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Falcons In-Season News

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Matt Ryan cool with playing at chilly Lambeau Field

By Vaughn McClure

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan played his high school ball in Philadelphia and in college at Boston College, so he should be used to some cold-weather games.

But when Ryan was asked on his weekly radio show what was the coldest game he ever played in, he didn't hesitate with his response.

"Oddly enough, last year in Green Bay," Ryan said on Atlanta's 680 the Fan. "That was about as cold as I've ever been. ... Hopefully it will be a little bit warmer this time when we go up."

Matt Ryan and the Falcons can expect warmer conditions for their upcoming game against the Packers than they dealt with last year (8 degrees at kickoff).

The Falcons played the Packers last year on Dec. 8 at Lambeau Field and lost the game, 22-21. Each team was down a top player with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sidelined by a shoulder injury and Falcons receiver Julio Jones out with a season-ending foot fracture. The temperature was 8 degrees at kickoff with snow falling and a wind chill below zero.

Ryan constantly shoved his hands inside the hand-warmer pack strapped around his waist and blew on his hands before taking snaps. He wore a black glove on his left, non-throwing hand.

Now the Falcons prepare to face the Packers once again on Dec. 8 at Lambeau. This time, the temperature is expected to be in the 20s without any snow currently in the forecast. Still, the conditions will be much different than the Falcons are accustomed to inside the Georgia Dome.

"We're kind of spoiled on the NFL: On the sideline, it's actually pretty warm," Ryan said of playing in cold-weather climates. "You got the benches that pump a lot of heat out so you can stay pretty warm on the sideline. I think when you get out on the field, you can't think about it. Everybody's going to be cold out there. You don't worry about it. You just go out there and try and play like normal."

Ryan completed 20 of 35 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in last year's game while Matt Flynn was the winning quarterback for the Packers.

It will be a more difficult challenge for Ryan and the Falcons this year with Rodgers back in the lineup and the Packers 6-0 at home this year. The 5-7 Falcons are trying to maintain their grip on first place in the NFC South.

"As we get into December, and the games become more and more important, we've got to play our best football moving forward," Ryan said.

Ryan has a 14-11 career record in December games. Only two of those games were played in temperatures below 30 degrees: last year’s Green Bay loss and a 10-7 win over the New York Jets on Dec. 20, 2009 (29 degrees at kickoff).

Ryan actually won his first game at Lambeau Field as a rookie in 2008: a 27-24 victory over Rodgers. It was an October game, however, and the temperature was 60 at kickoff.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Falcons DC Mike Nolan has tremendous respect for Packers Aaron Rodgers

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan obviously has the utmost respect for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the guy he'll try to shut down Monday night at Lambeau Field.

"No. 1, he's a great playmaker," Nolan said of Rodgers. "He keeps plays alive with his legs. He's probably the best example of a West Coast quarterback that I've seen. I mean, there's a lot of good ones: obviously (Joe) Montana, (Steve) Young and all those guys are great ones. But he's outstanding. He keeps plays alive all the time. He's got a tremendous ability just to flick the ball and be accurate.

"He does keep his eyes down the field all the time when he scrambles. A lot of guys will bring their eyes down and try to find the open lane. He's got a great feel for what's around him, so he can keep his eyes down field and still maneuver and stay alive. He's a good player; exciting to watch."

Rodgers has thrown 32 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season. In fact, Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception at home since Week 13 of 2012. That's a span of 12 games with 360 pass attempts and 31 touchdowns, according to ESPN Statistics & Information.

Nolan's defense was able to generate pressure last week against Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton with effective blitzes. Thata might be a difficult task against Rodgers, who thrives against the blitz.

"Obviously I'm not going to divulge game plan, but we'll make the effort to disrupt in any way we can," Nolan said. "But he's a difficult guy to disrupt because sometimes, you might be asking for something you don't want.In other words, a lot of times when you try to disrupt a quarterback, some guys you want to get them out of the pocket. I don't think you really want to get Aaron out of the pocket. But at the same time, you don't want him sitting in there just picking you a part because he can do that."

Rodgers has plenty of weapons. He had an outstanding receiver duo in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who have 20 combined touchdowns, plus an emerging rookie in Davante Adams. He has two solid running back in Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Not to mention the Packers throw defenses off with their formations, including lining up multiple receivers in the backfield, at times.

The Packers receivers had early success last week against the Patriots with double moves as defenders anticipated the typical short passes from Rodgers. The onus is on the Falcons secondary to play with discipline, particularly Robert McClain coming a three-penalty outing against the Cardinals. McClain is expected to start again at corner opposite Desmond Trufant despite Robert Alford making progress in his return from a broken wrist. (Alford is unlikely to return until Pittsburgh game, Dec. 14.)

