FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas or enjoyed their other holiday festivities with friends and family, but now it's time to settle in to a later-than-usual edition of the Early Bird Report. With just one game remaining, the Falcons are right where they need to be: A win gets them into the postseason for the second year in a row.
Today's Early Bird includes the top five highest-graded Falcons from Sunday's game as well as a notable season-ending injury for the Panthers.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
ESPN: Which Falcons offense will show up against Carolina?
In a hostile environment, the Falcons' offense never found a rhythm. And seemingly whenever they broke free for a big play to gain some momentum, a yellow flag could be found lying on the ground. It wasn't a noteworthy day for Atlanta, but a win at home against Carolina would secure a playoff berth for the second straight season. The question ESPN's Vaughn McClure is asking: Which Falcons offense will show up next weekend?
"It's not that complicated," quarterback Matt Ryan said after the game. "When we get our opportunities, we've got to make plays. Again, we believe we're going to do that. We're going to have a great week of preparation. We're going to put this [Saints] game behind us because that's what we need to do and get back to work and try to have the best week of preparation that we've had all year. And really, that's what we can control at this point. That's where our mindset's got to be."
Pro Football Focus: Top 5 grades for Falcons vs. Saints
While the overall effort wasn't up to the Falcons' standard, there were several individuals who stood out against the Saints. Pro Football Focus released their top five grades for the Falcons in their road loss, and it illustrates the strong performances from some of the players. Here are the top five grades for the Falcons:
- S Keanu Neal (88.4)
- WR Julio Jones (86.7)
- LB Deion Jones (84.8)
- DE Adrian Clayborn (83.1)
- QB Matt Ryan (82.8)
Here is what PFF had to say about Neal's afternoon:
"Keanu Neal was all over the field, recording eight tackles and one pass breakup. With the Saints throwing a lot of passes to their backs, it put Neal in a position to make a lot of plays in space. Neal's biggest success was not missing a tackle all game even with Karama caught five of the six balls thrown his way. Kamara was limited to just 6 yards after the catch."
Here are some more stories on the Falcons from over the weekend:
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers
ESPN: Damiere Byrd to be placed on IR with lower leg injury
The Panthers will be without their fastest player for the rest of the season after placing wide receiver Damiere Byrd on injured reserve, according to ESPN's David Newton. In addition to seeing some time at receiver, Byrd has been the Panthers' primary punt and kickoff returner for much of the season and set a new team record with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last weekend against the Buccaneers.
Defensive end Charles Johnson is coming off a four-week suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy and will replace Byrd on the active roster. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey is expected to have an increased role in the return game due to Byrd's absence.
Here is some other news on the Panthers:
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
*The Times-Picayune: *Saints' defensive depth shines in playoff-clinching win
Despite missing a pair of key defensive starters in linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro against the Falcons, the Saints' defense made several plays and was a big factor in clinching a playoff spot for New Orleans. In his piece about the Saints' defensive depth that shined over the weekend, *The Times Picayune's *Herbie Teope made special mention of linebackers Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o.
"Robertson, who led the Saints defense in tackle in 2016, took over the weak side position when [rookie linebacker Alex] Anzalone went down in Week 4 and has 11 starts on the season, totaling 76 tackles, two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and three passes defensed," Teope writes.
"In the past two games filling in for Klein, Te'o has totaled 11 tackles (eight solo), a pass defensed and a fumble recovery. The fifth-year pro helped set the defensive tone against the Falcons with two tackles for a loss in the first half."
*Tampa Bay Times: *Winston should be low on list of reasons Bucs are 4-11
Fair or not, quarterbacks are often tethered to a team's successes or failures more than any other player. When discussing why the Buccaneers have fallen way short of expectations in their 4-11 campaign this year, Rick Stroud of the *Tampa Bay Times *believes Jameis Winston should be pretty far down the list of reasons.
"He never should've played three games with a shoulder injury," Stroud writes. "But you see what he can do when he's feeling healthy. The past two games, Winston has had at least a 130 passer rating. He has set a club record for the most 300-yard passing games in a season with five (and had 299 yards in another one).
"Winston has a higher completion percentage and passer rating than Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota. His 64 touchdown passes ties Hall of Famer and former Dolphins great Dan Marino for the most in the NFL before his 24th birthday."
Here is more news from around the division:
- CBS Sports: Winston loses his mind after fumble that sealed loss
- *The Advocate: *Saints will keep looking to get Taysom Hill on field
- *USA TODAY: *Saints seem primed for deep postseason run
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