FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Thursday night wasn't a must-win for the Falcons, but it could prove to be a pivotal one for the reigning NFC champs. An interception in the end zone by Deion Jones sealed a 20-17 victory over NFC South rival New Orleans and kept Atlanta right in the mix for both the playoffs and a division title.
Today's Early Bird Report includes plenty of reactions to Thursday night's win, as well as some other news from around the division.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
NFL.com: Deion Jones' INT keeps Atlanta Falcons in playoff hunt
The Falcons' victory was important for many reasons, none bigger than it keeping them alive in the NFC playoff picture. That's the point NFL.com's Chris Wesseling started with in his six thoughts from the game.
After noting the importance of the win for Atlanta and the string of injuries New Orleans suffered, Wesseling turned his attention to the Falcons' defense, which he says kept the game within reach for the home team and really took center stage on Thursday night. Wesseling also mentioned this little nugget:
"How impressive was Atlanta's defense? Twice this season Ryan has emerged victorious despite throwing a trio of interceptions. Outside of those outliers, the other 20 instances of a quarterback tossing three picks have resulted in losses."
Pro Football Focus: Top grades from the Falcons' win
After each NFL game, Pro Football Focus releases its initial grades for the top five performers on each team. The site, which provides evaluations and numerical grades on every player in the league, revealed their top five grades for the Falcons and Saints after the game, and it should come as no surprise who received the highest grade for Atlanta. Here are the top five grades for the Falcons:
- LB Deion Jones – 92.6
- DT Grady Jarrett – 83.1
- RB Tevin Coleman – 82.5
- DT Dontari Poe – 80.7
- OL Ryan Schraeder – 79.6
Here is what PFF had to say about Jones' performance:
"Overall it was a solid night for Jones. He was targeted a team-high eight times and allowed five receptions. Those five catches went for a combined 17 yards though, and he had the interception and pass breakup. While he did miss a tackle on Mark Ingram on the final drive, he still finished with a game-high five tackles that resulted defensive stops, and he also had the interception that pretty much sealed the game."
Here is some more news from the Falcons' win:
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
ESPN: With losses mounting, Bucs can't escape difficult questions
Tampa Bay's season has not gone as anyone expected. The Buccaneers were picked by many to make a strong push in the NFC South and fight for a playoff spot this year. Now sitting at 4-8, questions about what went wrong are a constant for the team. According to ESPN's Jenna Laine, star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recently requested he be asked no negative questions.
"That's no disrespect to you guys, because I know that you have a job to do," McCoy said, per Laine. "But I do as well, and that's to make sure that my team has the right energy going into this practice and into this game. So, I'm done answering anything negative."
Here are some more stories on the Bucs:
- *Tampa Bay Times: *Bucs defense allowing most points on road, fewest at home
- *Tampa Bay Times: *Brate has earned Winston's trust in clutch situations
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
*The Times-Picayune: *8 things we learned from the Saints' loss
Thursday night's game wasn't perfect for either team, and there were plenty of takeaways on both sides. Jeff Duncan of *The Times-Picayune *detailed eight insights Saints fans gleaned from the loss.
Among the eight takeaways he mentions are the play Deion Jones made to seal the victory and the importance of Alvin Kamara to the Saints' offense. Looking ahead, Duncan notes that the injury toll for New Orleans on Thursday was "brutal."
ESPN: Panthers Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen back in action Sunday
The Panthers are expecting to have Pro Bowlers back on the field for Sunday's key NFC matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, according to ESPN's David Newton. Center Ryan Kalil, who has missed 10 of the last 11 games due to a neck injury is expected back, as is tight end Greg Olsen, who returned to action in Week 12 against the Jets before reaggravating a foot injury and missing last weekend's loss in New Orleans.
"This is a huge stretch for us,'' Olsen told Newton. "One of the best teams we'll play coming here on Sunday.''
Here is some more news from around the division:
- *The Charlotte Observer: *Panthers' defenders say ejecting players a tough call
- NFL.com: Saints' loss to Falcons disrupts NFC playoff picture
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