The Atlanta Falcons are back in what's become familiar territory for this team in this frustrating 2013 season.
After taking one step forward against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, the team took two steps backward against the Arizona Cardinals, on Sunday, because the 27-13 loss was devastating to both the team's slim playoff hopes and the team's perception that Steven Jackson's return would rejuvenate its running game.
Back at the drawing board, these 2-5 Falcons are searching for answers, again, as they ponder how this much-hyped campaign has gone sour so quickly.
Even though the Falcons' future may seem bleak at this point, the team still has to prepare itself to play nine more games, starting with Sunday's matchup against NFC South and I-85 rival Carolina.
Like the Falcons, the Carolina Panthers' 2013 season didn't begin the way they wanted it to. Carolina started off 0-2 and then fell to 1-3 after being beaten soundly at Arizona like the Falcons were.
However, Carolina has now won three straight games since that loss and finds itself in the playoff conversation at 4-3.
Let's begin our game-week coverage with our weekly look at the NFC South standings, the Falcons' injury report and what Atlanta needs to focus on as it moves forward from Sunday's loss.
NFC SOUTH STANDINGS
|NFC South Standings|
|Team||Record||vs. NFC South||vs. NFC||Week 9 Opponent|
|New Orleans Saints||6-1||2-0||4-0||at New York Jets|
|Carolina Panthers||4-3||1-0||4-2||vs. Falcons|
|Atlanta Falcons||2-5||1-1||2-2||at Panthers|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||0-7||0-3||0-5||at Seahawks|
The Falcons now sit four games behind the Saints in a NFC South division that's looking more and more like it will come down to a two-team race between New Orleans and Carolina. The Panthers are two games behind the Saints in the division and a half-game back of the Detroit Lions for the final wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs.
While Carolina is above .500 this late into the season for the first time since 2008, its wins have come against the New York Giants (2-6), Minnesota Vikings (1-6), St. Louis Rams (3-5) and Bucs (0-7).
Even though the Falcons will come into this week's game with a losing record, Atlanta has won three of four over the Panthers since Cam Newton's arrival in 2011. Carolina will be eager to officially establish itself as the Saints' main competition in the division this year by beating Atlanta.
Elsewhere in the division, the first-place Saints will head to MetLife stadium to take on an inconsistent New York Jets squad in a game that features an interesting brother-brother matchup on the sidelines between Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
Lastly, things don't get any easier for the winless Bucs, as they have to make a cross-country trip to Seattle to face the Seahawks at the madhouse that is CenturyLink Field.
FALCONS' INJURY REPORT
|Falcons Injury Report|
|Mike Johnson||Leg/Ankle||Out for Season|
|Kroy Biermann||Achilles||Out for Season|
|Bradie Ewing||Shoulder||Out for Season|
|Julio Jones||Foot||Out for Season|
|Sean Weatherspoon||Foot||Possibly Week 11|
|AtlantaFalcons.com, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, NFL.com and ESPN.com|
Other than the special teams play and a few nice catches by their young receivers, the only good news that came out of the Falcons' loss to the Cardinals was that the team didn't suffer another serious injury to a key player.
The Falcons haven't given an update on Sam Baker or Roddy White for this Sunday's game against Carolina, but tight end Tony Gonzalez said that he expects White to play against Carolina during an interview with D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after Sunday's game.
Atlanta hopes to get more from Steven Jackson in his second week back on Sunday if the offensive line can open some holes for him.
WHAT NEEDS TO IMPROVE
Nearly all of this team's issues start in the trenches. Everything seems so difficult for Atlanta's offense, while everything seems so easy offensively for Atlanta's opponents.
Poor pass-protection, weak run blocking and an ineffective pass rush will do that.
The Cardinals' defensive front dominated the Falcons' offensive line, and Atlanta's group won't get much time to lick its wounds because Carolina has a nasty bunch up front, too.
In fact, in two games last season, the Panthers sacked Matt Ryan nine times.
If the Falcons are going to have any shot on Sunday, their offensive line is going to have regroup and get its act together.
Besides the line play, Atlanta's defense has to do something to limit the big plays. Every team Atlanta has faced this season has racked up a play of 40 yards or more against this defense. If that happens again on Sunday, the Falcons will probably be 2-6 this time next week.