Cover 9@9: What the Falcons learned from the wild-card round

FILE PHOTO -- FALCONS LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) gets off a pass under pressure from Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) in the second quarter during the NFC Divisional Game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA on Saturday, January 13, 2018. The Falcons' quest for a return to the Super Bowl ended with a loud thud Saturday in a 15-10 loss to the Eagles in an NFC Divisional playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field.  HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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FILE PHOTO -- FALCONS LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) gets off a pass under pressure from Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) in the second quarter during the NFC Divisional Game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA on Saturday, January 13, 2018. The Falcons' quest for a return to the Super Bowl ended with a loud thud Saturday in a 15-10 loss to the Eagles in an NFC Divisional playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

(Here’s our weekly nine items at 9 a.m. Wednesday on the Atlanta Falcons, otherwise known as the Cover 9@9 blog!)

1. The no-spin zone: Two quick things and very easy lessons were learned from the wild-card round, which mostly was a dud.

First, hand the ball to the referee and not your center when you need the ball spotted quickly in the final moments of the game.

Second, shoot higher than trying to be the seventh seed next season. The two No. 7 seeds – Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – got plastered.

The Falcons, in the first season under coach Arthur Smith, somehow managed to stay in the playoff race until losing in the 16th game at Buffalo. For a team trying to build a winning foundation, going to the playoffs to take a beating may have helped to speed up the turnaround.

ExploreGM, coach believe Falcons are on the right track

But with a minus-146 point differential, they were no signs that the Falcons were ready for playoff football. Seven of their 10 losses were to playoff teams, all by double-digits.

This will be an important offseason for the Falcons to try to fortify their trenches and close the gaps in those games.

General manager Terry Fontenot acknowledged the point-differential gap the team must make up and how the team somehow managed to win seven games.

“I think that says a lot about our team that what I really appreciate about what Arthur has built here,” Fontenot said. “I do believe we’re building a winning culture.”

There’s plenty of work to do.

“We’re not where we need to be,” Fontenot said. “We don’t want to be having this press conference (after the regular season). We want to be preparing for a playoff game. So, we’re not happy that we’re not playing right now. That’s going to be our charge moving forward.”

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The Chiefs pummeled the Steelers 42-21 and made it look like a postseason scrimmage in Ben Roethlisberger’s last game.

The defending Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers had a 31-15 walk-through against the Eagles.

The Patriots, the sixth seed in the AFC, and the Cardinals, the fifth seed in the NFC, were blown out. The only upset was the 49ers over the Cowboys, and that earned the 49ers a trip to Green Bay to face the Packers at Lambeau Field in January with an injured quarterback.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan reported that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was limited by shoulder and thumb injuries in practice Tuesday. Shanahan said Garoppolo had a mild right shoulder sprain.

The last time the 49ers played the Packers at Lambeau Field with an injured quarterback, things didn’t go well. They shot up Steve Young with medication, because he had injured ribs, before the game Jan. 4, 1997. The Packers, who were on their way to Super Bowl XXXI, beat the 49ers 35-14. Young attempted only five passes before giving way to Elvis Grbac.

About the only intrigue over the weekend was Cincinnati’s win over the Raiders and the 49ers ousting the Cowboys, much to our pal Stephen A. Smith’s delight. I was happy for several old friends in Cincinnati that we haven’t seen sport their old Ickey Woods’ jerseys in decades.

It was the Bengals’ first playoff win since they downed the Houston Oilers 41-14 on Jan. 6, 1991 under coach Sam Wyche with quarterback Boomer Esiason at the controls.

The divisional round of the playoffs should provide much more intrigue.

The Titans, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, are 3.5-point favorites over the Bengals, according to betonline.ag. The over/under is 47 points with the game set for 3 p.m. Saturday in Nashville.

Former Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones played in 10 games for the Titans and had career-lows in catches (48), yards (434) and touchdowns (one).

The Packers are six-point favorites over the 49ers. The over/under is set at 47.5 points for the game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Bucs are three-point favorites over the Rams and the over/under is 48.5 points. Kickoff is at 3 p.m. Sunday in Tampa.

The best game should be Buffalo at Kansas City. The Chiefs are two-point favorites and the over/under is 55. The game is set for 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

The Falcons hope to be in the playoff mix soon. Because there are so many holes to fill and not enough salary-cap space, the Falcons likely won’t enter 2022 season as an obvious playoff team.

Fontenot believes Smith had the players playing hard in all situations and that bodes well for the future.

“If you look at any game, you can look in the fourth quarter where the game can be out of hand, and we have players flying around competing,” Fontenot said. “Those players were bought-in. Those guys in the locker room love each other, they love the coaches and they really went out and competed.”

The Falcons believe that their wins, while they hurt the draft position, were worth it to the organization.

“I believe we’re moving in the right direction and we’re building that winning culture,” Fontenot said. “So, again that’s a credit to Art, the staff and the players.”

