Falcons return from bye, three games behind Panthers

Quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers continued to roll and opened a three-game lead over the Falcons on Sunday.

The Panthers improved to 9-0 with a 27-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans to take control of the NFC South with seven games to play. The Falcons (6-3) were off for their bye week. New Orleans dropped to 4-6 with a 47-14 loss to Washington and Tampa Bay improved to 4-5 with a 10-6 victory over Dallas.

The Falcons, who must play the Panthers twice, will need to beat them both times and get some help to make up the three-game gap to win the NFC South.

The Falcons return to practice from their bye week and will start preparing on Monday to face the Indianapolis Colts (4-5) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons will face backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who will start for the injured Andrew Luck (lacerated kidney). Hasselbeck, 40, will be the fourth backup the Falcons have faced.

They are 2-1 with victories over Dallas (Brandon Weeden) and Tennessee (Zach Mettenberger). They were defeated 17-16 by San Francisco and backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert on Nov. 8. Hasselbeck, who started his career as Brett Favre’s back in Green Bay in 1999 and later led Seattle to the Super Bowl, is 2-0 this season as a starter.

The Falcons have played well in spurts on offense, defense and special teams over the first nine games.

First-year coach Dan Quinn’s challenge is to pull that together into four quarters of strong football. That’s what it’s going to take to catch Carolina.

After playing the Colts, the Falcons host Minnesota (Nov. 29) before going on the road for three straight games against Tampa Bay (Dec.6), Carolina (Dec. 13) and Jacksonville (Dec. 20). They’ll then close out the regular season with home games against New Orleans (Dec. 27) and Carolina (Jan. 3).

“I feel like we can be a lot better football team than we’ve been up until this point,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We’ve kept ourselves in really good position to get everything done that we want to get done.”

The Falcons offense has become stagnant after a fast start to the season. They have averaged just 16.7 points over the past four games.

The Falcons have some options to jump-start the offense, which include incorporating more of wide receiver Roddy White into the attack, using the tight ends more in the red zone and running more no-huddle.

Also, the Falcons must try to figure out a way to improve on defense and fabricate a pass rush. Against the 49ers, Quinn said the Falcons called 21 pressures over 63 plays.

While some of the blitzes were against runs, the Falcons still couldn’t generate a sack against Gabbert. The Falcons have 10 sacks on the season.

“We have a style that we’re going to play, whether if its pressure or four-man rush,” Quinn said. “We are going to choose how we want to go about it…We want to make sure that we are attacking in every phase of our game.”

The Falcons’ defense could get a boost from the return of strong safety William Moore (groin), cornerback Robert Alford (groin) and linebacker Justin Durant (calf).

In addition to improving the offense and getting a pass rush, the Falcons must cut down their penalties. They have committed 73 penalties for 615 yards and 214 nullified yards (two touchdowns). The opposition has committed 52 penalties for 373 yards and 107 nullified yards.

The Falcons need to focus on eliminating the 22 holding penalties. Left guard Andy Levitre leads the team with seven penalties for 55 yards, followed by right tackle Ryan Schraeder with five for 35 yards and defensive end Vic Beasley with five for 20 yards and one penalty declined.