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Falcons need to be fully aware of Panthers, NFC South

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones went with the standard answer when asked if has a close eye on the NFC South race.

"I really just take it one game at a time," Jones said. "That's what I'm focusing on. That's what's going through my mind with preparation. That's the only way I feel like I'm able to endure this long season, by taking it one game at a time and focusing on one team at a time."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn would be proud of Jones' approach to the schedule. At the same time, the Falcons had better be well aware of what's going on in the division, especially with Carolina gathering momentum.

The 3-1 Falcons enter this week's home matchup with the Miami Dolphins (2-2) staring up at the 4-1 Panthers, who have won two in a row and are 3-0 on the road. The first divisional game for the Falcons is at Carolina on Nov. 5. Before that contest, they have three in a row against AFC East teams, including a Super Bowl rematch at New England (3-2) and another road trip to face the surprising New York Jets (3-2).

We'll see how the Falcons fare against the rest of the AFC East after losing to Buffalo prior to last week's bye. Most importantly, the Falcons have to hope they can remain healthy leading into division play, with injuries to key players such as Julio Jones (hip flexor), Mohamed Sanu (hamstring), and Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring), among others.

Left tackle Jake Matthews offered his take on keeping an eye on the division, with New Orleans and Tampa Bay both 2-2.

"Of course, we want to win the NFC South," Matthews said. "That's the goal. But, obviously, we've got teams we've got to play before then. We're not going to go into the Miami game thinking about when we're playing Carolina or New Orleans. We've got to take care of each team that comes our way each week."

Said center Alex Mack: "It's in the mind, and it's important that you need to win the division. It's a very real thing. But really, it's about winning each week.

"You can't control what other teams do. You can't control how everything else shakes out. If you play the best of your ability and you take care of each game each week, you'll put yourself in the best position."

The Falcons went 5-1 in division play a year ago and won the NFC South title. The only division game so far this season was a matchup between Carolina and New Orleans in Week 3, with the Saints winning by a score of 34-13 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

As the schedule has it, the Falcons finish the season with four consecutive divisional games, facing New Orleans twice in December while playing the season finale at home against Carolina. Back-to-back road games at Tampa Bay and New Orleans are sandwiched in the middle of that four-game stretch.

But, like Jones said, the Falcons have to handle the business at hand first, starting with Miami. A Dolphins team struggling on offense and with a guy known for throwing interceptions in Jay Cutler should be the perfect remedy to get the Falcons back on track.