We’ll see what lessons the Falcons can learn from the divisional round of the playoffs.

2. Free agency: The 27 Falcons set to become unrestricted free agents March 16 are G Josh Andrews, LB Daren Bates, WR Christian Blake, DT Jonathan Bullard, LB Brandon Copeland, LB Dante Fowler, WR Russell Gage, G Matt Gono, OL Colby Gossett, TE Jaeden Graham, SS Duron Harmon, FS Erik Harris, LS Josh Harris, TE Hayden Hurst, PK Younghoe Koo, QB A.J. McCarron, DE Steven Means, P Thomas Morstead, CB Fabian Moreau, CB Isaiah Oliver, LB Foye Oluokun, RB/WR Cordarrelle Patterson, QB Josh Rosen, WR Tajae Sharpe, TE Lee Smith, OT Jason Spriggs and WR Olamide Zaccheaus.

Gono spent this season on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

“He’s a free agent,” Fontenot said of Gono. “Matt obviously, we expected Matt to come back at some point in the year with that injury. That’s why we handled the transaction the way we did, and that didn’t work out. ... He’s set to be (an unrestricted free agent).”

3. Reserve/future players: The Falcons have signed 19 players to reserve/futures contracts.

The players are outside linebacker Duke Ejiofor; cornerback Corey Ballentine; defensive back Dee Alford, defensive back Cornell Armstrong, offensive lineman Willie Beavers, outside linebacker Quinton Bell, outside linebacker Jordan Brailford, inside linebacker Dorian Etheridge, wide receiver Chad Hansen, running back Caleb Huntley, cornerback Luther Kirk, tight end Brayden Lenius, punter Dom Maggio, offensive lineman Ryan Neuzil, cornerback Lafayette Pitts, tight end John Raine, outside linebacker Rashad Smith, defensive end Nick Thurman and wide receiver Austin Trammell.

4. 2022 opponents: The Falcons know their opponents for the 2022 season. The Falcons (7-10) finished in third place in the NFC South. Dates and times will be announced at a later date.

The Falcons will play home and away games against the rest of the NFC South (Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers).

The home games will include the Cardinals, 49ers, Browns, Steelers, Bears and Chargers.

The away games will include the Ravens, Bengals, Rams, Seahawks and Washington Football Team.

5. Draft order: 1. Jacksonville Jaguars; 2. Detroit Lions; 3. Houston Texans; 4. New York Jets; 5. New York Giants; 6. Carolina Panthers; 7. Chicago Bears (traded to N.Y. Giants); 8. Falcons; 9. Denver Broncos; 10. Seattle Seahawks (traded to N.Y. Jets); 11. Washington Football Team; 12. Minnesota Vikings; 13. Cleveland Browns; 14. Baltimore Ravens; 15. Miami Dolphins (traded to Philadelphia); 16. Indianapolis Colts (traded to Philadelphia); 17. Los Angeles Chargers; 18. New Orleans Saints; 19. Philadelphia Eagles; 20. Pittsburgh Steelers; 21. New England Patriots 22. Las Vegas Raiders; 23. Arizona Cardinals; 24. Dallas Cowboys; *25. San Francisco 49ers (traded to Miami); *26. Cincinnati Bengals; *27. Buffalo Bills; *28. Los Angeles Rams (traded to Detroit); *29. Kansas City Chiefs; *30. Tennessee Titans; *31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers; *32. Green Bay Packers.

*- Subject to playoffs results

6. Giants GM candidate: San Francisco director of pro personnel Ran Carthon, who was a scout with the Falcons from 2008-11, interviewed for the vacant general manager position with the New York Giants on Monday, the team announced.

Carthon, 40, was director of player personnel for the Rams from 2011-16. He’s been with the 49ers since the 2017 season.

Carthon, a running back, played at Florida for Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook. He spent time in the NFL with the Colts and Lions.

His father, Maurice Carthon, played in the USFL and NFL and was a longtime running backs coach in the NFL. He last coached with the Chiefs in 2012. He played for the Giants from 1985-91.

7. Broncos HC candidate: Former Falcons coach Dan Quinn interviewed for the head coaching job with the Denver Broncos on Tuesday.

After being fired by the Falcons in 2020, Quinn served as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator this season.

8. Copeland surgery: Falcons linebacker Brandon Copeland had surgery on his right knee, according to a post made on his Instagram account.

Copeland played in 16 games and made three starts. He finished with 39 tackles.

9. Senior Bowl: The 73rd Senior Bowl is set for Feb. 5. The coaching staffs from the Lions and the Jets will work the game.

Four coaches from Historically Black Colleges & Universities will participate in this year’s first-ever minority coaching fellowship program: Virginia State coach Reggie Barlow, Morgan State coach Tyrone Wheatley, South Carolina State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jonathan Saxon, and Jackson State offensive coordinator/tight ends coach T.C. Taylor.

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