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Early Bird Report 12/4: Reactions to Falcons' loss; Saints seize control of NFC South

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In a clash of two NFC playoff contenders, the Vikings' defense stifled the Falcons' offense and earned a hard-fought 14-9 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta can't afford to linger on the loss for long, as the New Orleans Saints head to town for a Thursday night showdown with major playoff implications.

Today's Early Bird Report includes takeaways from the Falcons' loss as well as a look at what took place around the division in Week 13.


FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY What we learned from Falcons-Vikings

Week 13 pitted several of the NFC's best teams against each other, providing a clearer picture on the hierarchy within the conference. The Vikings' defense stifled the Falcons' offense, a point's Chris Wesseling mentioned in his three thoughts from the game.

He first mentions the effective and efficient performance from Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, who completed over 83 percent of his passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Next, Wesseling notes the lopsided third-down performance from each team, and how the Falcons' miscues helped the Vikings take control on third downs. Finally, Wesseling tips his cap to cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who shadowed Julio Jones for most of the afternoon and helped hold the All-Pro receiver in check.

*USA TODAY: *Vikings hand Falcons serious reality check with shutdown performance

Although they've been firing on all cylinders in recent weeks, the Falcons' offense couldn't do much against a very good Vikings' defense. *USA TODAY's *Jarrett Bell believes the 14-9 loss provided a reality check for the reigning NFC champs, who have a tough path ahead with four remaining divisional games.

"The setback drops Atlanta to 7-5, putting a dent in its playoff hopes," Bell writes. "But it's too early to completely write them off, given they have a pair of games against the New Orleans Saints and another matchup against the Carolina Panthers looming.

"But there is a clear takeaway to ponder: The Falcons must find an answer for getting punched in the mouth."

Here are some more takeaways from the Falcons' loss to the Vikings:


*Sports Illustrated: *On Separation Sunday, Saints seize full control of NFC South

New Orleans earned a decisive 31-21 victory at home against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday to take firm control of the NFC South. The Saints gained 145 yards on the ground against the Panthers, continuing their dominance in the run game with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

"The Saints are still trying to keep pace with the 10-win Eagles and Vikings for a first-round bye and home-field advantage, but certainly the argument can be made for New Orleans as the best team in the NFC," Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones writes. "The Saints have the best quarterback of the NFC contenders, the best backfield, one of the best coaches and a defense that doesn't have an obvious weak link."

*New Orleans Advocate: *Saints come up big with 31-21 win over Panthers

Much of the Saints' success this season can be attributed to the work of Kamara and Ingram, and they continued their excellent work in Sunday's win. Kamara, a strong contender for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award, scored the game's first touchdown and finished with 126 total yards and two touchdowns, while Ingram gained 122 total yards, including a 72-yard run, and added another touchdown.

Joel Erickson of *The New Orleans Advocate *had this to say of the Saints’ impressive running back tandem: "In the process, the pair of backs sent a message to the rest of the NFC South, and the NFC at large, that no matter what happens to the Saints this season, Ingram and Kamara will be the driving force."

Here is some more news on the Falcons' division rival:


*The Charlotte Observer: *Series of mistakes cost Panthers against Saints

During Sunday's heavyweight showdown between the Saints and Panthers, Carolina couldn't manage to get out of its own way. The mistakes were particularly bad in the second quarter, according to Jourdan Rodrigue of *The Charlotte Observer, *when a series of mistakes limited the Panthers' offense and led to at least one Saints' touchdown. After falling behind in the first half, the Panthers managed just 115 yards of offense and couldn't overcome their early mishaps.

*Tampa Bay Times: *Winston, Bucs under siege in overtime loss to Packers

The Buccaneers dropped their eighth game of the season on Sunday, losing to the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in overtime, and quarterback Jameis Winston was dropped in the backfield seven times throughout the afternoon. According to Rick Stroud of the *Tampa Bay Times, *it was the inability to protect Winston, coupled with several mistakes that cost the Buccaneers on Sunday. A blocked punt, a fumble returned for a touchdown and a botched snap near the goal line were among the gaffes that plagued Tampa Bay.

Here are some more stories from the NFC South on Sunday:


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