No matter what defensive approach the Falcons take Monday, they have to find a way to somewhat contain Rodgers if they hope to stay in the game.

Nolan, who overlooked Rodgers in favor of Alex Smith when he coached the San Francisco 49ers and Rodgers was coming out of Cal, appreciates how Rodgers' game has evolved since college.

"When he came out, I remember very well -- too well -- the system that he was in was a little bit tighter, a little bit more mechanical as far as technique and all that," Nolan said. "I think as I watch him play, the thing that he's done in his years in the NFL -- and it looks like (Brett) Favre-like -- is his ability to not be so concerned with making it look like prototypical and perfect. He plays ball."

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Friday, December 5, 2014
Devin Hester: I can't get my touchdown back

By Vaughn McClure

The NFL all but admitted it made a mistake on a play involving Atlanta Falcons return man Devin Hester when it fined Arizona Cardinals punter Drew Butler $8,268 for grabbing Hester's facemask during last Sunday's game.

Hester actually was whistled for a 15-yard face mask penalty against Butler right before reaching the end zone on what would have been a 70-yard punt return touchdown. The penalty on Hester wiped away the score.

The officials obviously felt Hester used an open-hand stiff arm on Butler, which is why Hester was not fined.

"It's too late," Hester said. "I can't get my touchdown back."

Hester said at least one official told him during the game the wrong call was made. It would have been Hester's 21st career return touchdown, adding to the record he set in Week 3 with a 62-yard punt return score against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Falcons also did not receive any type of fine for the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty whistled on the sideline after special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong voiced his displeasure with the call against Hester. The penalty was subject to a fine, according to the league.

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Friday, December 5, 2014
Jake Matthews looking forward to family reunion with Clay Matthews

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie left tackle Jake Matthews traded a few text messages with Packers linebacker Clay Matthews this season, but the communication between the cousins has died down as of late.

"We might just wait to talk until after the game," Jake said with a laugh. "We'll see."

nfl_g_mattews_b1_200x300.jpgFalcons tackle Jake Matthews will face his cousin Clay Matthews of the Packers when the teams play Monday night at Lambeau Field.

Monday night's game at Lambeau Field will be a Matthews family reunion. Jake is the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews from the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans, and Clay's father, Clay Jr., was a three-time All-Pro for the Browns who had a stint with the Falcons (1994-96)

Jake didn't recall too many football encounters with Clay growing up, because they are six years apart. The Falcons-Packers prime-time matchup, however, is sure to be a memorable one, with Clay a four-time Pro Bowl selection and Jake playing his best football of the season right now.

"I hung out more with Casey, the one in Philadelphia, so (Clay) was always a little bit older than me," Jake said. "But I'm really excited to play against him. Just everything I've seen on film, he's a great player.

"It reminds me a lot of my dad would always say, whenever they were scouting Cleveland going into the week, the coach would be like, 'Hey, we've got to look out for this guy; he's a game-wrecker,' talking about my uncle, his brother, and how much pride he would take in that," Jake said. "I've been feeling the same way this week. Clay's definitely a game-wrecker on their defense. And, you know, I take a lot of pride in that; being a part of our family and he's such a good player."

"Like I said, I'm really excited to play against him. He's a great player. It's going to be a big challenge for me. But, I just have to feel confident and be up for it."

The Packers are utilizing Clay Matthews in a different role now, moving him from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. He still rushes off the edge in certain situations, meaning Jake Matthews will encounter both his cousin and menacing Julius Peppers in certain situations.

"I'll get a little bit of everyone," Matthews said. "They move everyone around a lot. I'm sure I'll get a couple matchups against Clay, once all is said in done."

Because they are family, you would think Jake has grown accustomed to seeing Clay's pass-rush moves by now.

"It was kind of weird because I've been watching him for five or six years now going back to college, just watching him on TV, and then now actually going into a film room and studying him, it's a little different feeling," Jake said. "I've still got the same mindset: He's a great player, either way. He does a really good job mixing up his speed to power moves. He's good with his hands and jumps those snaps real well, especially us being on the road, so I've got be (aware of his) head bobs. It will be fun. I'm be excited for it."

Jake said his father did offer a little insight into working against Clay, because Bruce Matthews scouted the Packers with the Titans last season.

"It was kind of a cool situation for him, too, like the one I'm in right now," Jake said. "He's been saying the same things: real high-motor guy. You can't let guard down for one play because he'll take advantage of any weakness you have. ... I've got to take good sets and be aware of all that stuff."

So will there be any trash talk between the cousins on the field?

"I don't know," Jake said. "I'm sure we'll say something to each other. It will be all in fun. But it's going to be competitive."

