A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
It was a clean sweep in Week Nine for the NFC South, which is starting to exert itself again after a collective difficult start (8-0 Atlanta obviously excused). While the Buccaneers were continuing their league-leading offensive surge in Oakland, Carolina and New Orleans were both securing critical victories to keep their hopes of a second-half run alive. Meanwhile, Atlanta remained on track for the #1 overall seed in a very strong conference with its home win against the Cowboys. The Falcons are feeling better about their run defense, the Panthers are growing more confident in their run offense, and the Saints are thrilled to be finding the big-play element back in their defense.
In Atlanta, an already strong offense (eighth in the NFL in yards per game, seventh in points per game) is getting increasing returns from a new contributor, second-year RB Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers, the 5-6 waterbug back out of Oregon State, has 133 of his 327 yards from scrimmage this season in the last two weeks, and his 31-yard catch-and-run converted a huge third down in the fourth quarter of Atlanta's 19-13 win over Dallas on Sunday. “Quizz is just the consummate role player for our team," said QB Matt Ryan, who is beginning to hear league MVP talk. "He’s not the feature back – we have Mike [Turner], but he does so many things for our team in terms of pass protection, running the football, coming out of the backfield and catching some balls for us. It’s tough for a defense to worry about the guys that we have on the outside, and the tight end that we have, and then remember that we have some special players out of the backfield that can catch the ball and make plays.” Meanwhile, Atlanta's run defense, which has been an area of some concern amid the team's NFL-best 8-0 start, has been better of late, and it held an (admittedly banged-up) Cowboys rushing attack to just 65 yards on 18 carries. "[Our] run fits have to be very precise," said Head Coach Mike Smith. "It’s not just 'A,' 'B,' 'C.' It’s a lot more complicated than that, in terms of how you’re going to take your gap and how you’re going to fill the gap to the unblocked player. That’s the thing that we’ve done a much better job the last two weeks. It’s been an emphasis point. We didn’t start the season out the way we wanted stopping the run, but we’ve done a better job these last two weeks." Smith praised the play of second-year LB Akeem Dent in that improved defense, as Dent was the primary replacement for injured LB Sean Weatherspoon, one of the Falcons' best defenders. In addition, the team got more snaps than originally intended out of DT Corey Peters, who is just back from the PUP list, after DT Peria Jerry left the game with an injury. Peters handled the workload well and is close to being back to full strength, according to Smith.
In Carolina, the Panthers are finally sensing a turnaround after a frustrating 1-6 start to the season. A rousing win in Washington on Sunday in which QB Cam Newton had one of his most efficient performances of the season was the product of a team showing resiliency, according to Head Coach Ron Rivera. Now the Panthers, who have a pair of home games ahead against Denver and Tampa Bay, want to start a winning streak. "It's about continuing to trend up," said Rivera. "Obviously you want to win them all, you want to win as many as you can. What that number is, I don't know, but everything we do is about trying to win them all. We'll start with this first one. The nice thing has been that as hard as it has been after some of these games, our guys bounce back. They've been very resilient. It tells you that these guys really want to do things the right way and are willing to make those sacrifices." The Panthers' running game is coming around after a surprisingly slow start to the season – 129 yards, 4.8 yards per carry and two TDs on Sunday – but the Panthers still want to be better at grinding out the tough yards. Carolina had a 21-6 lead after a Newton touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, but on their next three drive the next three drives they got a total of -1 yards on seven carries from primary tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. That allowed Washington to get back within one score and have one more crack at it in the final seconds. "We still have to get the components at the end to finish better," said Newton. "We had ample opportunities and great field position on offense. We have to find a way to get a first down." Added Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski: "We have a lot of improvement yet [up front]. We have to play more physical. You look at the end of the game and the opportunity to close the game out. I have to work on giving them things that they can be physical with and go play with that mentality. That's something we're going to be working on."
In New Orleans, the Saints are also finding new meaning in their season after a 28-13 Monday Night win over Philadelphia improved the team to 3-5 and kept them on the edge of the playoff race. The team has a tough challenge next week with undefeated Atlanta coming to town, but that's also the perfect opportunity to reestablish itself as a contender. “Let’s see if we can win eight straight to finish the season – that would be a good goal," said QB Drew Brees after the game. "Obviously, the position we’re in right now, it’s never more important than one foot in front of the other, one game at a time and just thinking about the next opponent on a short week. Atlanta comes in here undefeated, a very good football team, a divisional rival. This would be a huge victory for us and a great way to continue this run.” The Saints will likely need more defensive performances like the one they got on Monday, in which they gave up a season-low point total to the league's 10th-ranked offense. The Saints, who made NFL history by giving up 400 or more yards to their first seven opponents, surrendered another 447 on Monday but also forced two turnovers, including a game-changing 99-yard interception return for a touchdown by Patrick Robinson. "That was a 14-point swing – the seven we got and the seven they didn’t," said acting Head Coach Joe Vitt. "We’ve made plays before in the red zone, we work awful hard in the red zone and coaches prepare our players to play well in the red zone. I think our players are really starting to get some confidence in the way [Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] wants this defense to be played in the red zone. It was great.” The Saints are allowing 471.3 yards per game, 54 more than the 31st-ranked team, but Vitt says there are other numbers that are more important. “I don’t understand about total yards," he said. "Points against, red-zone defense, turnovers and pressure on the quarterback – we were able to get that accomplished. Total yards - those are stats. When we won the Super Bowl, we were 26th in the league in total defense. We forced turnovers, gave good field position to the offense. Stats are what they are.”