Falcons have a path to the NFC South title


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Desmond Ridder isn't going to spend much time contemplating playoff scenarios for the Atlanta Falcons, who are part of a three-way tie for first place in the NFC South with four games remaining.

“Obviously for everyone to kind of be right there in that bunch, we know that we have everything in front of us,” the Falcons quarterback said. ”(But) it doesn’t matter about next week, it doesn’t matter about two weeks or what another team does. (It’s about) what we do and what we can do out there on Sunday.”

Atlanta is tied with Tampa Bay and New Orleans atop the division. Of the three teams, the Falcons have the easiest remaining schedule — starting Sunday when they visit the division's also-ran, the NFL-worst Carolina Panthers (1-12).

The Falcons' other remaining opponents are Indianapolis (7-6), Chicago (5-8) and the Saints.

The Falcons held a one-game edge in the standings before losing 29-25 to Tampa Bay despite 347 yards passing from Ridder. The Saints climbed back into a tie by pounding the Panthers 28-6. Nonetheless, Atlanta is in good position to win its first division title since 2016.

The same can't be said for the offensively challenged Panthers.

Despite the addition of No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young, Carolina ranks near the bottom of nearly every offensive statistical category and has failed to score 20 points in each of its last seven games.

Young has struggled when facing pressure, and has yet to throw for 250 yards in a game.

“Having a growth mindset is something that we all talk about and that we all embody,” Young said. “There is obviously a lot of room for improvement so we are eager to go out there and be better.”

Ridder’s future as the starter could be determined by the team’s finish.

Ridder started eight games, then was benched for two before being reinstated. For the season, he has nine touchdown passes with nine interceptions — the same numbers as Young. He completed 63.5% of his passes in a four-game audition as the starter to close the 2022 season and again has completed 63.5% this season – 212 of 334 for 2,376 yards.

“I’ve had my ups and downs,” Ridder said. “You know, I’ve been able to go out there and play your game. And then obviously, throughout the games, you know, there’s one or two plays in each game where, you know, something goes wrong or there’s a mistake. But then it’s how do you respond? And I feel like, you know, every time that a mistake has happened, I responded the right way.”

The Falcons are facing significant injuries on their offensive and defensive lines.

Defensive tackle Kentavius Street has been ruled out with a pectoral injury suffered last week. The defensive line already has lost two-time Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett for the season with a knee injury. Another defensive tackle, David Onyemata, missed last week’s game with an ankle injury.

Left tackle Jake Matthews suffered a knee injury against Tampa Bay and did not practice Wednesday. Matthews’ team-record streak of 156 consecutive starts will be in jeopardy. Center Drew Dalman (ankle) and right tackle Kaleb McGary (knee) did not play against Tampa Bay and Chris Lindstrom (ankle) missed part of the game.

Atlanta’s injury list also includes cornerback Jeff Okudah (ankle) and linebacker Nate Landman (knee).

Matthews, Lindstrom and McGary were held out of Wednesday’s practice. Coach Arthur Smith said most of the injured players have a chance to play Sunday.

Falcons rookie running back Bijan Robinson’s modest usage was an issue earlier in the season, but his carries have increased lately. He has 66 rushes the last four games, an average of more than 16 per game. He's run for touchdowns in three of the last four games and four of the last six.

Smith said he was looking at the 17-game season when making a plan for Robinson.

“I mean, you set your season to get with a long game at stake, too,” Smith said. “We’ve been cognizant of that. ... Didn’t want any of the runners having 300 carries going into Thanksgiving. Because we have a lot of talented players on the roster and guys that want to play for the long game. Want to play for more than 17. Here we are in crunch time. And you do feel like a lot of young guys have got better every week.”

Young missed a couple of open receivers on deep balls against New Orleans, including overthrowing an open Jonathan Mingo for a would-be touchdown when he didn't set his feet in the pocket.

Young said that has been a point of emphasis this week in practice.

“They did a great job on the perimeter of creating that separation and obviously I have to do a better job of executing and just getting the ball there,” Young said. “You just look back it from a mechanical standpoint and figuring out little stuff from rep to rep. ... So I was able to learn from that.”

The Panthers have gotten an uptick in production from Chuba Hubbard, who has 191 rushing yards and two touchdowns over the last two weeks. He figures to be a focal point of the offense.

Carolina ran for more than 200 yards against New Orleans, but managed just six points. The last team to rush for 200-plus yards and not score a touchdown on offense was the Rams in a 14-9 loss to Seattle on Oct. 28, 2013.