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Friday, December 5, 2014
Prediction: Packers will beat Falcons

By Vaughn McClure

The Atlanta Falcons are 0-3 against the NFC North this season and are 0-4 on the road against teams outside of the NFC South. Throw in the fact that the Packers are 6-0 at home and average 40.8 points per game in those wins and it all has the makings of a disaster for the Falcons.

That being said, I believe the Falcons will be competitive coming off a confidence-building triumph over a nine-win Cardinals team. But unless Julio Jones goes for 250 yards and four touchdowns, I don’t see the Falcons winning this game.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers winning 16 of his last 17 home starts and not throwing an interception at home since Week 13 of 2012 is rather telling. The Falcons could keep it close by sustaining long drives and keeping Rodgers off the field.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan can't afford any turnovers, and he has seven of his 10 interceptions away from the Georgia Dome this season.

Packers 35, Falcons 28

*The only way we stand a chance of beating this team is if the offense and defense finally decide to play lights out football. Facing Aaron Rodgers scares the **** out of me with our defense and offensively we have to score TD's against this team.*

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Saturday, December 6, 2014
Roddy White (ankle) has no doubts about playing Monday night

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, who missed last week's game with a left ankle sprain, participated in practice Friday and expressed confidence about playing Monday night versus the Packers.

White is listed as questionable going into the game. Saturday was the first day this week he was on the field with a helmet doing some work.

"It felt pretty good out there, man," White said. "Just out there relaxing; catching some balls, working on timing and stuff like that. It was good man. I needed to get out there and go out there with Matt (Ryan) and work on timing for a little while. That's what we did."

The Falcons were confident about White playing last week against the Cardinals, but he was inactive. His questionable status makes one wonder if it could again be a game-time decision.

White was asked if there were any doubts about him playing.

"I don't have any doubts," White said. "I'm just trying to get us a win, man. No doubts. The only doubt in my mind is the cold, man. ... Slight chance of snow, so we're looking good."

Cornerback Robert Alford was rulled out, as expected, while continuing to recover from a broken wrist. Outside linebacker/defensive end Stansly Maponga, who suffered an elbow injury last week, is questionable.

Probable for the Falcons are receiver Harry Douglas (foot) and left guard Justin Blalock (back).

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Monday, December 8, 2014
Roddy White: Falcons will be ready

By Vaughn McClure

Roddy White is fed up with critics poking fun at his first-place Falcons, their 5-7 record and the possibility that they could host a playoff game.

The veteran receiver expanded on some thoughts he tweeted Friday regarding a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article. The story quoted an anonymous NFL personnel director saying it would be "a joke" for the Falcons to win the NFC South. If the season ended today, the Falcons would be in the NFC's fourth seed as a division winner and host the fifth-seeded Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card game.

“I don't want to hear no noise about how people feel and that we need to make changes [to the playoff structure]. Yes, they should make changes, but don't be saying they need to make changes this year because we're in the position we're in.

- Roddy White, Falcons receiver

"I'm upset because I just hear all the comments about us and our position and our division," White told "Like no one has won a division going 8-8 or 7-9. When the Giants won the Super Bowl [in 2011], they were 9-7 going in and they barely got into the playoffs.

"It's like everybody wants to be mad at us because we're in the position that we're in and other guys are winning games and they have better records than us. Don't nobody complain when other teams do it, so why such a big deal now? It pisses me off because it's not fair."

Even if the Falcons lose to Green Bay (9-3) on Monday night, they would remain in first place after the Saints (5-8) got blown out by the Panthers (4-8-1) on Sunday, 41-10.

After playing the Packers, the Falcons finish the season with home games against the Steelers and Panthers and a crucial trip to New Orleans. The Falcons, currently 4-0 in the NFC South, beat the Saints in the season opener and defeated the Panthers on the road.

The same Falcons team that had a five-game losing streak earlier in the season now controls its destiny.

"We've lost some games that we felt we should have won and things like that, but we're still in first place," White said. "So I don't want to hear no noise about how people feel and that we need to make changes [to the playoff structure]. Yes, they should make changes, but don't be saying they need to make changes this year because we're in the position we're in.

"New Orleans won 11 games last year and had to go on the road to Philly. [The Saints also won 11 games in 2010 and lost in a wild-card game at 7-9 Seattle.] They won more games than Philly, and nobody said nothing. Nobody cried and said, 'New Orleans shouldn't have to travel to Philly.' It just is what it is. We're in the position we're in, so I don't care what nobody else thinks."

White is confident about the Falcons closing the season strong.

"Yes, I feel confident that we can make it because of the talent that we have," White said. "We put ourselves in a situation down the stretch where if we win our games, we're in. We don't have to worry about anybody. We control our own destiny to the playoffs.

