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Falcons to evaluate coach Arthur Smith's status after season; Broncos expected to retain GM George Paton

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The Atlanta Falcons still have a shot at a NFC South title entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against the New Orleans Saints, and there continues to be support in the building for head coach Arthur Smith and his staff amidst speculation about his future.

But sources say owner Arthur Blank has been calling people he trusts within the league for advice in recent days -- another sign he is weighing potential changes after leaving the door open on Smith's future in recent media interviews, telling Georgia Public Broadcasting in December that while he is "committed to Coach Smith," he wanted to assess where things stood after the season.

Smith, 41, was one of the hottest head-coaching candidates three years ago, when the Falcons signed him to a six-year contract with the thought of a methodical rebuild in mind. He and general manager Terry Fontenot spent the first two years cleaning up the salary cap and remaking the roster, and the hope was Year 3 would provide a breakthrough.

The Falcons defense indeed has been vastly improved, as has the talent level on the offensive line and skill positions. A win over the Saints on Sunday, plus a Buccaneers loss to the Panthers, would put Atlanta into the playoffs for the first time in six years.

But a loss would drop Atlanta to 1-4 over its final five games of the regular season and ensure a third straight seven-win season, heightening scrutiny on the progress of the football operation at a time when there could be big-name coaches -- including Patriots legend Bill Belichick, whose name has come up frequently in connection with Atlanta in conversations with league sources the past week -- potentially becoming available.

Prior to Blank's comments, the Falcons had lost by a score of 9-7 to the basement-dwelling Panthers. Atlanta rebounded to beat the Colts, 29-10, on Christmas Eve, then were blown out 37-17 by the Bears last week in bad weather in Chicago. A strong finish on Sunday, even if it doesn't lead to a playoff spot, would show the team is headed in the right direction, and that's said to be important to Blank as he weighs his options.

The quarterback position has remained an issue in Smith's third season, with Desmond Ridder benched twice in favor of Taylor Heinicke, who was hobbled last week by an ankle injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's finale, subject to a pregame workout. That said, the Falcons have yet to swing big on a QB in the draft or free agency -- a certain priority this coming offseason regardless of who is the head coach.

Here are a few other notes entering Week 18:

Broncos expected to keep GM

The Broncos head into the offseason with plenty of questions and a variety of pertinent conversations to be had. But sources say there shouldn't be a question about the status of general manager George Paton.

Paton is viewed as safe inside the organization, sources say. Based on his overall evaluation talents and a strong working relationship with Sean Payton since the head coach arrived last offseason, all indications are Paton should stay on.

It hasn't been perfect for the respected Paton, who in 2022 hired Nathaniel Hackett and traded for quarterback Russell Wilson. Hackett was fired after less than one full season, and Wilson appears to be next out the door. But those moves came before Payton and Broncos owner and CEO Greg Penner arrived. Since the trio has been together, the arrow has been pointing up, with the Broncos winning seven of their last 10 games and in line for their first winning season since 2016 if they can win Sunday's finale against the Las Vegas Raiders.

While Penner makes the final decision and is in charge, Payton's voice is also strong. To be sure, there will be plenty of talks aimed at improving for the future. But the alliterative triumvirate of Payton, Paton, and Penner appear to be staying together.

Seahawks to evaluate future after season

The Seahawks always are evaluating and updating contingency plans in the event longtime coach Pete Carroll, now 72 years old, decides to walk away.

Seahawks chair Jody Allen usually meets with Carroll and general manager John Schneider in the days after the season concludes -- which could be extended by a playoff run, with a win Sunday over the Cardinals plus a Packers loss to the Bears gets Seattle in -- any decisions will wait until then.

Carroll is under contract through 2024, with an option for 2025 that can be exercised in the offseason.

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