in New Orleans. Cool."

"That wasn't pretty in Tampa on Monday night, but now they have to regroup quickly for the big one at New Orleans. Where is Julio Jones in their offense?"

"The Falcons' offense isn't as potent as it was last season, but FPI still rates them as a top-five unit this year. That's thanks to a trio of four-time Pro Bowlers, led by Ryan (sixth in Total QBR) and Jones (third in receiving)."

"The Falcons have a big opportunity to win the NFC South and build the type of momentum they had going into last year's playoffs. We know how that turned out."

Expert picks for Week 16: Falcons viewed as underdogs on the road

Despite winning their first meeting against the Saints, the Falcons are the prohibitive underdog this weekend on the road in the eyes of the expert pickers at CBS Sports. Of the eight-man panel, only three like Atlanta to earn a clean sweep against New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, Senior NFL Insider Pete Prisco is among those in the minority who picked the Falcons. He believes this game will be yet another close one between these two teams, but he gives the Falcons a 31-30 edge, saying:

"This is the game of the week and will go a long way to deciding the division champ. The Falcons beat the Saints in Week 14, but this is a much bigger challenge. And they are playing on a short week after Monday night's win. Even so, I think the Falcons will pull off an upset here as their offense finally looks like the 2016 team."

FiveThirtyEight's prediction model also favors the Saints at home against the Falcons, giving New Orleans a 59 percent win probability.

Here are some more articles on the Falcons:

NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: New Orleans Saints

*The Times-Picayune: *Saints preparing for challenge of facing Falcons' hot run game

Prior to the first matchup between the Falcons and Saints, coach Dan Quinn explained that fans who like good running back play would love this game. He reiterated those thoughts on Wednesday, and for good reason. The Saints' duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara has been the best in the NFL this season, while Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are well known as versatile and dangerous players.

New Orleans is ranked 18th in the league in rush defense, allowing 115 yards per game, while the Falcons have the eighth-best run game, averaging 123 yards on the ground. Atlanta, led by Freeman is coming off of an impressive rushing effort against Tampa Bay in which the Falcons gained 201 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries.

Speaking with Herbie Teope of *The Times-Picayune, *defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins explained how the Saints are preparing for the upcoming challenge.

"Everybody is paying attention to the detail because as you saw the Monday night game they just had against Tampa (Bay), Devonta Freeman can take over games," Rankins told Teope. "We know we have to set our edges, the linebackers have to fill holes, guys got to run on the backside and he have to be able to corral him, limit him as much as we can and kind of not let them try to run us out of the game." 

NFL.com: Sean Payton regrets choking gesture directed at Freeman

During a conference call with Atlanta media members on Wednesday, Saints coach Sean Payton expressed remorse for the choking gesture he made at Freeman during his team's loss. Immediately after the game, Payton said he didn't recall making the gesture, but he had a different message on Wednesday.

"Listen, the mistake I made that night was letting my emotions get the best of me," Payton said. "It's the same thing that we talk about with our players all of the time. It wasn't good and I felt like as that game went on, it even affected me in calling plays. I've got to [be] better that way. It was frustrating from some of the officiating. But you learn even when you've been in this thing as long as I have. It's something that you regret and you look back on: 'What are you doing?' So, I think that's the thing that bugged me for the better part of the week."

Here is some more news on the Saints:

BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH

ESPN: What you need to know about a potential Panthers sale

News of owner Jerry Richardson's decision to sell the Panthers has been among the most frequent topics of discussion in the NFL this week. The whole process can be a bit confusing, so ESPN's Kevin Seifert broke down what all could happen and when.

Among the most interesting bits of information Seifert includes are the bidding process – any person or group can submit a bid, agree upon a price and sign a preliminary agreement – and the league's involvement – the NFL will vet any prospective owner or partner, and the new ownership group must be approved by three-fourths of the league's other owners.

Also worth noting: ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that people around the league expect the franchise to be sold for around $2.5 billion.

Here is more news from around the division:

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