"So, I'm not concerned with what other teams are doing. I just worry about what the Atlanta Falcons can do. And if we go 4-0, we're going to be in the playoffs. ... I don't care what nobody says. We'll have our home playoff game, and we'll be ready."

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Prediction: Falcons will beat Steelers

By Vaughn McClure | December 12, 2014 2:00:11 PM PST

Julio Jones' injury status coming off what is believed to be a hip pointer will be worth monitoring even if he plays. He is listed as a game-time decision for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Remember, Jones put up a franchise-record 259 receiving yards the last time out.

Regardless, the offense should flow a lot more smoothly at home, where the Atlanta Falcons average 431.6 yards per game. Matt Ryan is more careful with the football at home, too, with 11 touchdowns to three interceptions as opposed to 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions away from the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons will have to outscore the Steelers to compensate for the defensive woes. They've outscored opponents 159-119 at the Georgia Dome with an average of 31.8 points per game.

My prediction: Falcons 35, Steelers 28

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Mike Nolan wants Jonathan Massaquoi to show he deserves snaps

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the big topics following the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was the status of outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, who was benched in the game just days after he complained about his snaps.

Falcons coach Mike Smith called the benching a "coach's decision." Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan followed up Tuesday by talking about his message to Massaquoi in this particular circumstance.

"Just being frank with him, as I told Massaquoi just the other day -- and I'm not divulging anything that's secret between the two of us -- but he was playing well, he got hurt (against) Detroit, he came back injured, he hasn't played since, now all of sudden he's well again," Nolan explained. "That's fine, but now you have to practice that way so we can see that you're well, and get back on the field. And if it's the reps that you're concerned about, in practice, you know, there are scout-team reps to be taken all the time, so you can jump in on anything you want to say, 'Look, I'm well. And here's what I can do.'

"And I think Mass will do that. At least I'm hopeful he will. He's got something to offer. Last year, I thought he was one of our most improved defensive players. Matter of fact, he might have been the most improved defensive player. And last year, it showed late in the year. And we're obviously late in the year right now. So if he can do that, it would be great. But he didn't have the injury a year ago that he had this year that held him out for a month. ... Like I said, he's just got to show up."

Massaquoi injured his right foot during the Falcons' 22-21 loss to the Lions in London back in Week 8. He said his foot didn't really feel back to normal until before the Green Bay game in Week 14, but he played just seven snaps against the Packers. The lack of playing time led to him voicing his displeasure for the second time this season.

"As you see and I see and I know, if I get 40 snaps and I get into a groove and rhythm, I’m able to change the dynamics of the game," Massaquoi told last week.

It remains unclear whether Massaquoi's words led to his benching against the Steelers, and the coaching staff would never make that public.

Moving forward, it's fair to wonder if Massaquoi will be utilized in Sunday's crucial road game in New Orleans. A loss to the Saints would knock the 5-9 Falcons out of playoff contention.

Massaquoi, who has two sacks and six quarterback hits this season, played 26 of 75 defensive snaps when the Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in the season opener.

Nolan was asked if Massaquoi can help the defense get after Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

"If he's playing at his top level, yeah," Nolan said. "But again, there's something to do before we just say, 'Hey, you look good. Go in.' You have to do some things in practice so we can see."

This is some straight BS from Nolan and now I know he's the one who is responsible for this chit on defense, SMHemot-rant.gif

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Only in Atlanta do the BEST 11 not get a chance to help them win

True and you know what's funny man, the amount of fans in TATF that believe the BS these coaches speak on, smh!

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mike Smith done talking Julio Jones' injury status for this week

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith made clear his feelings about providing injury updates on top receiver Julio Jones, who continues to recover from a hip injury.

Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Steelers, did not practice Wednesday. Smith said Monday he wasn't going to engage in a "Julio watch" and reiterated his stance following today's practice.

"We'll make a decision on 10:30 [Central time] on Sunday morning, when we put in our inactives," Smith said. "And that will be the last time I'm going to talk about Julio."

All indications are Jones will be ready to go Sunday, no matter how the practice situation unfolds this week. The Falcons no doubt rested Jones against the Steelers knowing how crucial it would be to have him back for the Saints in Week 16. A loss in New Orleans means the 5-9 Falcons would be eliminated from the NFC South race and playoff contention.

Four other Falcons sat out Wednesday's practice, along with Jones: Roddy White (knee), Harry Douglas (foot), Jon Asamoah (back), and William Moore (foot). Cornerback Josh Wilson (hand) was limited.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Prediction: Falcons will beat Saints

By Vaughn McClure

I can't help but think about what happened to the Saints a few weeks ago at home when they lost to the Panthers 41-10. That alone should give the Falcons a little added confidence about being able to compete with the Saints on their turf.

