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Early Bird Report: Falcons have confidence they can play with any team

The top Falcons headlines from around the country 

Sunday's 17-14 loss wasn't a different result than much of the season for Atlanta, but it continued to show that the Falcons won't back down from any challenge and can, in fact, rise to the occasion, even against the best. One thing is clear: The Falcons have not given up at all this season under interim head coach Raheem Morris.

While there is only one game remaining left in the 2020 season, that fighting mentality is one the organization hopes will carry over into the future. It begins with the leadership in the locker room, and it manifested itself on the field on Sunday. Now, the organization has one last opportunity to knock off a playoff team and get revenge against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"It is really a credit to the team and organization," Morris said after Sunday's game. "The biggest takeaway is that we can play with anybody. You line them up and we have a chance to go out there and get after them. These guys certainly can show that, and we can certainly do that most of the year. We have not been able to win these games that have come down to the wire, and we have to find a way to win these games on the wire."

ESPN's Adam Teicher wrote a bit more about whether or not the Falcons are actually closer to contention than their 4-11 record might suggest.

Breaking down different draft scenarios for top 5

The Falcons currently hold the No. 4 pick in the upcoming draft, which is the highest the organization has drafted in quite some time. That spot would likely allow them to pick one of the top players in the draft, but it also provides some alternative options. writer Chris Trapasso advocates for Atlanta to trade back in the draft and bolster the overall number of picks they will have.

"That laundry list of problems is why the Falcons are in prime position as a franchise to trade back," Trapasso writes. "They'll likely be staring Sewell right in the face if they wind up picking at No. 3 overall. But even a Hall of Fame left tackle -- if that's what Sewell ultimately becomes -- isn't going to turn around an organization. While it was for a quarterback -- Darnold -- the Colts received three second-round picks from the Jets when Indianapolis traded out of No. 3 overall in the 2018 draft. That type of injection of draft capital can boost the rebuilding efforts for Atlanta. Also, the Falcons only have six picks -- one in each of the first six rounds -- in the 2021 draft."

Hennessy held his own against the champion Chiefs

Rookie center Matt Hennessy earned the first start of his NFL career on Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champions, a tall task for sure. Apart from a few penalties, he fared pretty well out there, in the opinion of his head coach.

"We put Matt Hennessy out there in a tough day," Morris said. "You put him out there against the Kansas City Chiefs with some really great defensive tackles. He was playing his butt off, he was playing hard, playing physical. He drew a couple of penalties, which is always tough, but he did show signs of him becoming the heir apparent, which we all thought, to Alex Mack to be able to go out there and be productive in this league. He's one of the guys that you put out there and didn't really have a preseason. He really hasn't had much live work at center. So, for him to go out in his first really live work versus the champs and hold his own, he'll get better and better every time he goes out. We're really excited about where he's going to go."

D. Orlando Ledbetter wrote more about Hennessy’s first start against the Chiefs and the reaction of his coaches and teammates on his performance.

What we learned in Week 16

It's been a season of improvement for Atlanta's defense, and Sunday stands out as the pinnacle of that improvement (so far). Still, it's hard to imagine the Falcons topping their most recent performance against the league's best offense.

Atlanta is the only team to hold the Kansas City Chiefs to under 20 points this season, and they forced two turnovers and nearly came away with two more. The defensive effort had the Falcons in position to tie the game late, but the outcome did not ultimately turn out in Atlanta's favor. Still, the defense caught the attention of a lot of people, including writer Michael Baca, who praised the unit in his takeaways.

"The Falcons (4-11) gave the heralded K.C. offense fits with an assertive pass rush and a disciplined secondary," Baca writes. "Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett led the way with several pressures of Mahomes, who was often forced to throw the ball away or compelled to take dangerous chances with Falcons defenders breathing down his neck. Linebacker Foye Oluokun picked off Mahomes to end the Chiefs' opening drive of the second half, and if it wasn't for Tyreek Hill's hustle, it could've been a game-altering pick-six. Deion Jones (eight tackles) and Keanu Neal, who intercepted Sammy Watkins on a trick play, were other young Falcons who showed that the future isn't all that grim in Atlanta."

NFL Week 16 takeaways

Baca wasn't the only person to write about the Falcons' defensive outing on Sunday. That side of the ball has long been a subject of concern for many fans, but the Chiefs game provided optimism that things will be better moving forward. That's an opinion that ESPN's Harry Lyles Jr. shares, as he wrote as much in his post-game takeaways.

"The Falcons' defense is officially good," Lyles Jr. writes. "We've seen Atlanta play solid games against teams with offenses that don't necessarily strike fear in defenses, but to hold the Chiefs to just 17 points is no small accomplishment or fluke. The Chiefs' 17 points was their fewest in a win under Mahomes. If there's one positive to take not just from the game but also from Raheem Morris' tenure, it's that the defense is close to -- if not already -- where it needs to be as the Falcons move forward."

NFL Week 16 grades

Although the Falcons didn't emerge with a win, Sunday was probably one of the team's better performances all season. Very few people expected Atlanta to hang with Kansas City for even a quarter let alone the entire game. It's been a tough year for the Falcons, but Sunday showed that there are at least some things progressing in the right direction. It was a good enough outing to earn a "B" grade from’s John Breech, which was even higher than the "C" grade he gave the Chiefs.

"In a twist of fate that we probably all should have seen coming since this is the Falcions, Atlanta was let down by the one player who hadn't let them down all season," Breech writes. "Kicker Younghoe Koo missed a 39-yard field goal with nine seconds left that would have sent this game to overtime. It was Koo's first miss all year between 30 and 39 yards. The miss overshadowed a phenomenal performance by a Falcons defense that held the high-powered Chiefs offense to zero points in the first quarter and just seven points overall in the first half. The problem when you're playing the Chiefs is that you can't afford to make any mistakes and Atlanta made two. Besides Koo's missed field goal, there was a fumble by Brandon Powell that came in the fourth quarter after the Falcons had driven inside of Kansas City's 20-yard line." 

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