Early Bird Report: The one game that could make or break the Falcons' 2019 season

RB Ito Smith
RB Ito Smith

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes what may well be the make-or-break game for the Falcons in 2019.

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Every game during an NFL season can mean the difference between a team making the postseason or missing it, but while all games carry the same weight some feel more important than others. CBS Sports’ John Breech recently combed through every NFL team’s schedule to single out one “make or break” game for the 2019 season.

The contest Breech chose for the Falcons is likely one fans already have circled on their calendar – the Week 13 home game against the New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving night.

“The Falcons have lost three in a row to the Saints and they're going to need that drought to end if they want to compete for the NFC South title,” Breech writes. “The Saints ruined Thanksgiving for Falcons fans last year with a Turkey Day win in New Orleans and Falcons fans are probably hoping that the Saints don't make them sick to their stomach for the second straight season.”

To see the rest of the make or break games Breech picked, click here.

Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:

NFL.com: Power ranking the NFL’s head coaches

The 2018 season marked the Falcons’ worst under coach Dan Quinn but that was largely the result of poor injury luck. Since Quinn’s arrival, the Falcons are 36-28 in the regular season with two playoff appearances in four years and a trip to the Super Bowl. Quinn is betting on himself in 2019, assuming the defensive coordinator responsibilities in addition to his role as head coach, but he was one of the best coordinators in the league while with Seattle.

NFL.com’s Elliott Harrison remains high on Quinn. In a recent power ranking of NFL head coaches, Harrison had Quinn just outside of the top 10 at No. 11.

“The Falcons struggled to their worst season under Dan Quinn, finishing second in the NFC South at 7-9,” Harrison writes. “Which should tell you much about Quinn's run in Atlanta. In four seasons, after inheriting what had been a floundering football team, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator pushed them to two postseason appearances and a narrow Super Bowl loss. Last season seemed to go up in smoke from Week 1, when Atlanta lost Deion Jones and Keanu Neal to injury right away. Devonta Freeman played in just two games, and the secondary was never right. Yet, in the end, Quinn was able to keep the team from fading from respectability. Still, 36-28 is a healthy regular season record for one of the youngish head coaches in the league.”

To see the rest of Harrison’s list and the coaches he has ahead of Quinn, click here.

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CBS Sports: The top 100 players in the NFL

Heading into the 2019 season, the experts at CBS Sports sat down and ranked their top 100 players in the NFL. This is a pretty common practice among national media outlets, but it provides a good sense of how certain players are viewed nationally. Four Falcons players made the list, with Julio Jones ranked highest among them at No. 11.

“Jones has now led the league in receiving yards in two of the past four seasons, and led it in receiving yards per game in three of those four,” CBS Sports states. “Oh, and he's led the whole league in PFF's Yards Per Route Run in each of those four seasons. He also broke the silly ‘Julio Jones can't score touchdowns’ curse last season, with eight of them. This is a receiver at the top of his game, which means he is very near the top of the NFL's game as well.”

Joining Jones on the list were Matt Ryan (No. 30), Grady Jarrett (No. 70) and Deion Jones (No. 74). It’s good to see Jarrett and Deion Jones make this list and earn some national recognition for their strong play in recent seasons.

To see the rest of CBS Sports’ list, click here.

ESPN: The best and worst NFL offensive arsenals

Atlanta’s offense has been among the best in the NFL for several years now and with a vast majority of skill players returning in 2019 there is reason to believe the Falcons will continue to put up points. But where do the Falcons rank among the league’s best offensive units?

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell provided his rankings of the NFL’s offensive arsenals prior to the 2019 season, and he has the Falcons at No. 10. An argument could certainly be made that Atlanta should be higher on the list given the level of talent at quarterback and receiver alone, a point Barnwell acknowledges.

“If I was making a list of the scariest wideout sets in football, the Falcons would rank in the top five for a third consecutive campaign,” Barnwell writes. “Calvin Ridley slowed down after a hot start, but he became just the fifth wide receiver over the past 40 seasons to top 800 yards and 10 touchdowns in his rookie campaign. The other guys in that group are Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Mike Williams (Tampa edition) and Randy Moss. Mohamed Sanu, overqualified for third wideout work, racked up 838 receiving yards as what amounted to Atlanta's third target. You know Julio Jones, and his bizarre touchdown-less streak dissipated with eight over his final nine games. Jones has also only missed two games over the past four seasons.”

The reason Barnwell has the Falcons at the bottom of his top 10 is the rest of the skill positions. He’s not as high on tight end Austin Hooper as others are, and he is apprehensive about what Devonta Freeman can bring to the offense after sustaining injuries in each of the last two seasons. And the loss of Tevin Coleman in free agency didn’t help matters in Barnwell’s opinion, either.

To see the rest of Barnwell’s rankings and what else he has to say about the Falcons, click here.

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NFL.com: 2019 NFL triplets rankings

The Falcons have long boasted a number of versatile and dangerous offensive weapons. Recent injuries to Devonta Freeman have somewhat stifled Atlanta’s rushing attack, but if he’s healthy the Falcons have a trio of skill players in Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Freeman that can rival many in the league. NFL.com deputy editor Ali Bhanpuri appears to feel the same way as he ranked the Falcons sixth on his ranking of NFL triplets heading into the 2019 season. He ranked Ryan No. 7 among quarterback, Freeman No. 24 among running backs and Jones No. 2 among receivers. It does appear he grappled with that decision a bit, however.