Yes, the Saints have won three in row at the Superdome against the Falcons and seven of the last eight there, but the Falcons easily could have won last year's battle had it not been for a tipped ball and interception in the end zone.

Of course, Julio Jones' status means to the world to the Falcons in this game, but I expect him to fight through a hip injury.

The matchup is of the two worst teams in defensive efficiency this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Falcons rank 31st by costing their team 8.5 expected points per game toward the scoring margin while the Saints rank last, costing 8.6 expected points per game toward the scoring margin.

The Saints allow 26.7 points per game; the Falcons 26.4. With everything on the line for the Falcons, including the postseason and coach Mike Smith's future, they'll find a way to rally.

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Monday, December 22, 2014
Mike Smith still not worried about his future

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith remains unconcerned about his future despite constant rumors saying his days with the organization are numbered.

Smith's 6-9 team has a chance to take the NFC South title and a fourth seed in the playoffs with a win over the first-place Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) Sunday at the Georgia Dome. A report by CBS Sports suggested Arthur Blank already made a decision not to bring Smith back, even if the Falcons make the playoffs. Blank told he was bothered by the report. He has expressed all along a desire to wait until season's end to make a decision.

For the third time since October, Smith addressed the outside perception about his coaching status. He was asked if the regular season finale against the Panthers could decide his future.

"I know that that's a subject that everybody wants to talk about and I said, I don't know four or five weeks ago -- I hope this is the last time that I have to answer it -- I'm going to prepare just like I've done for the seven years that I've been here," Smith said. "My focus is on winning football games and winning the next football game. And I'm going to continue to do that until Arthur Blank tells me differently."

Smith has a 66-45 overall record but is 10-21 over the last two seasons. If the Falcons win Sunday, it would mark the team's fifth postseason appearance in seven seasons under Smith. The Falcons made it to the NFC Championship game two seasons ago, losing to the 49ers.

Smith, signed through 2015, could make a strong case to stay by making the playoffs and by having a strong performance in the postseason. The Falcons would host a first-round game by winning the division title. And a matchup against a team such as the Cardinals, whom the Falcons already defeated, 29-18, could work in Smith's favor. The Cardinals have issues as quarterback with starter Carson Palmer (ACL) out for the season and backup Drew Stanton (knee) not quite healthy.

The Falcons have played some of their best football against teams already in the NFC playoff field: the Cardinals, Packers, and Lions. They played a superb second half in a 43-37 loss at Green Bay and built a 21-0 lead in the first half against Detroit only to lose, 22-21, in London.

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Friday, December 26, 2014
Roddy White not trying to get another fine against Panthers

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The last time the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers met back in November, receivers Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester were fined $8,268 each for their roles in various scuffles.

As the teams prepare to meet again Sunday for the NFC South title, you can expect the action to get a little heated once again. But White vowed to take a different approach this time.

"I don't expect us to get fined," White said with a laugh. "That's no good for us. It's going to be edgy. We're going to go out there and compete at the highest level. Sometimes, when you get two division rivals, then you go out there and things get a little touchy-feely because we're competing so hard for one thing, and that's a division title.

"They're going to be coming at us; we're going to be coming at them. But we're trying to stay within the lines and to get no penalties: especially no fines. No fines this week. I've got to buy some (late) Christmas gifts, man. No fines, man. ... I can't do no fines this week."

White actually received a letter from the league this week for his personal foul penalty against Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis in last week's clash with the rival Saints. He hasn't opened the envelop yet to see how much he was fined.

Douglas talked about what to expect on the field Sunday.

"It's a division opponent, so things are always going to be chippy when you play against a team in your division," Douglas said. "We just have to go out there and keep our composure and, at the same time, execute the plan that we have in hand."

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Friday, December 26, 2014
Top stats to know: Panthers at Falcons

By Zach Rodgers

It has become a yearly tradition—a winner-take-all game in the final week of the season for a division title.

The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons take their turn this year, the fifth straight season the NFC has featured at least one such game. The winner of this contest will win the NFC South despite a losing record and will host a playoff game next week.

Each team has one thing going for them. The Falcons have owned the NFC South this season. The Panthers are playing their best football of the season right now.

Falcons division domination
The Falcons are 5-0 against the NFC South this season, one of four teams with a perfect division record (Colts, Broncos, Lions). The Falcons have averaged 33.8 points per game in division games this season (20.9 PPG vs rest of the NFL).

Matt Ryan has completed 73 percent of his pass attempts, with nine touchdowns and no interceptions in those five games this season.

