FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The weekend is nearly upon us and the Falcons (3-0) are putting the final touches on their game plan before taking on the Bills (2-1) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Today's Early Bird Report includes the Bills' admiration for Julio Jones, some early flaws for the top contenders and a major suggestion for the Carolina Panthers.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Democrat & Chronicle: Julio is a dynamic freak of nature, and the Bills' defense knows it
To be fair, pretty much everyone knows just how freakish of an athlete Julio Jones is but in Week 4, he poses an immediate threat to the Bills. Members of the Bills' defense spoke with Sal Maiorana of the *Democrat & Chronicle *about defending Jones and they know they have a very tough task ahead of them.
"You have to prevent the big plays with him, you can't let him get over the top," safety Jordan Poyer told Maiorana. "He's going to have his share of targets, his share of catches, but you have to keep him in front of you. He's a freak of an athlete, not just catching the ball but after catching the ball. He's not the only guy on that offense that can do that, either."
It's not just the defenders who have payed close attention to what Jones can do. Several of the Bills' receivers understand just how special of a player the Falcons' star is, including rookie Zay Jones.
"He's special, just a truly gifted man," Jones told Maiorana. "Football is lucky to have someone like Julio Jones. I admired his game at Alabama, he was a phenomenal player with the combination of size and strength that he has. A guy his size, getting in and out of cuts like he's 5-10, 5-11, you can only just appreciate that. He defies what it means to be a bigger player."
The New York Times: After anthem protests, NFL plots a careful path forward
There's no escaping the league-wide demonstrations prior to the games last weekend in the NFL. After several comments from the president, many teams opted to link arms during the national anthem, including the Falcons.
Some owners around the league joined their players as a gesture of solidarity, and Falcons owner Arthur Blank was among them. In a piece for The New York Times*, *Ken Belson sat down with Blank, among others, and discussed how the NFL moves forward after last weekend.
"The players have a right to speak their minds, but on the other hand, it can make it difficult because there isn't anyone in America who doesn't want to honor America," Blank told Belson. "You talk to other owners and the commissioner, they feel the same way, they support the players."
NFL.com: Dave Dameshek makes eye-popping prediction for Falcons-Bills
Each week, NFL.com's Dave Dameshek makes very specific predictions for the upcoming slate of games. Not only does he pick which team he believes will win, but he also gives a score prediction and a stat line for a player he believes will have a big game.
Dameshek is 30-17 so far this season with his predictions, and he believes Sunday's game between the Falcons and Bills won't be nearly as close as some think. He has the Falcons rolling to a 28-3 victory, with a dominant defensive performance and a big game for Julio Jones. Dameshek predicts that Jones will finish with 140 yards and two touchdowns.
ESPN.com: Can NFL's preseason Super Bowl favorites fix their biggest issues?
Entering this season, there appeared to be a clear cut of favorites in both the AFC and NFC, a group which the Falcons were very much a part of. Through the first three weeks, ESPN's Bill Barnwell says those teams have shown some early flaws.
The four teams who haven't looked nearly as dominant as expected, according to Barnwell, are the Patriots, the Seahawks, the Packers and the Steelers. For the Patriots, Barnwell has questions about the defense; for the Seahawks it's the offensive line; the Packers aren't exceptional in any one area and have a tough schedule and the Steelers haven't been anywhere close to their potential on offense.
Atlanta isn't on that list, but Barnwell mentions the Falcons as his fifth team that has shown some early issues. He cites the two very close wins on the road as something that may have led to a misleading reputation for the defending NFC champs and says that the Falcons' win in Week 2 came against a very banged up Packers team.
"Falcons fans should be delighted about their 3-0 record," Barnwell writes, "and with the Bills and Dolphins coming to Atlanta on either side of a Week 5 bye, it would hardly be a surprise to see the Falcons hit 5-0 before they head to New England and begin a stretch of three straight road games on Oct. 22. At the same time, this also looks like a less impressive version of the 2016 Falcons team from the regular season, and while that's likely a playoff contender, Atlanta needs more out of its defense to compensate for the offense regressing toward the mean."
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Buffalo Bills
Buffalobills.com: Top six storylines for Bills-Falcons this week
Ahead of Sunday's matchup, Buffalo play-by-play man John Murphy wrote about the six biggest Bills storylines surrounding this game for the team's official website.
Among his six storylines are the struggles the Bills have had in the run game with LeSean McCoy, but he notes the team won't abandon the run and the Falcons are giving up 4.8 yards per carry to opposing teams. He also mentions that Buffalo's secondary will face its biggest test this season and that the defensive line will have to do their part to slow down Atlanta's offense.
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
The Charlotte Observer: Panthers are 2-1, but maybe it's time for a big change
Two years after winning the league's MVP award, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton looks like a shell of his former self. Carolina has started 2-1 for just the fifth time in its franchise's history, but *The Charlotte Observer's *Tom Sorenson says the offense, which added several intriguing pieces over the offseason, has yet to come together. Sorenson says if he's not fully healthy after offseason shoulder surgery, the Panthers need to bench their starting quarterback.
The New Orleans Advocate: Saints add Willie Snead to 53-man roster, place John Kuhn on IR
After serving a three-game suspension, wide receiver Willie Snead has been added back to New Orleans' 53-man active roster. To make room for Snead, the Saints placed fullback John Kuhn on injured reserve after he suffered biceps injury during practice on Wednesday, according to Nick Underhill of The New Orleans Advocate*. *
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