A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
The Falcons already have the division in hand and are shooting for home field advantage in the NFC playoffs, while the Panthers have been eliminated from postseason contention. In between are the Saints and the Buccaneers, both of which saw their playoff hopes dimmed by losses in Week 14. Atlanta lost, too – to a fired-up Panthers team that had felt slighted by Matt Ryan's comments at the end of their first meeting – and are feeling surprisingly undervalued for an 11-2 team. Carolina has one of the NFL's most productive rookies for the second straight season.
In Atlanta, Hall of Fame-bound TE Tony Gonzalez told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the reaction to his team's 30-20 defeat in Carolina on Sunday – only the Falcons' second loss this year – was predictable. “I can hear everybody right now,” he said. “They’re getting off the bandwagon. I can hear them jumping off. Looking at our history, people are going to go, ‘See, I told you.’” But the 11-2 Falcons know they still control their own destiny in regards to earning home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, with only San Francisco (9-3-1) and Green Bay (9-4) really still in the running. QB Matt Ryan, who may have fueled Carolina's fire with some comments at the end of Atlanta's win in Week Four, isn't worried about one loss leading to a late-season skid. “I think we’ve got a veteran locker room and guys that have been around," said Ryan. "We’ve lost games before and I think one of the things you learn as you have experience in this league is that if you play poorly one week, you can’t let that turn into two weeks. We’ve done a good job rebounding in the past and that’s what we need to do this week.” This week brings a visit to Atlanta from the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and with that opponent, a reminder of the importance of the season's final weeks. “In recent history, the last two years, the teams that have won the Super Bowl were teams that got hot at the end of the season and that carried over into the postseason," said Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith. "The teams playing their best football at the end of the season are usually the teams that get to where they want to be in the last ballgame.” One of the few areas in which the Falcons have not played their best football for most of the season is in the running game, where they are now tied for 23rd in the league after getting just 35 yards against the Panthers. Lead back Michael Turner, who is a longshot to crack 1,000 yards after getting more than 1,300 in each of the last two seasons, picked up just 14 on seven carries Sunday. Smith said the problem extended beyond the backfield to the team as a whole, which had trouble getting and keeping possession of the ball. "The thing that happened for us yesterday is that we weren’t able to slow them down," said Smith. "We weren’t able to get a whole lot of snaps. We didn’t get to rush the ball as many times as we would like.”
The flip side of Sunday's loss by the Falcons is a more enjoyable in Carolina, where the Panthers finally got the right side of the flip. That would be the game-opening (and, in one case against the Bucs, the overtime-opening) coin flip, which Carolina had failed to win even once in its first 12 games. They won it on Sunday, elected to receive and took the opening possession 77 yards for a touchdown. "I've never heard a crowd cheer so loud for winning the coin toss," said Panthers T Jordan Gross. "It was hilarious. I was pumping my fist. It was awesome." Joking aside, the correct call and the decision to take the ball allowed the Panthers to accomplish one of their main goals in Sunday's game, establish control early. "We wanted to come out and set the tone very early," said QB Cam Newton, who was five for five passing on the opening drive. "That was one of the goals going into the game, offensively, defensively and special. And … we came out and did our thing." Indeed, Carolina racked up 270 yards to Atlanta's 35 in the first half, taking a 16-0 lead into halftime and then pushing it to 23-0 early in the third quarter on Newton's 72-yard TD run. Newton's improved play of late is one of the main reasons the Panthers are finishing the season on an optimistic note, despite being eliminated from the playoff race last week and dealing with rumors of a possible head coaching change in 2013. "He's playing with the swagger he had [last year], and I think he's also learned to handle the disappointment we've had this year," said Head Coach Ron River. "That's really helped him." Following Newton's stunning debut season in 2011, the Panthers are now getting big contributions on the defensive side of the ball from this year's first-round pick, LB Luke Kuechly. Kuechly's 16 tackles against the Falcons helped Carolina overcome the lack of five usual starters in Week 14 due to injuries. "The things he does for a rookie are very impressive," said Carolina Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott. "He's got a bright, bright future. This organization is fortunate to have a player and a person like Luke Kuechly.""
In New Orleans, acting Head Coach Joe Vitt referred to his squad in as "a fragile football team" in his postgame comments after a 52-27 road loss to the New York Giants on Sunday night, as reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Vitt was referring to how his 5-8 team, having lost more games than it expected in 2012, has begun to react to early-game difficulties. "All of a sudden something goes bad and it's, 'Oh, here we go again,' instead of just setting your jaw and drawing a line in the sand and having some mental toughness to get it done," he said. On Monday, Vitt said his team was still working hard and focused on winning out, even if the playoffs are all but impossible at this point. "Before we ever win a game we have to keep from losing," he said. "Right now we’re not playing very smart. We’re not playing very disciplined. It starts with me. I need to do a better job of making sure our football team understands the critical factors that go into winning on Sunday. We’ll continue to do it. Are myself and them, disappointed? Certainly. Am I discouraged? No. We’re going to do everything we can to be prepared this week.” The Saints are preparing for a rematch with the Buccaneers, following New Orleans' down-to-the-wire 35-28 victory in Tampa in Week Seven. That game included nearly 1,000 yards of offense between the two teams, with Tampa Bay gaining a season-high 513. Each of the Saints' first 10 opponents surpassed 400 yards against them, in fact, which was an NFL first, but the team followed with its two best defensive performances against San Francisco and Atlanta. The Giants didn't quite crack 400, but their 394 yards produced the most points the Saints have given up this year. That felt like a step back for Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose crew is last in the NFL in total yards and rushing yards allowed per game and 30th in passing yards. “A little bit," said Spagnuolo of that two-steps-forward-one-step-back feeling. "I did remind them that we are the same group that held San Francisco to 17 points. That’s a good offense. We went to Atlanta and certainly were very good on third down and (held them) under 300 yards. My point to them was that we’re the same group of guys that fared pretty well two weeks ago [and] some weeks before that, [against] Philadelphia. I can pull out some games, and yet we didn’t play well enough yesterday so it was a little bit of a step backwards. I think that just gives us a little more determination this week to regain that and go forward.”