Overall, Ryan has thrown for at least 300 yards in each of his last four games, tying the longest streak of his career (Weeks 9-12, 2012).

Panthers are rolling
The Panthers defense has allowed just 13.3 points per game the last three games, two touchdowns better on average from the first 12 games of the season.

Carolina’s pass defense in particular has excelled. They’ve held each of the opposing quarterbacks the last three weeks—Drew Brees, Josh McCown and the combination of Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer, to Total QBRs of 34 or below and a combined Total QBR of 25.1.

Newton’s time to shine
Cam Newton is 13-4 in regular season games in December and January over the last four seasons.

Newton Play Action Passing This Season 1st 11 Gms Last 2 Gms Comp pct 57.0% 70.0% Yds per att 6.8 8.0 TD-Int 5-3 3-0 Total QBR 55.1 96.2

The Panthers have rushed for at least 200 yards in each of Newton’s last two starts.

His play-action passing has benefited as a result, as noted in the chart on the right.

Matchup to Watch: Julio Jones vs. the Panthers secondary
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has been nearly unstoppable on deep passes in his last three games (he missed a Week 15 matchup with the Steelers due to injury), averaging over 100 yards on deep throws alone.

Ryan is 13-of-17 throwing the ball at least 15 yards downfield to Jones in Jones’ last three games. He connected on only 44 percent of passes to Jones in Jones’ first 11 games.

The Panthers have allowed only 37 completions on such passes this season. That’s tied for fifth-fewest in the NFL. They held Jones without a catch on a deep throw in Week 11.

Matchup to Watch: Panthers ground game vs. Falcons run defense
During their three-game win streak, the Panthers have averaged 201 rushing yards, nearly double what they averaged the first 12 games of the season (103.3). The Falcons have allowed a league-worst 20 rushing touchdowns this season.

Jonathan Stewart is averaging 5.6 yards per rush over the last four weeks and leads the NFL in rushing during that time with 437 yards.

The Falcons defense has been quite good the last two weeks though. It held Le'Veon Bell of the Steelers to 47 yards on 20 carries in Week 15 and Mark Ingram of the Saints to 38 yards on 13 carries last week.

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Friday, December 26, 2014
Julio Jones (oblique) back on practice field for Falcons

By Vaughn McClure

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones returned to practice Friday for the first time since suffering an oblique injury at Green Bay Dec. 8.

Jones missed the game the following week against the Steelers due to the injury but was back in action last week against the Saints. He played 48 of 65 snaps in the Saints game and caught seven passes for 107 yards.

The Falcons had no doubt about Jones being ready for this Sunday's showdown with the Panthers for the NFC South title. Having him back at practice probably is an indication Jones is healthier than he was last week.

Also at practice Friday, running back Steven Jackson remained sidelined with a quadriceps injury, although he did some work on a side field. Jackson won't play against the Panthers.

Cornerback Josh Wilson, who missed the previous two days with a hamstring injury, returned to action and participated in special-teams drills at the start of practice.

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Friday, December 26, 2014
Prediction: Falcons will beat Panthers

By Vaughn McClure

The battle for the NFC South title should be an interesting one as the Atlanta Falcons (6-9) host the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons are confident coming off last week's 30-14 win over the Saints, a game in which the defense turned in its best effort of the season with five sacks and four forced turnovers.

But Sunday won't be about what the Falcons do defensively, although creating a turnover or two would help. The Falcons have to set the tempo with their offense and spread the Panthers out with their numerous threats, led by Julio Jones.

Matt Ryan has nine touchdowns with no interceptions against NFC South opponents this season. He needs to keep that streak going against the Panthers, who harassed him into a short passing game when the teams met back in November. The Falcons still won that game, 19-17.

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant made the game-deciding 44-yard field goal that day, and Graham Gano had a 63-yarder as time expired blocked by Falcons rookie defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman. The past two meetings between these teams have been decided by three points total, so I see another close battle -- won by Bryant's foot.

Prediction: Falcons 24, Panthers 21

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Saturday, December 27, 2014
Saturday special: Keith Armstrong

By Vaughn McClure

Every Saturday during the regular season, we've featured a key member of the Atlanta Falcons' special teams. In the final installment of this series, we'll focus on the guy behind the unit: special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.

Asked when was the last time coach Keith Armstrong gave him a tongue-lashing, Atlanta Falcons veteran receiver Eric Weems shook his head with a smirk on his face.

The Falcons say they respect that no one is immune to tough love from special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.

"Probably the other day," Weems said, referring to last week's game against the Saints. "It was something I wasn't supposed to be doing, and I did it. I ain't going to tell you what it was. He got on me, just like he gets on everyone else. I messed up on an assignment, and he got on me, just like he should. But I already knew it was coming. I already braced myself for it."

