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Photo: attached
Photo: attached

In playoff push, Falcons expect ‘fight’ from Panthers, Saints

The Panthers (5-8 before playing Monday night) and Saints (6-8) are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Early odds tabbed the Falcons as 3 1/2-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 familiarity with — and contempt for — the Falcons. The Falcons (9-5) must beat both of them 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 the Buccaneers (8-6) lost at Dallas late Sunday, the Falcons stood alone atop the division. But the Falcons can’t clinch it with a victory over the Panthers.

The Falcons and Bucs both 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, 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. 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 team’s 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 is still unclear if the Falcons will be healthier for the final push. They are without cornerback Desmond Trufant (pectoral) and safety Kemal Ishmael (shoulder) for the rest of the season and star wide receiver Julio Jones (toe) is among seeral players who are questionable to play at Carolina.

Jones has missed the past two games because of an injury sustained against the Chiefs on Dec. 4. Quinn said Jones will test the toe during Wednesday’s full-speed practice and, if all goes well, he will 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.

Quinn also said starting cornerback Jalen Collins (knee) will test his injury on Wednesday after he sat out against the 49ers. Three other Falcons players missed the 49ers game because of injuries: defensive end Adrian Clayborn (knee), safety Robenson Therezie (ankle) and wide receiver Nick Williams (concussion).

Quinn said tests on rookie tight end Austin Hooper’s knee determined that the injury “is not a long-term” issue. Before being knocked out of the 49ers game, Hooper had 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, scoring 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.”

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