Early Bird Report 12/28: Expert pickers back Falcons; Panthers WRs like being underrated

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – With only one playoff spot remaining for the NFC, the Falcons' season is on the line in Week 17 against the Panthers. In the first matchup between these two division foes, the Panthers earned a hard-fought 20-17 victory, but the Falcons had a few opportunities late to secure a win on the road. Can they make those plays at home this weekend?

Today's Early Bird Report includes expert picks for the Falcons-Panthers matchup as well as a different mindset among the receivers in Carolina.

FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY

Expert picks for Week 17: Falcons a popular pick at home vs. Panthers

Needing a win at home against the Panthers to earn a spot in the postseason, the Falcons appear to have the support of many expert pickers around the country. The panel at CBS Sports has been up and down on the Falcons throughout the season, but four of the seven experts like Atlanta to wrap up a playoff berth in this one. CBS Sports' Senior Writer Pete Prisco has not been up and down on Atlanta this season. In fact, he's picked the Falcons to win in every single matchup this year. That continues in Week 17, as Prisco believes the Falcons will emerge with a 24-17 victory at home.

The projection model at FiveThirtyEight also gives the Falcons an edge in the finale against the Panthers, assigning a 61 percent win probability for Atlanta. SB Nation's panel of voting experts also believes the Falcons will respond with their backs against the wall. Of the nine picks for SB Nation, six are in favor of the Falcons.

*USA TODAY: *Ranking the Falcons' 2018 opponents by difficulty

Although there is still very much left to play for this season, that didn't prevent *USA TODAY's *Tim Weaver from scouting the 2018 schedule and providing his rankings on the difficulty of each matchup. While we already know who the Falcons will play next season, we don't yet know when each game will be played.

Unsurprisingly, the Cleveland Browns are the least-dangerous opponent on Weaver's list, with the New York Giants holding the spot just ahead of them. Weaver believes the most difficult matchup for the Falcons in 2018 will be against the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Pittsburgh Steelers hold the No. 2 spot behind them, giving the state of Pennsylvania a strong showing.  

Here are some more stories on the Falcons:

NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers

*The Charlotte Observer: *Panthers receivers like being 'misfits' and 'no-names'

The Panthers two most well-known receivers might not actually be receivers at all. Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey are arguably the most high-profile pass-catchers that the Panthers have, and their receivers seem to be just fine with that. According to *The Charlotte Observer's *Jourdan Rodrigue, they like flying under the radar.

"You have a lot of guys that have been through a lot of things, that have had to overcome struggles and obstacles on and off the field," Russell Shepard told Rodrigue. "Guys who aren't household names (or) big-money guys. I mean, those are the type of groups you want, because when they click and they believe in their ability, it's a scary group.

"Certain guys, when they come in this league a certain way being a high draft pick or playing early, having a lot of success, they don't know how to deal with adversity, or when struggles hit. And when it's done the opposite way, and that guy finally believes himself and he gets that opportunity, those are the guys that, come game day, you're kind of scared of."

Here is some other news on the Panthers:

BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH

*The Times-Picayune: *Saints to activate FB John Kuhn from IR

The Saints are planning on activating fullback John Kuhn from injured reserve, according to Josh Katzenstein of *The Times-Picayune. *If the Saints make the move, Kuhn could potentially be available to play as early as the divisional round in the playoffs. Kuhn was placed on IR after suffering a biceps injury in practice in the week leading up to the Saints' game against the Dolphins in London.

ESPN: Bucs DT Gerald McCoy won't sit out finale despite injury

Despite suffering a biceps injury earlier this season, Gerald McCoy continues to play through the pain. The Bucs have been eliminated from the postseason for quite a while at this point, but McCoy has no plans to throw in the towel on his 2017 season.

"That's a terrible mindset to have. Anybody who says that to me, I just think that's a losing mindset," McCoy said, according to ESPN's Jenna Laine. "Regardless of what our record says, 'What do you mean, I ain't got nothing to play for? I've been working to be a professional athlete my entire life so you think that just because I've got a little pain that I'm not gonna play, because we're not going to the playoffs?

"Come on man. That's what suckers do and that's what losers do and I ain't neither one. I go out there and give it my all, regardless of what the record says, regardless of what people think I have to play for - I'm playing for something much bigger than wins and losses."

Here is more news from around the division:

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