Weems has grown accustomed to Armstrong's verbal tirades. This is his second stint with the Falcons and, thus, his second go-around with Armstrong. And Weems appreciates his coach's stern, no-nonsense approach.

"He hasn't changed," Weems said. "He's still the same feisty guy who expects the best out of all his players. He keeps it real. He gets on his best players to his worst players. He gets on everybody the same way."

The rest of world got a glimpse of Armstrong's passionate coaching style during episodes of HBO's "Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Atlanta Falcons." In fact, HBO sent out a press release Tuesday recapping all of Armstrong's best quotes from the show.

Some might remember the one directed toward defensive lineman Malliciah Goodman:

"Malliciah, I’ve been telling you for two years. Right there. The same crap. Do you start? You a superstar? How many Pro Bowls have you been to? You got a gold jacket? (silence) So who are you? I’m gonna to tell you, Coach [Mike] Smith asked me, ‘What do you think about Malliciah Goodman?’ ‘He don’t want it, Coach!' That’s what’s getting said, ‘He don’t want it!’ Told you, right to your face. That’s bull!"

Armstrong's fiery demeanor has become so legendary, even rookie safety Dez Southward had to do an impersonation of his coach during the filming of "Hard Knocks." It was all fun and games then, but it was all business when Armstrong and Southward had an intense discussion in the locker room Friday in preparation for Sunday's showdown with the Carolina Panthers to decide the NFC South title.

"It's tough love all the time," Southward said of Armstrong. "I think you have to appreciate his consistency. He never changes. Win, lose or draw, he comes in with the same intensity. Being 90 percent correct will never be enough with him. You have to love that; when he's always that way and he always wants to get the most out of his players. That's what I love the most about him."

Armstrong, 51, is in his seventh season as the team's special-teams coordinator, but he actually got his start in the NFL back in 1994 as the Falcons' safeties coach. He went on to stints as the special-teams coach with both the Chicago Bears (1997-2000) and Miami Dolphins (2001-06) before working his way back to Atlanta.

In regard to his coaching style, Armstrong credited a number of different mentors. Current Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was the coach at Temple University when Armstrong played running back and defensive back there. Armstrong also was a grad assistant coach under Arians for one season with the Owls.

Jimmy Johnson, Lou Holtz, and Dave Wannstedt are the other coaches Armstrong developed his craft under over the years.

Armstrong obviously has turned heads with his coaching tactics. He interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Chicago, Kansas City, and Philadelphia in recent years. Although he's never been a head coach, Armstrong should get even more opportunities moving forward as a strong minority candidate -- and just a good coach, period.

Smith certainly appreciates what Armstrong brings to the Falcons.

"He's very knowledgeable," Smith said. "That's the thing that stands out the most. And he's very demanding. Special teams takes a special kind of coach because you're not just coaching a specific group and you're not just coaching half of the team. You're coaching the entire team.

"Since I've been here, the first meeting that we have every day is the special-teams meeting because I think it's important for Keith to be able to get up and talk in front of the entire team. He's done a great job not only in the return game, but in the coverage game as well. Through the years, it's been an outstanding special-teams unit."

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Mike Smith: Blame falls on me

By Vaughn McClure

ATLANTA -- Falcons coach Mike Smith, who appears destined to be fired following a 6-10 season, said there were plenty of mistakes he made throughout the season.

The implosion culminated with Sunday's 34-3 blowout loss to the Carolina Panthers in a game that decided the NFC South title. The Falcons failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons. Smith posted a 10-22 over that time span.

During this season, the Falcons had a five-game losing streak and blew a 21-point lead in a 22-21 loss to Detroit in London. Smith also took the blame for poor clock management in a 26-24 loss to Cleveland.

"I wish I would have done a whole lot of things better," Smith said. "Ultimately, I'm the one that's held responsible. This is a 6-10 football team, and there's one person that the record is attributed to. That's the head football coach, and we were 6-10 in 2014. There's a whole lot of things I could have done differently and better. They're all learning experiences, and I will take those and in the future, make sure that I don't make the same mistakes that I made this season."

ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen reported Sunday morning the Falcons had already hired a search firm to assist in a coaching search. When approached in a hallway after the game, team owner Arthur Blank said, "I'm with my family. Please respect that."

Smith was asked whether the report about the search firm was a distraction.

Falcons coach Mike Smith, who appears destined to be fired after a 6-10 season, said Sunday there were plenty of mistakes he made throughout the season.

"Look guys, I'm not going to comment about what you guys talk about and what you guys have," Smith said. "There are distractions every day you go to work. When you go to work, you have distractions at your work. When I go to work, I have distractions at my work. And I'm not going to comment about some report that probably has no validity to it."

