Cover 9@9: Handicapping the NFC South playoff race

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

1. The no-spin zone: Rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder led the Cincinnati Bearcats to the College Football Playoff.

Can he guide the Falcons to the NFL playoffs?

Going into Week 15 of the NFL season, the Carolina Panthers appear to be the hottest team in the NFC South. Interim coach Steve Wilks has the Panthers a game out of first place with four games to play.

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The Panthers (5-8) and Falcons (5-8) trail the Buccaneers (6-7) by one game and have easier schedules.

The Panthers host the Steelers on Sunday and then the Lions on Dec. 24. They play at the Bucs on Jan. 1 and at the Saints on Jan. 8.

The Falcons close at the Saints, at the Ravens on Dec. 24 and at home against the Cardinals on Jan. 1 and the Bucs on Jan. 8.

The Bucs host the Bengals on Sunday and then play at the Cardinals on Dec. 25, host the Panthers on Jan. 1 and close at the Falcons on Jan. 8.

The Falcons could catch the Ravens and the Cardinals when they are without their top quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray. But the Falcons’ hopes will rest upon whether Ridder can breathe some life into the league’s 31st-ranked passing attack.

The Bucs are 3.5-point underdogs against the Bengals, according to betonline.com. The Falcons are 4.5-point underdogs to the Saints. The Panthers are 2.5-point favorites over the Steelers.

If the oddsmakers are correct, then the Bucs and Panthers would be tied for first place at 6-8, and the Falcons still would be only one game off the pace at 5-9, with three to play.

The Falcons then would need to defeat the Jackson-less Ravens and Murray-less Cardinals to set up a potential showdown with the Bucs for the division title.

The other key game would be the Bucs and the Panthers in Week 17. The loser would essentially be eliminated.

The Bucs still have a 77% chance to make the playoffs, according to The New York Times playoff simulator. The Bucs are followed by the Panthers (19%), Falcons (5%) and Saints (1%).

So, the Falcons at Saints basically is an elimination game.

“We know it’s a challenge anytime you play a divisional game,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “It’s the NFL. As you’ve watched football (on Sunday), we all know – not to be cliché, but it’s the truth. Certainly, when it’s a divisional opponent, you know each other so well. Those are always big games regardless of record.”

The Falcons don’t want to look at the big playoff picture.

“Our focus has got to be on the present and our present situation about going down on the road in a divisional game down in New Orleans,” Smith said. “A lot of that other stuff doesn’t matter if we can’t go down there and get a win this weekend.”

2. Logan Woodside getting ready: The Falcons are getting Logan Woodside ready to serve as the No. 2 quarterback for the rest of the season, as they are expected to put Marcus Mariota on injured reserve.

The Falcons claimed Woodside from Tennessee’s practice squad.

“Some components are similar,” Woodside told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the teams’ offenses. “Coach Art and Coach Rags (offensive coordinator Dave Ragone) have evolved a lot. I’m in the process of trying to get caught up as quickly as possible.”

Woodside played at Toledo and was a seventh-round pick by the Bengals in 2018. He has been with the Titans for the past four seasons, mostly on the practice squad. He has played in 11 NFL games and attempted three passes.

“I think a lot of it was preparing like a starter even if I was on the practice squad or going back to when I was backing up (Ryan) Tannehill in the past,” Woodside said. “I’ve learned a lot from Ryan and just how he approaches every day and how he commands the huddle and carries himself as a starting quarterback. I’m just trying to continue to carry over those traits and do the best I can.”

3. Desmond Ridder’s locker mate: Ridder wasn’t in the locker room during the open media session Monday. He likely will be made one of the team’s players who has to talk to the media only once a week.

So, fellow rookie and locker neighbor Tyler Allgeier became Ridder’s unofficial spokesperson Monday.

“I’m excited to see what Desmond can do,” Allgeier said. “He worked his tail off to learn the playbook and all of that stuff. He’s feels really comfortable. I’m excited for him to get his chance and all of that.”

Ridder was throwing to some of the players during the bye week.

“We’ve been throwing like during this break,” Allgeier said. “Throwing and catching balls from him, getting that chemistry going and stuff. It should be really good. I’m excited for him.”

How many players?

“A couple of us,” Allgeier said. “It was good to get that work in.”

Allgeier, who was drafted in the fifth round, has taken over the No. 2 running back role, which allowed the Falcons to release veteran Damien Williams.

Allgeier said Ridder is ready for his opportunity.

“He’s doing really good for himself,” Allgeier said. “Especially after having Marcus and learning from him. I think he’ll come into (the building) in the morning, both of them would come in (early). Get their treatments. Get their body right and then watch film and stuff. I think he learned a lot from Marcus. I’m just excited for him to show what he can do.”

