A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
The Falcons took a commanding lead in the NFC South with their one-point win at Tampa Bay in Week 12 and can clinch both a playoff spot and the division title with a certain combination of outcomes in Week 13. However, it won't be easy, as the Saints are coming into Atlanta for a rematch of New Orleans' Week 10 win, and they've got their backs against the wall after a tough loss to San Francisco dropped them to 5-6. The Panthers are the only NFC South team without realistic playoff hopes, but they put together one of their best performances in a while on Monday night in Philadelphia and are feeling better about the play of second-year QB Cam Newton.
In Atlanta, the Falcons are suddenly in position to clinch a playoff spot, and possibly even the division title, this coming weekend. And that process begins Thursday, as the Saints are coming to town for a rematch of New Orleans win in the Superdome in Week 10. Thus, the Falcons don't have much time to enjoy their win in Tampa or worry about playoff scenarios, but at least they have the advantage of a familiar foe. “It’s a lot easier because it’s a division opponent," said Head Coach Mike Smith of the short week. "We’re familiar with one another and we played in the last couple of weeks. There is a lot of familiarity. I would hate to be playing someone on a short week that you play every four years.” The Saints won that first game, 31-27, in a game that went down the wire. That obviously describes the Falcons win at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, and in a majority of their games have played out in that fashion. That has actually served to give the Falcons added confidence in difficult spots, as they are 7-1 in one-score games this year and 3-0 in outings decided by three points or less. “Just to be able to come in [to Tampa], in [that] type of environment and stop their momentum… to be honest, we could have played a little better, but when you win close games like that, it’s only a positive," said TE Tony Gonzalez. "Knowing that you can come up with plays when you have to, and the defense stepped up when they had to, offense stepped up when they had to. Our special teams wasn’t working like we wanted to as far as the kicking game goes, [but] we just kind of have each other's backs and that’s all it does, it keeps your confidence going forward.” The Falcons didn't practice on Monday, in what was essentially a Wednesday during a normal in-season week, but Smith said that neither CB Asante Samuel nor DT Peria Jerry would have taken the field if they had. Jerry missed the Bucs' game due to a quad injury while Samuel appeared to get hurt several times on Sunday. “Asante has been battling the shoulder injury the last two weeks," said Smith. "He missed a few snaps in this ball game. He missed more in the previous game, but he’s a really tough guy in terms of pain tolerance. We’re going to get him as much rest as we can the next couple of days and get him as healthy as we can get him to play on Thursday night.”
In Carolina, the Panthers are enjoying their first win in three weeks and, perhaps more importantly, the return of the type of performance that made QB Cam Newton such an instant star as a rookie in 2011. In a 30-22 Monday Night win in Philadelphia, Newton not only threw for 306 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, for a passer rating of 125.0, but he ran for 52 yards and two more scores. Head Coach Ron Rivera said the team's decision some weeks ago to "take a little bit off his plate" is starting to pay off. "I think one thing that has helped is, really, he's getting comfortable again," said Rivera. "We put a lot on him early in the year and I think now he's got a better feel for the new stuff that we had put in and running those specific plays. One thing he did a little bit more of last night was change plays at the line of scrimmage. I think he's starting to get comfortable with those things, and as he improves and learns those things I think he's getting better and better. He's seeing those things, and he's working at it and getting better and better." It wasn't all good news for the Panthers, however, as two key players came out of the game with significant injuries. For starting DT Ron Edwards, it's a season-ender, as a dislocated elbow is sending him to injured reserve. The Panthers will now decide who to promote to the starting lineup among the trio of Sione Fua, Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse, the latter of whom will be activated from the practice squad. "Ron's been very stout for us at the point of attack and doing a great job for us allowing the linebackers to run," said Rivera. "So now the next guy up has got to be able to do that, whether it's going to be Sione, Andre Neblett or Frank Kearse, who we're going to activate. One of those guys has got to step up and really fill that role of being a space-eater." In addition, RB Jonathan Stewart suffered an ankle injury and finished with just eight carries. Rivera referred to the injury as a sprain and said Stewart was considered day-to-day, but did point out that is not the same ankle that kept Stewart out of action earlier in the year.
In New Orleans, the Saints are also working on a quick turnaround for Thursday night's game in Atlanta, but they don't have a big victory to send them into the week with happy thoughts. Acting Head Coach Joe Vitt said the team's "24-hour rule" – the amount of time the players are allowed to celebrate or dwell on the previous outing – had to be cut to 12 hours for the short week. Vitt did agree with Smith, however, that familiarity with the upcoming opponent helped in terms of preparing in a compressed schedule. “Absolutely," said Vitt. "It doesn’t make it any less challenging but they know us and we know them. We are going to run plays that we have probably all seen run against one another before. We will try to disguise them with different formations and motions, maybe shifting some fronts, maybe stemming some fronts. This is not going to be a game about scheme. This is going to be a game about execution and physicality.” The Saints' offense didn't execute as well as it usually does in the second half against San Francisco on Sunday, as a 14-14 tie devolved into a 31-21 loss. Drew Brees threw two pick-sixes in the game and the Saints' three drives in the fourth quarter all ran out of either downs or time before getting anywhere. “I don’t think the fourth quarter has been good for us as a football team," said Vitt, who deflected criticism aimed at Brees. "We are all in this together. We have to get more stops on defense. We have to be able to run the ball better. We have to throw more completions. We need to have better coverage on our coverage units. All those things come into factor in the fourth quarter. It’s not just one person. We are all in this together.” The loss to San Francisco snapped a three-game winning streak that had pulled New Orleans back to .500 and into the NFC playoff hunt. The Saints are now a game behind a trio of 6-4 teams, including the Buccaneers, but Brees can still see the playoffs from where he's at. "I firmly believe that if we take care of our business and worry about ourselves, things will happen in a way in a way we envision and we’re going to have a chance at the end to get in," he said. "If we get in because we’ve rattled off a bunch of wins in a row and we’re playing like that, look out. We can be a great team. We understand the sense of urgency and the small margin for error at this point."