FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes what Matt Ryan means to the Falcons for the second half of the season and Ben Garland's return to the offensive line.
Atlanta returns to action this weekend, and it needs to carry the momentum it gained heading into its bye week to keep up in the NFC playoff race.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' loss while the Falcons were off moved Atlanta into third place in the NFC South, but the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints both looked strong in their wins on Sunday.
As Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes: Sunday's outcomes didn't do Atlanta any favors in the playoff picture, but the Falcons will have a chance down the stretch because of Matt Ryan.
"I mentioned this the other day and, after watching Sunday's NFL games, it's worth repeating: The Falcons have an edge because Matt Ryan is their quarterback," Cunningham writes. "In the NFC, only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are on or above his level. Russell Wilson might still be. Cam Newton was sharp against Baltimore on Sunday but the question, as always, is can he sustain it?"
To read the rest of Cunningham's piece on what Ryan means moving forward, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
AJC: Garland ready for his return to the starting offensive line
After Brandon Fusco suffered a season-ending injury in the Falcons' win against the New York Giants, Ben Garland will once again start along Atlanta's offensive line. Garland was a starter for the Falcons in last season's playoffs, opposite Wes Schweitzer, who has been called upon as a starter after Andy Levitre's season-ending injury in Week 2.
"I'm confident playing right, left and including center, tight end or fullback," Garland told The AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter. "Put me anywhere, I'm ready to go."
ESPN: Start gearing up for Rams-Saints to decide NFC
As the Falcons look to begin a second-half run at the postseason, some NFC teams have their sights set on locking up a variety of advantages in the playoffs.
This weekend's upcoming showdown between the Los Angeles Rams (8-0) and the New Orleans Saints (6-1) could end up deciding who ends up on top in the NFC, according to ESPN's Kevin Seifert.
"Take a moment to consider what the Saints have done this month. In a span of three weeks, they have crushed the Redskins by 24 points, handed the Baltimore Ravens their only home loss of the season and broken the will of the Vikings by halftime," Seifert writes. "They are now 4-0 on the road for the first time since 2009, when they went on to win Super Bowl XLIV.
"And now they'll return home to host the Rams, whose scheme has looked invincible at times but showed some vulnerability as they held off the Green Bay Packers 29-27 on Sunday. Quarterback Jared Goff missed on 9 of 12 pass attempts when pressured, averaging just 4.0 yards per attempt. The Saints sacked Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, hitting him a total of nine times, according to the official game book, and forced two turnovers."
To read the rest of Seifert's piece, click here.
AJC: Deion Jones' return will provide major boost
The Falcons got the much-needed opportunity for rest and recovery during their bye week, and they could get a major piece of their defense back in the lineup sooner rather than later.
Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones could come off of IR as early as the Falcons' game against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11, which would provide a major boost for a defense that has begun to show slight improvement recently.
In a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, D. Orlando Ledbetter writes about what the return of Jones could mean for the team.
"Jones, who led the Falcons in tackles last season with 138, would immediately boost a unit that is yielding 419.4 yards per game and allowing offenses to convert on 54 percent of their third downs," writes Ledbetter.
The third-year linebacker is not only an exceptional sideline-to-sideline athlete, but his knowledge of the game has increased with each season, allowing him to be a primary communicator and to play with greater instinct.
To read the rest of Ledbetter's piece, click here.
NFL.com: What we learned from Sunday's Week 8 games
With the Falcons on their bye, Week 8 provided an opportunity to pay attention to some of the other teams around the league and in the NFC South. NFL.com does a good job recapping each game every weekend, and they've again provided insights on some of the key teams that Falcons fans might want to pay attention to.
"Jameis Winston's days in Tampa Bay might be numbered," Nick Shook writes of Tampa Bay's 37-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. "The quarterback threw four interceptions, including a pair of really ugly ones, putting the Buccaneers in a deep hole and the worst part of it all was none of it was surprising. The final blow was enough for Dirk Koetter, feeling the warmth on his backside, to bench Winston for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who immediately sparked an 18-point fourth quarter that nearly sent the game to overtime."
The Carolina Panthers (5-2) looked like one of the more impressive teams over the weekend, dispatching the Baltimore Ravens 36-21.
"Chiefs coach Andy Reid isn't the only old dog willing to learn new tricks," Chris Wesseling writes. "Panthers coordinator Norv Turner, who has been calling plays since the Cowboys dynasty of the early 1990s, is helping Cam Newton reach the next level as a passer through creative play designs and pre-snap acumen. Newton's accuracy and decision-making have been markedly improved, particularly in his willingness to settle for underneath routes rather than rifling scattershot throws downfield. Against a defense that entered the week ranked No. 1 overall and No. 2 against the pass, Newton started with an array of impressive tight-window throws, took advantage of a few lucky bounces and broke Baltimore's back with a 12-yard bootleg touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Carolina's brass has long envisioned a Ben Roethlisberger-like transition for Newton. It's finally here. Leading a quick-tossing attack with an arsenal of playmakers, Newton is completing a career-high 66.4 percent of his passes at just 6.9 yards per attempt for a rating of 97.4."
To see the rest of NFL.com's takeaways from the weekend, click here.