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NFC South Roundup: Week 14

Posted Dec 3, 2013

News from around the Buccaneers' division, where the Saints and Panthers are now tied for first and getting ready to meet twice in a 15-day span

The Carolina Panthers' relentless pursuit of the division-leading New Orleans Saints over the last two months continued in Week 13 as the Panthers' victory over Tampa Bay and the Saints' Monday night loss to Seattle resulted in a first-place tie.  Both teams are 9-3, with head-to-head battles looming this Sunday in New Orleans and two weeks later in Charlotte.  The Panthers are getting healthy at the right time, while the Saints are trying to prove that their reputation as a poor road team is unfounded.  Meanwhile, Atlanta is enjoying its first win in six weeks after an overtime road decision against the Bills, and the Falcons believe they can still finish the season strong.  As the final quarter of the 2013 campaign begins, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division once again.  And, in honor of the Panthers' turning the division upside down with their eight-game winning streak, this week we'll present the three teams in reverse order.
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-- RB Mike Tolbert stepped up for Carolina in the absence of DeAngelo Williams, who is expected back this week
In New Orleans, the Saints are starting a short week of preparation for their showdown with Carolina, and the first order of business is putting Monday night's lopsided loss behind them.  Seattle's 34-7 win at CenturyLink Field on Monday was easily the Saints' worst game of the year, and it had some serious consequences as well.  New Orleans could have tied Seattle for the best record in the NFC with a win, and thus kept alive their hopes for home field advantage in the playoffs, but that looks almost certain to go to the Seahawks now.  In addition, the loss coupled with Carolina's win over Tampa Bay on Sunday creates a tie for first place in the division.  The division title will almost certainly be decided by the two Saints-Panthers games to be played in a span of 15 days.  Seattle shut down one of the NFL's most potent offenses, allowing just 188 yards to the Saints; no other team had held New Orleans below 347 yards or 16 points all season.  Of course, New Orleans is just the latest victim of Seattle's incredible home team advantage, as the Seahawks haven't lost a single game at CenturyLink in the last two years.  After the game, New Orleans QB Drew Brees acknowledged some of the difficulties of playing in that venue but took a hardline stance against the popular opinion that the Saints are not a good road team.  “I would say the statistics don’t lie," said Brees, who was held to a season-low 147 passing yards despite throwing it 38 times.  "Since 2009 we have the most wins on the road of any team in the NFL, period. Since 2006 we have the second-most behind only the New England Patriots. So if you just look at that, nobody has really done their research. We certainly didn’t prove anyone wrong that was saying that by tonight’s performance but I can say the weather did not play a factor.  The noise…yes it's loud, yes it's tough to communicate, you really have to have your stuff together but I felt like we did a good job communicating. So didn’t feel like that was as big a factor than what some other teams deal with when they come here. We were prepared for that we just got outplayed. They played great, we didn’t.”  ESPN.com's Mike Triplett says "the truth lies somewhere in the middle" between Brees' contention and public opinion of the Saints' road worthiness, and also points out that Brees' passing total was his lowest since 2006, snapping a 43-game streak in which he had passed for at least 200 yards each time.  The Saints' much-improved defense also had its roughest outing of the year, giving up its second-highest yardage total (429) and highest points total (34) of the season.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune points out that one of the key problems was getting off the field on third down, as the Seahawks converted on seven of 14 tries.  That wasn't the end of the unpleasant night for the Saints, either.  Not long after Head Coach Sean Payton talked about beginning Carolina preparations, the Saints' schedule was made even more difficult when problems with the team plane stranded them in Seattle for an extra night.

