By Cedric Williams

With no game this week for the Atlanta Falcons, this seemed like the perfect time to take a look at who have been the club’s top and not-so-top performers of the season.

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The Falcons are 6-3 and comfortably find themselves sitting in second place in the NFC South standings. Carolina is in first place at 9-0 after its win over Tennessee on Sunday, while Tampa Bay is third at 4-5 and New Orleans, surprisingly, sits at the bottom with a 4-6 record.

If the playoffs began today, Atlanta would be in as one of the NFC wild card teams. But the regular season is not over. There are still seven weeks to go, and there are six teams (seven if you include New Orleans, which already owns a win over Atlanta this season) within striking distance of the Falcons’ current spot in the playoffs.

So the Falcons have a lot left to play for, and more than enough motivation to turn their entire team into the studs they were at the beginning of the season rather than the duds they have recently been playing like in their last three losses.

Rising: Devonta Freeman, RB

Coming off a solid, but not quite spectacular rookie season, Freeman came into 2015 as Atlanta’s No. 2 running back behind rookie Tevin Coleman, who played well in the Falcons’ first two games of this season, but suffered an injury that completely opened the door for Freeman to take over as the club’s top ball carrier.

And Freeman has made the most of his opportunity, rushing for 721 yards, which was the second-best total in the league heading into this past weekend’s action. Freeman has also been a factor in the Falcon passing game by adding in 48 catches for 420 receiving yards to go with a team-leading 11 touchdowns.

Rising: Julio Jones, WR

It’s been 30 years since a player other than a quarterback or a running back won the NFL MVP award. And most observers believe the unprecedented first half of the season New England quarterback Tom Brady has had makes him the leading candidate to win the award this year.

But if there’s any possibility that a second candidate might have a shot, it would have to be Jones, who came into the weekend leading the NFL in receptions (80) and receiving yards (1,029), and was doing his best job to take over the thrown as the NFL’s best receiver. Already this year, Jones has had four double-digit reception games (and two others where he had nine catches), and five games where he’s had over 130 yards, and six receiving touchdowns.

Opponents have put their best pass defenders on Jones. They’ve tried double-teaming him. And some clubs have even tried bracketing him with three defenders to try to keep him from catching the ball and making plays, and none of it has worked. Julio Jones has simply been dynamite for the Falcons this season.

Rising: Justin Durant, LB

In the games he’s played, Durant has been fantastic. Unfortunately, Durant has only played in six of the Falcons’ nine games this year.

Injuries have really taken their toll on what began as a potential Defensive MVP year for Durant. Through three games, Durant was leading the entire league in tackles, while also being exactly the disruptive defensive force the Falcons were hoping they were getting when they signed him to a free agent deal this past offseason.

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Durant got hurt early in the Week 4 game against Houston and then missed Atlanta’s next two contests, before coming back to play well again in the next two games after that, only to suffer another injury that kept him out of last week’s loss in San Francisco. It seems that if the Falcons can just keep Durant on the field, he is ready, willing, and able to be the defensive presence the team desperately needs him to be.

Falling: Roddy White, WR

Just about every week, one of the first questions asked of in the Falcon locker room is some version of ‘what is going on with Roddy White?’

The 11-year vet out of Georgia Tech was a highly productive player as recently as last season. But this year, other than the first game of the season (when White had four catches for 84 yards), when Atlanta throws the ball they’re probably not throwing it to Roddy White.

This year, White has just 17 catches for 230 yards and only one touchdown. And every week, the response to the ‘what is going on with Roddy White’ question has been some version of ‘we’re not sure, but we have to get Roddy more involved.’ Every week though, the Falcons seem to target White less and less.

Last week, he had one catch for 20 yards. Two weeks ago, White had two catches for 24 yards. No one seems to want to say it, but by their actions the Falcons are very clearly phasing Roddy White out of their offensive plans.

Falling: Brooks Reed, LB

Another key offseason signing that the Falcons hoped would help them build a better defense, Reed has also had trouble staying on the field due to injury. Unlike the impact Durant has had though, Reed has not done a whole lot in his time as a Falcon.

In fact, the one play involving him that stands out this season, is a negative one. Reed is the player that was most faked out by San Francisco’s quarterback bootleg that resulted in the 49ers getting a first down that allowed them to keep the ball and run out the clock last week.

Maybe Reed just didn’t read the play correctly. Or maybe he was so anxious to make a big play for his team that he overran the play fake and couldn’t recover to stop the bootleg from getting the first down. Either way, that is the play most associated with Brooks Reed’s time as a Falcon and unfortunately, it was not a good one for the home club.

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The Falcons will return to work on Monday with a chance to quickly turn things around, especially with a tough opponent like the Indianapolis Colts coming to town next Sunday.

Atlanta has seven games left and four of them are against NFC South division opponents. So the opportunity to finish strong is there and the chance to still control their own destiny still exists for the Falcons. The question is, how quickly – if at all – can they get that done? And the only people that can answer that question are the 53 men that take the field for the Falcons on these final seven Sunday gamedays of the season.

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Cedric Williams, a lifelong St. Louisan and proud UMSL alum, has been a full-time reporter/photographer covering St. Louis area sports for nearly two decades. Most recently, he has been working as a credentialed beat writer covering the NFL, as well as college and high school sports for the St. Louis American, Patch.com, and other outlets from around the area. Please share any comments, questions, or feedback with Cedric at cedricwilliams510@gmail.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.