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NFC South Roundup: Week Nine

Posted Oct 29, 2013

News from around the division, where the Falcons are concerned about big plays against the defense but the Panthers' offense is getting into a serious groove

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Falcons RB Steven Jackson had little impact in his return to the lineup Sunday but expects to contribute in the coming games
  • One of the key's to Carolina's recent winning streak has been dominant play on third down, both offensively and defensively
  • Saints TE Jimmy Graham didn't miss a game with his foot injury but may have to play through pain the rest of the season
The results from Week Eight in the NFL solidified the trends in the NFC South standings, with New Orleans and Carolina winning to maintain the top two spots and Atlanta and Tampa Bay falling to 2-5 and 0-7, respectively.  At 6-1, the Saints are a half-game behind Seattle for the best record in the NFC while the 4-3 Panthers are over .500 for the first time since the 2008 season.  There's also some significant off-field news in both Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as trade-deadline rumblings in all three cities, so it's time to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division once again.

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In Atlanta, the discussion of a possible Tony Gonzalez trade persists, to the point that the future Hall of Fame addressed it with ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure on Tuesday.  McClure's take from Gonzalez's comments and an analysis of the situation, including Atlanta's 2-5 record, is that the tight end wouldn't ask for a trade but might welcome one if it gave him a shot at his first Super Bowl ring.  McClure suggests a potential reunion with Kansas City, and at least one Chief would happily welcome Gonzalez back.  The Falcons fell further out of the playoff hunt on Sunday when they lost at Arizona, 27-13, when a previously stout Atlanta run defense allowed 201 yards to Andre Ellington and the rest of the Cardinal runners.  Ellington got 80 of his 153 yards on one play, and Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith said his  defense "lost leverage" on the play and should have stopped it in the backfield.  D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution agrees and even breaks down why in his "film session."  Players on the Falcons' defense, which has now slipped to 22nd in the league, are bemoaning not only that play but a series of long gains it has surrendered this season.  Meanwhile, the Falcons' rushing attack continued to struggle despite the return of Steven Jackson, who had six yards on 11 carries. It wasn't the return Jackson was hoping for after missing the better part of five games, but he still thinks he can make a difference.  "It’s definitely not the production I wanted to see out of myself, but one game is back under my belt," he said. "I’ll look at the film, learn from it and hopefully continue to grind, chop at wood. That’s the mentality that I have.”  While the 2013 season has not gone as anticipated for the Falcons, the  efforts to build a new stadium in downtown Atlanta continue, with the team announcing on Monday that the cost of the project has risen by $200 million.  That bump from $1 billion to $1.2 billion reportedly will not affect the taxpayers' contribution to the project.  Falcons President Rich McKay said that some rise in the cost was not unexpected, thanks to the stadium's unique design proposal, which they weren't willing to give up.  "We never wavered from the design,” McKay added. “As opposed to backing off from it to get to a budget that was in a document somewhere, we continued to enhance it, so that drives a lot of that [added] cost. The fact the stadium doesn’t have straight lines, the fact you’re creating eight corners of the building — when you start bending buildings, there’s cost implied in that. And the roof is not the most simplistic and therefore is not inexpensive. But it was an element we wanted because it really sold the idea to us that the roof is a design element … whereas in many other buildings it is completely nondescript.”

