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'It will be a crazy finish': Falcons preparing for Panthers, crucial 4-game stretch ahead

The Falcons are in a three-way tie atop the NFC South standings with four games left in the season.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons had an opportunity to widen the gap in between them and the rest of the NFC South in Week 14.

They failed to do so.

Instead, the Falcons lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With that outcome, and the New Orleans Saints' win over the Carolina Panthers, there is now a three-way tie atop the divisional standings. The Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers all hold 6-7 records entering Week 15 work, while the Panthers are 1-12.

"At this point in the season, every game is so crucial," Falcons defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "It's December football. If you want to play in late January, you got to win these ones."

Really, it's the Falcons and Buccaneers atop the NFC South standings. The Saints' 2-2 division record is worse than the Falcons' and Buccaneers' matching 3-1 records. The Buccaneers, though, hold the tiebreaker since they are 5-4 in the conference overall, and the Falcons are 4-5.

Each team still has two NFC South rematches left, so the playoff race is far from over – at least for the Falcons, Buccaneers and Saints. The Panthers have been eliminated.

"We have to control what we can control," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. "The only thing we can control is we know we're playing Sunday and we have to win that game."

The Falcons have their second meeting with the Panthers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX) at Bank of America Stadium. The two faced off in Week 1, with the Falcons taking a 24-10 victory.

As last Sunday proved, just because the Falcons beat a team once doesn't mean they'll win again.

"Everything up until this point really doesn't matter anymore," Campbell said. "What really only matters is what we do moving forward. It's the next-play mentality. We have it during the game, and we have it after the game is over, too. Next game. This game is going to be as big as any other."

That's the message Campbell, a 16-year veteran in the NFL, is preaching in the locker room. The loss to the Buccaneers hurt, yes. But the Falcons can't let it become two.

And it's not just Campbell who is working to keep spirits high. It's multiple veterans, from safety Jessie Bates III (six years of experience) to running back Cordarrelle Patterson (11 years). They've all been either in this same situation or ones similar through their time in the league.

"It was encouraging," Falcons rookie running back Bijan Robinson said. "It was good to hear, especially like for me being a young guy. Knowing we're right there, we're right there in it. It was good to have him and have all those guys step up."

Because the fact of the matter is, the Falcons do still have a shot at the postseason. In order to get there, of course, they need to win. Atlanta hasn't won three games in a row this year. There are four games remaining to change that.

After the Panthers, the Falcons have the Indianapolis Colts (Dec. 24), the Chicago Bears (Dec. 31) and the New Orleans Saints (TBD, either Jan. 6 or 7) on tap.

"Things are in front of us," Smith said. "It will be a crazy finish to this season. I can promise you that."

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