1. Bucs

In playoff push, Falcons expect 'fight' from Panthers, Saints

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 18: Head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons looks on during the second half against the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome on December 18, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C.  Cox/Getty Images) 681237073
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 18: Head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons looks on during the second half against the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome on December 18, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) 681237073
Published Dec. 20, 2016

The 49ers and Rams are bad football teams, and that's the how the Falcons treated them in back-to-back routs. They can expect more resistance at Carolina on Saturday and against the Saints the following week.

The Panthers and Saints are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Early odds tabbed the Falcons as 31/2-point favorites against the Panthers, and the Saints will be big underdogs when they visit the Georgia Dome for the regular-season finale.

But the Panthers and Saints are NFC South foes, and that means they have history and familiarity with (and contempt for) the Falcons. The Falcons, who are a game ahead of the Bucs for the division lead, must beat both opponents to be assured of the NFC South title and a spot in the playoffs for the first time since the 2012 season.

"For us to finish with division games, it's exactly what we want," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Monday. "We know the importance of playing well in your division. It's going to be a battle in the games. Against Carolina, in this rivalry, they've got a tough team and we do too. We are expecting that kind of fight. To have a chance to battle in the division over the next two weeks, I think it's a great setup for us."

After Tampa Bay lost at Dallas late Sunday, the Falcons stood alone atop the NFC South. But the Falcons can't clinch the division with a victory over the Panthers.

The Falcons and Bucs each play the Panthers and Saints over the final two weeks. If the Bucs win both games and the Falcons lose one, leaving both teams at 10-6, then the Bucs would win the NFC South by virtue of a superior division record (5-1 vs. 4-2).

Under that scenario, the Falcons still could make the playoffs by securing one of two NFC wild-card berths. But the Cowboys are already assured of one wild card, and the Falcons would be vying with several other contenders for the second.

The Falcons can make it simple by beating the Panthers and Saints and securing the South title.

"It would mean a lot to me for us to achieve our goal of winning the division and making the playoffs," Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said after the 41-13 victory over the 49ers on Sunday. "It would be my first time making it to the playoffs. To do it with these guys that we have in this room, it would be more important for me to satisfy the need, the want and the hunger of everyone in this locker room and everyone in this facility."

It's still not clear if the Falcons will have improved health for the final push. They are without cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety Kemal Ishmael for the rest of the season, and star wide receiver Julio Jones (toe) is among the players who are questionable to play at Carolina.

Jones has missed the past two games because of the injury he suffered during the loss to the Chiefs on Dec. 4. Quinn said the plan is for Jones to test the toe during Wednesday's full-speed practice and, if all goes well, increase his repetitions for the final full practice of the week on Thursday.

The Falcons likely will be without starting linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (concussion) against the Panthers after he left the 49ers game. Campbell will have to complete a five-step process before he is allowed to return to full football activities and it's rare for players to be cleared for the following game.

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Quinn said starting cornerback Jalen Collins (knee) also will test his injury on Wednesday after he didn't play against the 49ers on Sunday. Three other Falcons players missed the 49ers game because of injuries: former Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn (knee), safety Robenson Therezie (ankle) and wide receiver Nick Williams (concussion).

Quinn said tests determined that the knee injury that forced rookie tight end Austin Hooper to leave the 49ers game "is not a long-term" issue. Hooper has been the primary tight end since Jacob Tamme suffered an injury in Week 8 that eventually sent him to injured reserve.

Even without Jones, the Falcons piled up 550 yards against San Francisco's hapless defense and scored on seven of 10 possessions (not counting a kneel-down to end the first half). They continued their season-long trend of getting contributions from several receiving targets, with Aldrick Robinson's four catches for 111 yards leading the way.

"We would love to have Julio out there," Robinson said. "Everybody knows that. But if we don't have him, we've all got to play. We've still got to come out and perform how we want."