FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn never likes to look ahead, but he isn't oblivious to what's going on around him.
As a coach who preaches taking care of division play first, Quinn certainly understands how the complexion of the NFC South might have changed to his team’s benefit. Injuries suffered by New Orleans star quarterback Drew Brees (thumb) and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton (foot) make the Saints and Panthers more vulnerable on paper.
Brees won’t be placed on injured reserve immediately following surgery and could be back on the field when the Falcons face the Saints on Nov. 10. Carolina is preparing Kyle Allen to step in for Newton. The Falcons’ first matchup with the Panthers is Nov. 17 in Charlotte, followed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home (Nov. 24).
"I think you always check around because it's always in your mind about where you are at in the division," Quinn said. "We don't get a chance to play a division game for a while, so what's really on my mind today is the team that we don't play a lot coming up [Indianapolis].
"For us, we bring the focus right back to now and the things we can control and the things we can do. You always have your eye on [the division], but past that, you don’t get to think about them yet. You don't get to because if you do -- man, you're going to miss what's right here."
Quarterback Matt Ryan is aware of what’s going on with Brees and Newton, but he isn't consumed by it. Ryan is just glad to be healthy. He hasn’t missed a game since turf toe in the 2009 season.
"I’m certainly thankful to have been able to stay as healthy as I have throughout my career," Ryan said. "And as far as seeing the other guys in the NFC South, you never want to see guys go down. You hate seeing that for them, but that’s part of it in this league. It’s having to have the next guy step up. We’ve had to do that on our side.
"We have to focus on our guys and what we’re doing. But personally, you never want to see guys go down around the league."
Ryan went on to say that there is a "long way to go" before the team can concentrate on where things stand in the division. Not starting NFC South play until Week 10 takes much of the fun away from the Falcons trying to get a leg up on the Saints and Panthers immediately. But at least they seem to have a little momentum -- particularly on defense -- following last week’s 24-20 triumph over Philadelphia. That win, however, shouldn’t make the Falcons believe they’re instantly in the Super Bowl conversation -- not when the Eagles were without injured top wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery.
"I think consistency is key, and we have to go to work and put another good performance together and continue to build, week in and week out," defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said.
Having wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley coming off 100-yard games is something the Falcons can hang their hats on. Watching cornerback Desmond Trufant grab two interceptions -- along with defensive end Takk McKinley, linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. and Jarrett bringing pressure up front on defense -- is reason for optimism too.
"We’re just trying to get win each week and keep stacking them up. At the end of the year, we want to be on top of the division," Ryan said.
But the Falcons still have a variety of issues to fix -- problems that made the Eagles game maybe tougher than it should have been and made a season-opening loss at Minnesota such a disaster. Those start with Ryan, who has thrown five interceptions through two games after throwing seven in 16 games last season. Quinn isn't stressing about it because he doesn’t believe it will be the norm. Ryan has taken ownership and vowed to fix it, starting now.
"I don’t worry about that too much," Ryan said. "At the end of the year, you look back and look at the cumulative total. It’s certainly not the start you want in terms of turning the football over. It happens like that sometimes. You just have to weather the storm and keep making good decisions, be aggressive with the football and believe that it’s going to turn."
Other problems plaguing the team include the lack of a running game, with an average of 65 yards per contest through the first two, and penalties, with 20 fouls for 136 yards, including nine offensive/defensive holds and four false starts.
Second-year running back Ito Smith has been consistent in the running game with flashes. The Falcons hope two-time Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman, who Quinn says is 100 percent healthy following last year’s core-muscle surgery, can get back on track after averaging just 2.2. yards per carry in the first two games.
Injuries have been troublesome as well, with first-round right guard Chris Lindstrom on injured reserve after having surgery on his broken right foot and fellow first-rounder Kaleb McGary, the starting right tackle, in limbo after injuring his left knee. Shuffling bodies on the offensive line doesn’t help build the continuity needed to keep Ryan clean and open holes in the run game.
The next challenge for the Falcons, as Jarrett mentioned, is piecing together back-to-back strong efforts. The positive vibes coming off the win over the Eagles will go out the window if the Falcons go to Indianapolis and get pounded by the Andrew Luck-less Colts, with their strong rushing attack and solid defense. The Falcons are 1-7 against AFC opponents the previous two seasons.
The Falcons work their way through the AFC South next, as the next three opponents are the Colts, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans. Then comes the NFC West part of the schedule, with a trip to face the Arizona Cardinals followed by back-to-back visits from the potent Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks.
After that, the Falcons can set their sights on the NFC South, which has been won by the Saints in back-to-back season. The Falcons most recently won the division in 2016, when they made it to the Super Bowl.
"My thoughts on the division? We have a long time before then," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "I don’t focus on that right now. If you focus on the division right now, you’re going to be losing these games."