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-- QB Cam Newton has compiled a passer rating of 111 or better in three straight games
Things are trending in the opposite way in Carolina, where the Panthers are now solidly in second place in the NFC South and in the thick of the playoff race after winning four of their last five.  The most recent of those wins came in Tampa on Thursday night, where the Panthers prevailed, 31-13, but came away worried that they might lose a key player on their third-ranked defense.  DE Charles Johnson had two sacks of Buccaneer QB Mike Glennon on Thursday but left the game on a cart near the end of regulation after suffering a groin injury.  However, an MRI came back negative – it's a strain and not a tear – and the long weekend apparently did Johnson a lot of good as he insists he'll play this coming Sunday against Atlanta.  That's obviously good news for the Panthers, who at 4-3 are over .500 for the first time since 2008 and believing that they're only at the start of something good.  "We've put ourselves in the mix; that's great," said T Jordan Gross. "The guys in this locker room deserve this. The young guys that have never felt this deserve it. Coach Rivera deserves it. But the thing that I love is that nobody around here thinks that we've finished anything yet."  One aspect of the game that is helping the Panthers excel is third-down conversions, both offensively (fourth in the NFL) and defensively (11th).  Panthers.com Senior Writer Bryan Strickland accurately points out that Carolina's edge on third downs on Thursday night was the hidden difference in the Panthers' fairly easy win.  The Panthers' optimism is well-founded, but the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person points out that the team's three-game winning streak has come against teams with a combined 4-16 record, and that Carolina's schedule gets tougher in the second half of the season.  The backfield will soon grow stronger, however, as running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to be activated from the PUP list in time to play against Atlanta on Sunday.  Noting this ESPN.com's David Newton floats the idea of a Stewart-for-Hakeem-Nicks trade between the Panthers and Giants, though Newton admits it is unlikely.  The Panthers appear as if they could continue to thrive without Stewart, as they already possess the league's eighth-ranked rushing attack.  Part of that, of course, is due to the fact that their quarterback, Cam Newton, contributes heavily to the ground game, as he did in Tampa on Thursday when he became the first player in NFL history to record 50 touchdown passes and 25 rushing TDs in any three-year span.  Newton, who has had a passer rating of 111 or better in three straight games, says it's all coming together for Carolina's offense.  "It's a culmination of a lot of things," he said. "When you've got an offensive line protecting the way they're protecting, you've got a running back that's running and you've got receivers that are making plays after the catch, it's really not hard. It's just up to me to make the right decision." Finally, as with the Falcons, there is news of the business variety for the Panthers as well.  In their case, the issue is a deal that gives the Panthers money for stadium renovations in exchange for a six-year commitment to stay in Charlotte, and that topic could play a big part in an upcoming election.

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In New Orleans, the Saints got back in the win column with another ho-hum day for QB Drew Brees – 332 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions – that has him up for the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week Award for the fifth time this season (he won in Week Four after beating Miami).  Head Coach Sean Payton concedes that his team has become accustomed to Brees playing so well, but says that he and his quarterback still push for more each week knowing that some opponents will prove to be tougher than others.  "Drew even said it: There’s some things that, as we play games of more importance, as we play potentially teams that are a little bit different, we’re going to have to a little bit better, especially early on," said Payton. In fact, the New Orleans coach was not entirely pleased with his team's effort in their 35-17 win over visiting Buffalo, calling the Saints "sloppy" in all three phases of the game immediately after its conclusion.  "Some of the same things continue to show up – the slow start," said Brees, who also touched on the Saints' eight penalties. "There were a lot of good things, but a lot of things we could have done much better."  As with the Falcons and Panthers, there is at least one Saints player whose name was being run through the rumor mill as the NFL's 2013 trade deadline neared on Tuesday: RB Mark Ingram, who hasn't played for weeks due to a toe injury and hasn't contributed much to the NFL's sixth-ranked offense this season. The Saints' rushing attack as a whole is ranked 25th in the NFL, and while New Orleans has plenty of experience succeeding without a conventional rushing attack, ESPN.com's Mike Triplett says the ground game is making too many negative plays. One player who has contributed an enormous amount to that offense is tight end Jimmy Graham, who used a well-timed bye week to avoid missing a game with a foot injury suffered in New England.  Graham had two touchdown catches in the win over Buffalo, as the Saints picked their spots well with the tight end, who did not appear to be fully recovered.  ESPN's injury expert, Stephania Bell, says that Graham's particular ailment – a partially torn plantar fascia – is very painful to play with and will likely bother the Saints tight end for the rest of the season. Graham is tied for ninth in the NFL with 630 receiving yards and tied for second with eight touchdowns, but Will Brinson at NOLA.com tabs defensive end Cameron Jordan as the Saints' first-half MVP.  Brinson also sees WR Marques Colston as the Saints' biggest disappointment this year and thinks the team will need home field advantage in the playoffs to maximize its chances of reaching the Super Bowl.
Game Rewind: Tampa Bay Buccaneers