Early Bird Report 12/29: Falcons can beat Panthers' blitz; Praise for Steve Sarkisian

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Come the start of 2018, we will know whether the Falcons are bound for the postseason or have fallen just one game short of a second straight playoff berth. Until then, however, the team remains hard at work to ensure a victory at home against the Panthers and the opportunity to keep playing in the new year.

Today's Early Bird Report includes why Matt Ryan can beat the Panthers' blitz on Sunday as well as some insightful comments on Steve Sarkisian from a pair of NFL assistant coaches who faced him this season.

FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY

CBS Sports: Matt Ryan can beat Carolina's blitz

With many of the NFL's playoff spots already locked up, there are really only a handful of games in Week 17 with a potential postseason berth on the line. One such game is the Falcons' matchup with the Panthers. In previewing the final weekend of the regular season, CBS Sports' Sean Wagner-McGough discussed the NFC South rivalry and provided some interesting information.

"According to PFF, Carolina uses the blitz 44.7 percent of the time," Wagner-McGough writes. "The league average is 29.4 percent. They like blitzing more than most teams. It's a good thing then that Ryan welcomes it. Against the blitz, Ryan's passer rating rises to 101.6 -- he's averaging 8.5 yards per attempt and has thrown eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Compare those numbers to his stat line against non-blitzing defenses: 7.5 YPA, 11 touchdowns, 10 picks and an 87.2 passer rating."

ESPN: Steve Sarkisian 'better than Shanahan' in Year 1

There has been much conversation surrounding the Falcons' offense this season, and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, in particular. After boasting a historically-great unit in 2016, the Falcons' offense hasn't been scoring at the same level and many people want to lay blame at the feet of Sarkisian.

ESPN's Vaughn McClure spoke to two current NFL assistant coaches who have played the Falcons this season, and they provided their anonymous opinions on Sarkisian, opinions which may surprise his critics. The information in McClure's piece is very enlightening, and every Falcons fan should take a minute to read it.

This is a sample of what the first coach told McClure:

"Everybody needs to remember this: They were getting ready to hang [Kyle] Shanahan three years ago. And then he made a comeback, and they went to the Super Bowl. All of a sudden, he's the second coming of Jesus Christ. He was a combination of what he was the year before when he was (expletive), and then last year. And this guy [Sarkisian] is better than Shanahan was in his first year. If anything else, they need to be praising [Sarkisian] and saying, 'He's better than Shanahan was his first season.' Instead of crucifying the guy, look at the difference. It makes no sense to me.

"They are very well-balanced. They've got a great system. There are just some things that just aren't jiving for them right now. But they are their own worst enemies. It's not like someone else is going in there like, 'Oh, we got them nailed.' There's a lot of people that don't want to play the Atlanta Falcons. Believe me."

This is a bit of what the second coach relayed to McClure:

"They are (expletive) dangerous. I'm serious. I think the skill players are exceptional. Obviously, the quarterback is a really good player. For whatever reason, they're just a little bit off. People are trying to take No. 11 away, and now No. 12 has become more of a focal point in the pass game.

"I think the offensive coordinator is doing a really good job. If they get in [the postseason], shoot, they can beat anybody."

Here are some more stories on the Falcons:

NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers

NFL.com: Seven people who matter most in Week 17

Each week is an important one in the NFL, and there may be a select group of people who swing the outcome of a game one way or another. Ahead of the final weekend of the regular season, NFL.com's Marc Sessler provided his list of the seven people who will matter the most in Week 17. Among those seven is Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Here is what Sessler had to say about Kuechly heading into the division rivalry:

"They don't lead the league in style points, but the Panthers find a way to get it done. At 11-4, they can take the NFC South with a win over Atlanta combined with a Saints loss to the Bucs. They can even clinch a first-round bye if a rash of results go their way. First things first: Carolina must take care of business against the defending NFC champions in Atlanta on Sunday.

"The Falcons are an up-and-down squad in 2017, but they can play with anyone when Devonta Freeman takes over. His 200-plus yards of total offense against the Bucs in Week 15 served as a reminder that the versatile, powerful back can make up for a passing game that has fallen off since losing Shanahan to the Niners. Look for the Falcons -- desperately fighting for a playoff spot -- to dump the playbook come Sunday. After allowing 20-plus points in five of their last six games, Kuechly and the Panthers' defense better be ready for ultra-trickery and plenty of touches by Freeman. The most exciting division in football is coming right down to the end."

Here is some other news on the Panthers:

BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH

ESPN: Saints won't be 'sleepwalking' into finale with NFC South at stake

With one more victory, the Saints will clinch the NFC South for the first time since 2011. According to ESPN's Mike Triplett, this is not an opportunity the Saints are taking for granted.

"I think at the end of the day, guys want to be division champs. Guys don't want to kind of just slide into the playoffs," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins told Triplett. "Guys want to go in riding high, coming off a big win against a division opponent. So, I think guys are locked in, guys aren't putting anything past [the Bucs]."

Safety Vonn Bell also mentioned to Triplett that the players see the division championship banners hanging on the wall of their indoor practice facility every day. Those banners, Bell told Triplett, serve as extra motivation to get one of their own.

Here is more news from around the division:

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