Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (right) talks with Falcons running back Steven Jackson after last year's Cardinals' victory over Atlanta.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan readily admits how strange this year has been in the NFC South.
Since its inception in 2002, the division title has never been won by the same team consecutively. The Panthers are doing their best to make sure that continues, with an 0-5-1 record over their past six games and three wins overall. Problem is, nobody is willing to take it from them.
The Panthers sit just a half-game out of first place, which is currently being occupied by the Saints and the Cardinals' opponent this week, Atlanta. Both teams are 4-7, and by virtue of the head-to-head victory, the Falcons would win the division and make the playoffs if the season ended today. The Buccaneers are tied for the third-worst record in the NFL at 2-9 and yet are just two games
"It's definitely a different year, but it is what it is," Ryan said on a conference call with Arizona media. "We can't change anything that's happened up until this point. We can only control what we're going to do moving forward. From that perspective, we're right in the mix."
The Falcons have yet to win a game outside the division this season, although their past two losses – to the Lions and Browns – have come by a combined three points.
If they do scratch out the division title, the Falcons could become only the second sub-.500 team to make the playoffs, following the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010. Seattle actually won its first playoff game that year, defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the wild card round.
A division winner gets a home game against a wild card team regardless of record, something which has hurt Falcons coach Mike Smith in the past and now could help him. If Smith has a strong opinion on the format, he kept it to himself on Wednesday.
"I don't think it really matters what I think about that," Smith said. "I think it's a matter of that's how it's set up. I think occasionally it's happened since I've been a head coach. There have been some teams who have had worse records than wild card teams. I know that we had to go on the road one time when we had a better record, but that's the way it is. You play by the rules."
That road trip involved Arizona. When the 9-7 Cardinals made the postseason in 2008, they hosted an 11-5 Falcons team in the opening round by virtue of their division title. The Cards won that game and went on to the Super Bowl.
Is this week a chance for payback as the roles have reversed?
"I didn't say that, guys," Smith said with a laugh. "You guys said that."
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is fine with the current rules rewarding division winners with a home game, even though his team could conceivably play a first-round road game against the NFC South champion if the Cardinals get overtaken for the NFC West title.
"If you win your division, that's the way the rules are," Arians said. "Until they change it, winning your division, you still hang a banner. They put the year up there, 'Division Champs.' They don't put the record usually. Nobody gives a (expletive)."
FITZGERALD MISSES ANOTHER PRACTICE
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is progressing from a knee injury, per Arians, but missed practice on Wednesday. He sat out
Sunday's game against Seattle, his time being sidelined since 2007.
Fitzgerald sprained his MCL against the Lions on Nov. 16.
"He's making progress, so we've got our fingers crossed there," Arians said.
Wide receiver John Brown had two wisdom teeth removed on Monday and practiced on a limited basis. He said he has one other wisdom tooth which will need to come out after the season. Linebacker Kenny Demens (hamstring) joined Fitzgerald as the two players who did not practice. Defensive tackle Ed Stinson (toe), linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (knee), running back Andre Ellington (hip/foot) and linebacker Marcus Benard (shoulder) were limited.
For the Falcons, wide receiver Roddy White (ankle), wide receiver Harry Douglas (foot), cornerback Robert Alford (wrist) and defensive tackle Paul Soliai (not injury related) missed practice. Tackle Jonathan Scott (hamstring) was limited.
CARDINALS ADD TWO, LOSE ONE FROM PRACTICE SQUAD
The Cardinals added running back Kerwynn Williams to the practice squad one day after releasing him from the active roster to make room for running back Michael Bush. Linebacker Kion Wilson was also signed to the practice squad, taking the place of linebacker Kaelin Burnett, who was added to the Titans' active roster.
The moves were the 199th and 200th transactions for the Cardinals in 2014. They had 193 in General Manager Steve Keim's first season.
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