“I put off writing this blurb until the end because I knew it meant defending my decision to rank Julio Jones No. 2 among pass catchers and figuring out where to place Devonta Freeman,” Bhanpuri writes. “(Matt Ryan is great, and I can't imagine anyone taking issue with his place among the QBs.) Jones, who turned 30 in February, had one of the best seasons of his career in 2018, silencing critics who say he's too inconsistent from game to game (his 10 100-yard performances were the most of his career), doesn't score enough touchdowns (went from 3 to 8) and gets hurt too often (started all 16 games in back-to-back seasons). Only Jerry Rice has more receiving seasons of 1,400-plus yards (six) than Jones' five, but not even the 49ers legend managed the feat five years in a row like Julio. The only reason Hopkins ranked higher than the two-time All-Pro was because of the drop differential (0 for Nuk in 2018, 8 for Jones). While I lamented not putting Jones one spot higher, I'm worried I perhaps put Freeman too high. The two-time Pro Bowler has missed 16 of his last 23 games due to a series of ailments (hamstring, groin, concussions). But I'm banking on the back returning to his shifty, versatile self this year with the help of an upgraded offensive line, a plethora of talent on the perimeter and, most importantly, a clean bill of health.”

To see the rest of Bhanpuri’s rankings and who he had ahead of Atlanta, click here.

The Ringer: Who is the best receiver in the NFL?

It is an undeniable fact that Julio Jones is not only one of the best wide receivers in today’s NFL, but he’s also making a strong case as one of the top all-time players in history at the position. Jones led the NFL with 1,677 receiving yards in 2018, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

In our society, it’s not enough to be among the best; everyone wants to know who holds the No. 1 spot. Jones claims that top spot in the eyes of many Falcons fans, but it’s an ongoing debate nationally and one that The Ringer’s Robert Mays dove into recently.

Mays made the case for five wide receivers as the best that the NFL currently has to offer. Here’s a portion of what he had to say about Jones:

“Julio Jones makes defenders play scared. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds with 4.34-second 40-yard dash speed, Jones is one of the most physically gifted and imposing receivers the NFL has ever seen. So even if that fear shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s still amazing to see how cornerbacks react to him. When threatening receivers downfield, Jones chews up yardage at an incredible pace. Even the fastest corners seem shocked by how quickly he gets on top of them, and it leads to most players retreating as fast as possible. That respect for Jones’s deep speed makes his comeback and out routes some of the most devastating plays in football. Watching the way Jones navigates the defensive backfield is akin to how LeBron James moved around a basketball court in his prime; it’s hard to reconcile a man that big covering that much ground, and the way he owns space changes how the rest of the game is played.”

Despite his immense respect for Jones’ talent and production, Mays ultimately went with Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins as his choice for the top receiver in the league right now. However, Mays did admit that his decision was basically “a toss-up” between Jones and Hopkins with the Texans receiver getting a very small nod because of his reliability catching the most difficult passes.

To see Mays’ case for the other top NFL receivers as well as the rest of what he had to say about Jones, click here.

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ESPN: Answering biggest question facing each team

For much of Matt Ryan’s tenure with the Falcons, Atlanta has boasted a noteworthy offensive attack. Their high level of play has persisted despite five changes at the Falcons’ offensive coordinator position, including their most recent hire of Dirk Koetter.

In Koetter, Ryan has a high level of familiarity and comfort, which should help the offense remain among the most dynamic in the NFL. But in a recent ESPN article the question was asked concerning whether or not the Falcons could once again reach their 2016 offensive levels, when they averaged 33.8 points per game.

“Ryan's familiarity with Koetter, who is back for his second stint as offensive coordinator, should help the offense flow a little better than last season,” ESPN Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure writes. “Having Mike Mularkey as the tight-ends coach, with his history for taking a smash-mouth approach, should be an asset in short-yardage, goal-line situations. If (Julio) Jones and (Devonta) Freeman, who have dealt with nagging injuries over their careers, remain healthy, and if the rebuilt offensive line, with rookie first-rounders Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, stands strong, the Falcons should push for 30 points per game. Then the question becomes, will Dan Quinn's defense keep opposing offenses out of the end zone?”

To see the biggest questions facing the other NFL teams, click here.

NFL.com: The NFL’s most indispensable offensive players

The NFL continually becomes a league driven by great offenses and elite athletes that pose immense problems for defenses. Atlanta has one of the NFL’s best offensive game-breakers in Julio Jones, who clocked it at the No. 5 spot on NFL.com columnist Adam Schein’s ranking of the nine most indispensable offensive players for the 2019 season.

“The Falcons had a down season in 2018, finishing below .500 for the first time in Dan Quinn's tenure,” Schein writes. “But don't blame Julio, who eclipsed 1,400 receiving yards for the fifth straight year (hauling in 113 balls for 1,677 yards). Through the years, some folks have dwelled on the freakish athlete's low touchdown totals, but A) that's more on Atlanta's approach in the red zone and B) Jones notched a respectable eight scores last season. And look for Julio's numbers to be even more eye-popping this fall, with Dirk Koetter back calling the plays.”

To read the rest of Schein’s thoughts on Jones as well as the rest of his list, click here.

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