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In Carolina, the mood is obviously a lot better (and the swagger is back) after the Panthers' 27-6 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday, which came with the comforts of home.  Not only did the Panthers not have to deal with airplane trouble, but they were able to do a little "sofa scouting" of the Saints on Monday night.  Head Coach Ron Rivera said he actually does occasionally get something useful out of watching the television broadcast of an opponent, even with all the usual scouting that takes place.  "I'm going to watch it from start to finish and get as much out of it as I can," said Rivera on Monday afternoon. "It's interesting, believe it or not, listening to what is said by the expert analysts.  There are a lot of good analysts that played and coached in this league, and sometimes you miss something. This is another perspective, another set of eyes. Might as well take advantage of it."  The Panthers are also getting healthy at the right time, as DE Charles Johnson says he will return for Sunday's showdown in New Orleans.  RB DeAngelo Williams, LB Chase Blackburn and TE Ben Hartsock could all return to practice on Wednesday, as well.  Johnson is the Panthers' leading sack artist, with 8.5, but the team fared quite well without him on Sunday, sacking Bucs QB Mike Glennon five times.  That helped Carolina hold the Bucs – who came into the game on a roll of their own – to just 206 yards of offense, in the process briefly moving Carolina to the top of the NFL's defensive rankings.  That didn't last long, as Seattle reclaimed the #1 spot on Monday night, but it at least for one day made the preseason prediction of LB Thomas Davis come true.  Obviously, that defense will be tested in New Orleans on Sunday at the start of the aforementioned 15 days that will likely decide the division, and the Panthers are just as eager to start the playoffs at home as are the Saints.  The Panthers' rushing attack remains deep enough to withstand the absence of one of its main ballcarriers, as it did Sunday without Williams.  In this case, jumbo fullback/tailback Mike Tolbert stepped up in a big way, pun intended, with 89 yards from scrimmage against the Bucs. Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com is sold on the Panthers, moving them up to fifth in his power ranking and extolling the team's virtues, from Rivera's aggressive play-calling to QB Cam Newton's emergence as an MVP candidate.  On Sunday, Newton had a new advantage – for the first time all year he wasn't sacked, quite a feat for an offensive line that has gone through a huge amount of upheaval this season.  In fact, the Buccaneers didn't even notch a single quarterback hit despite bringing a significant number of blitzes.  "Our offensive line is as good as there is with recognition, picking up blitzes and doing all that stuff," said tight end Greg Olsen. "Cam is really seeing things clear and getting the ball out. We were really dialed in, and it was a key to the game."

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In Atlanta, the Falcons are looking to finish the season strong after a 34-31 overtime win against the Bills in Toronto snapped a five-game losing streak.  "We are all judged by what we do at the end of the season,” said Head Coach Mike Smith upon his team's return to Atlanta. “Whether you’re 9-2 or 2-9, the way you finish the season is really how you’re judged and remembered. That’s why it is so important for us to finish strong. We need to finish strong, just like every season. It hasn’t changed because of the situation that we’re in. I think the guys know that we want to get out there and start a streak and that’s what we did.”  The Falcons continued to have problems up front on offense, allowing six sacks to make it 21 takedowns of QB Matt Ryan in the last six games; however, Ryan handled the pressure well and made plays when his team needed it, finishing with 311 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.  The Falcon blog Falcoholic makes the case for Ryan to make it to the Pro Bowl despite Atlanta's tough season, and also stumps for LB Paul Worrilow (he of the rapidly rising tackle total), CB Desmond Trufant and the kicking combination of K Matt Bryant and P Matt Bosher.  Trufant, the Falcons' first-round pick this past April, has started all season and has set a franchise rookie record for pass deflections.  TE Tony Gonzalez, who caught his 108th career touchdown pass – sixth all-time in NFL history – in Buffalo, could certainly draw plenty of votes in deference to his Hall of Fame career, but the Falcons know they will need to replace Gonzalez next season.  As such, they are trying to groom rookie Levine Toilolo for the starting job without cutting into Gonzalez's action during the final month of his NFL career.  The Falcons would also like to believe their running game, currently tied for 29th in the league, will be more effective in 2014, and Sunday's game was a taste of what a Steven Jackson/Jacquizz Rodgers backfield – with the occasional big play from Antone Smith – might be able to do.  Jackson had his best game in what has been an injury-plagued first season in Atlanta, rushing for 84 yards and two touchdowns.  “I’m definitely in my rhythm," said Jackson after the game. [Dirk] Koetter is allowing me to get multiple touches, he’s allowing me to stay in the rhythm of the game, and that’s when I feel at home, that’s when I feel that I’m at my best. Every run is not going to be a big run, but my style of play, I play with authority. Authoritative runs. So it will wear down the defense, which allows for the other guys to come in and get a change of pace as well.”  And, of course, Atlanta's 2014 offense should also feature the healthy receiving combo of Julio Jones and Roddy White.  White had one of his best games of the season on Sunday, too, with 10 catches for 143 yards, but says his ankle is still not fully recovered.

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