Allgeier thinks Ridder is ready to take over the offense, which is fourth in rushing and 31st in passing.

“I believe so,” Allgeier said. “I think if you’re a starting quarterback, a lot of coaches see something in you. I think he finally gets his chance. I’m just excited for his opportunity.”

4. Series record: This will be the 107th regular-season meeting between the Falcons and the Saints. The series is tied 53-53. Overall, the Falcons lead 54-53, with a win over the Saints in the 1991 playoffs.

5. Different quarterbacks: Both teams will have different quarterbacks from the first meeting. Jameis Winston and Mariota started their season opener Sept. 11. The Saints have handed the reins to the 35-year-old Andy Dalton. The Falcons are shifting to Ridder this week.

Dalton has gone 3-7 as a starter this season. He’s completed 66.9% of his passes and has thrown 15 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.

In the Saints’ most recent outing, Dalton guided the Saints to a 16-3 lead with 8:02 to play in the game. But Tom Brady and the Bucs stormed back to win 17-16.

Ridder will make his first career start in this heated rivalry. He has not played a down this season.

“If I thought the moment would be too big for him, I wouldn’t put him out there,” Smith said.

6. Same old Saints: The Saints, who are in their first season under coach Dennis Allen, haven’t changed much schematically over the course of the season.

They’ve also been busted for cheating again and fined by the league office.

Dalton leans on running back Alvin Kamara, and they deploy Taysom Hill all over the field. Hill, who lines up at quarterback, running back and tight end, threw a pass and caught a 30-yard touchdown pass Dec. 5 against the Bucs.

Kamara, who played at Norcross High, is the leading rusher with 550 yards and second-leading receiver with 41 catches. Rookie wide receiver Chris Olave, who was drafted three picks after the Falcons took wide receiver Drake London, is the Saints’ top receiver with 60 catches for 887 yards and three touchdowns.

The defense is anchored by defensive end Cam Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and safety Tyrann Mathieu.

“They’re pretty consistent. That defense has been pretty good for a while, and they’ve got a lot of good veterans over there,” Smith said. “Offensively, as they’ve gone through it, as every team has gone through injuries, they were in a close one on Monday night and had the bye like we did.”

7. Superdome is still loud: The Falcons defeated the Saints 27-25 in New Orleans last season.

“We anticipate a great atmosphere down in New Orleans – haven’t been down there a ton,” Smith said. “Obviously last year, but we know it’s lively down there. I’m sure it’ll be loud, people will wake up early I’m sure and get their day started like they do down in New Orleans.”

8. Chris Lindstrom named Walter Payton nominee: Guard Chris Lindstrom, for his work in the community, was named the team’s nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.

“It’s an incredible honor,” Lindstrom said. “I’m so thankful to be in an organization like the Falcons with an owner like Mr. (Arthur) Blank that provides such a great platform to give back to the community, and I look forward to continuing to do that.”

Lindstrom has launched a Georgia chapter of Best Buddies International, a group to help people with disabilities.

In addition to his work with Best Buddies, Lindstrom surprised local teachers with classroom shopping sprees, helped the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House and brought a food truck to Flowery Branch High School to feed the football team before its homecoming game.

All 32 nominees will receive up to a $40,000 donation in their name to their charity of choice.

The winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award will be announced the week of the Super Bowl and will receive up to a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice.

9. Official depth chart: There was a major change on the official depth chart released by the Falcons on Tuesday.

Ridder was listed as the No. 1 quarterback ahead of Mariota. Woodside was listed as the No. 3 quarterback.

Here’s the Falcons’ latest depth chart:

OFFENSE

QB – Desmond Ridder, Marcus Mariota, Logan Woodside

RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Avery Williams, Caleb Huntley

FB – Keith Smith

WR – Drake London, Damiere Byrd, Frank Darby

TE – Parker Hesse, MyCole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser, Feleipe Franks

LT – Jake Matthews

LG – Chuma Edoga, Colby Gossett

C – Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil

RG – Chris Lindstrom

RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi

WR – Olamide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone

DE – Grady Jarrett, Tim Horne

NT – Abdullah Anderson, Jalen Dalton

DE – Matt Dickerson, Jaleel Johnson

OLB – Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie

ILB – Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski

ILB – Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen

CB – A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Mike Ford, Rashad Fenton

FS – Jaylinn Hawkins, Jovante Moffatt

SS – Richie Grant, Erik Harris

CB – Darren Hall, Dee Alford, Cornell Armstrong

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough

PR – Avery Williams

KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson or Avery Williams