Smith, who has compiled a 66-46 record in seven seasons and gone 1-4 in postseason play, was asked again how concern he is about his job security.

"I've answered this many times, and I'm here as the head football coach until Arthur Blank tells me anything different," Smith said.

The overall tone in the locker room was solemn regarding Smith's status. Wide receiver Roddy White said it would be tough to lose his right-hand man. Quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones praised Smith as well.

"He's a great coach," Jones said. "But it's not my decision to keep him here or let him go. That's Mr. Blank's decision."

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Time for sweeping changes with the Atlanta Falcons

By Vaughn McClure

ATLANTA -- As Mike Smith stepped away from the home team's podium inside the Georgia Dome for what more than likely was the final time, he exchanged a quick word with team owner Arthur Blank then disappeared into the locker room. The face of the Atlanta Falcons' coach was beat red from the embarrassment of a 34-3 season-ending loss to the Carolina Panthers in a matchup for the NFC South title on Sunday.

Smith knew what to expect from the interrogation that preceded his exit. He knew someone would bring up the report by ESPN's Chris Mortensen, which said the organization already retained a search firm to help track down his successor.

After going 10-22 in the past two seasons, it appears that Mike Smith's days of leading the Falcons are over.

"Look guys, I'm not going to comment about what you guys talk about and what you guys have," Smith told reporters. "There are distractions every day you go to work. When you go to work, you have distractions at your work. When I go to work, I have distractions at my work. And I'm not going to comment about some report that probably has no validity to it."

Smith defiantly tried to squash any speculation about his future, although the dots have all but been connected.

"I've answered this many times, and I'm here as the head football coach until Arthur Blank tells me anything different," Smith said.

Well, Blank declined to make his thoughts public Sunday as he left the stadium flocked by his family. But the hiring of the search firm spoke volumes about which direction Blank is heading.

It's time for a change.

The Falcons can no longer pump their chest about what happened two seasons ago, when they went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game. Such is a distant memory when you lump back-to-back losing seasons together and fail to make the playoffs after being on the verge of a Super Bowl. The Falcons finished this season 6-10 and are 10-22 over the past two seasons.

To Smith's credit, he did take the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his seven seasons and won 66 games. But his 1-4 postseason record screams mediocrity.

Yes, it's time for a change.

Smith had an opportunity to salvage the season and possibly save his job even after the Falcons went on a five-game losing streak and started this season 2-6. The blown 21-point lead against the Lions in London and the poor clock management in a 26-24 loss to the Browns might have been an afterthought had Smith and his crew found a way to sneak into the postseason and pull off a win or two.

But in the most important game of the season and biggest of Smith's tenure on Sunday, the Falcons stunk up the joint.

It started when fullback Patrick DiMarco dropped what would have been a wide-open touchdown on a second-and-goal from the Carolina 3 early in the second quarter. Later, franchise quarterback Matt Ryan threw the first of two pick-sixes when a ball intended for Roddy White was intercepted by Panthers safety Roman Harper and returned 31 yards for a score.

White added to the misery with a fumble before halftime that was recovered by linebacker Thomas Davis and returned 33 yards. It set up Cam Newton's 4-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers an insurmountable 24-3 halftime lead.

Not to mention the same old problems that plagued the Falcons the past two seasons resurfaced. They lost the battle at line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Offensively, that resulted in Ryan being sacked six times -- he was hit 12 times -- and the running game never got going. Defensively, that allowed the Panthers to pound out 194 rushing yards, led by Newton's 51.

The pass rush was nonexistent. And when the Falcons did apply pressure, they missed opportunities to bring Newton to the ground.

That bigger, tougher, stronger motto the Falcons carried into the season was just meaningless coachspeak in the end. Now, Blank is almost certain to bring in someone else to do the talking.

Some folks around the league already believe Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has a legitimate shot once the job comes open. Current Jets coach Rex Ryan, on his way out of New York, is one of those names intriguing to the masses. And ex-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh would have been an ideal option if not for the widespread belief that he's headed to lead the University of Michigan, his alma mater.

It remains unknown whether Blank plans to blow up the entire operation. General manager Thomas Dimitroff was nowhere to be found after the game, and his seat appeared to be just as hot as Smith's due to some of his draft failures.

However it all unfolds, there's no doubt it's time for a change.

"You know what? At this point right now, I don't know what we need to do," defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux said. "It's really out of my hands of what's going to happen in the future. I don't know if I'm going to be here.

"I'm sure there's going to be some changes. Every year, the team changes. … No team in this league from year to year stays the same. That just comes with the territory. That's just the way it is."

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