A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
The Falcons, Saints and Panthers all won in Week 16, and while only Atlanta will be moving on to the postseason those victories had a significant effect in all three team headquarters. The Falcons’ gain was the most tangible, as it clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs for Atlanta…and that in turn brings up questions as to how they will play their Week 17 game against Tampa Bay. In New Orleans, the Saints have closed to within a game of .500 and would very much like to finish the season with a three-game winning streak and a non-losing mark. The Panthers have already won three in a row and are feeling better about 2013 thanks to the continued strong play of such cornerstone young players as QB Cam Newton and LB Luke Kuechly.
In Atlanta, the Falcons not only clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs with their Saturday night win over Detroit, but they also continued to build momentum for the next part of the season. Atlanta, which has had five straight winning seasons since the arrival of Head Coach Mike Smith but is 0-3 in playoff games in the same span, truly believes that it is a "hot team" heading into the postseason this time around. The 31-18 pasting of the Lions followed an impressive 34-0 shutout of the Giants in Week 15, and no Falcon has been more locked in over those two weeks than QB Matt Ryan. Against the Lions and Giants, Ryan completed 80% of his passes, threw for 549 yards and tossed seven touchdowns against zero interceptions. "I think Matt played the last two weeks his best back-to-back games," said Smith after the Lions game. "He was very efficient. Against New York he was seeing the field very well. He got into a rhythm and I thought his pocket presence was very good. He also was able to distribute the ball to different receivers." The Falcons were the NFC's top seed in 2010, too, but they very memorably got walloped by the eventual champions, the Green Bay Packers, 48-21, in the Georgia Dome. Last year they got in as a Wild Card team but once again bowed out against the team that would eventually win it all, losing 24-2 to the Giants. Obviously, that history, plus an early exit against Arizona in 2008, is brought up relentlessly around the Falcons at this time of year, but they believe 2012 is a significantly different situation. “You know, I think we’re definitely a different football team than we’ve been the past couple of years," said Ryan. "Right now I think our confidence is high and our experience in the past, both good and bad, I think has helped us get to the point we’re at. I think the key is to continue to keep the focus where it’s been and keep trying to play our best football moving forward.” The other question surrounding the Falcons as they head into Week 17 is just as clear: Do they rest some of their key players next Sunday when the Buccaneers visit? Smith addressed that question without completely making his intentions clear. “We’re going to play the game to win,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to approach it. It’s an important game because it’s a division game. All games, I think, are important. In terms of the importance of it, does it have no bearing? It really does, because we want to win every time we go out and play.”
In Carolina, the Panthers have had to use quite a few offensive line combinations this season, and it looks like they'll have another one for their season finale in New Orleans because rookie left guard Amini Silatolu sustained a dislocated wrist against the Raiders Sunday. "The big concern is Amini," said Head Coach Ron Rivera after Carolina's third straight win. "It's disappointing because the last few weeks he really has played to who we thought he could become. He's a guy that's worked very hard." QB Cam Newton has also worked hard to overcome a slow start to his sophomore season, getting on a roll in the second half of the campaign. After a five-game stretch in which he threw 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, his performance against the Raiders wasn’t as eye-catching, statistically, as he passed for 170 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also ran for 60 yards and a score, however, notching his fourth rushing TD in the Panthers’ last five games. After the Oakland game, however, it was Newton who was praising the play of one of his even younger teammates, as rookie LB Luke Kuechly continues to impress. He led the Carolina defense with 13 tackles on Sunday and also added an interception and a 25-yard return. "The player that has stepped up the most in my opinion is Luke Kuechly," said Newton. "Luke has been around the ball and is playing at a high level like something I've never seen. I don't want to jump out on a limb, but he's the best I've ever been around." Kuechly’s 152 total tackles leads the NFL heading into the season’s final weekend. "Luke is a tremendous football player; he really is,” said Rivera. “He is everything we thought he would be and more. He has a bright future here with us, and you feel very good about him leading our defense. Believe it or not I think Luke Kuechly could be a better football player. I really do. He has that kind of ability. He's special."
In New Orleans, the Saints have improved to 7-8 with two straight wins and, despite the lack of any playoff possibilities, are definitely motivated to end the season at .500. After Sunday’s thrilling overtime win over Dallas, LB Curtis Lofton said he believes the team will play the season finale with a full deck and go all out for the victory. “I think the goal right now for us is to get back to 8-8 and I don’t really think there will be too many changes in personnel,” said the former Falcon, who is in his first year with the Saints. “Hopefully we can win and finish the season the right way. Seven-and-nine or 8-8? I think 8-8 sounds better. For everything we’ve gone through and every situation that’s come up and arisen this entire season to get back to 8-8 I think would be very important for us and get us rolling into next year. It just goes to show the character of this locker room and coaches with everything we’ve been through to keep fighting and not give up." The Saints blew a two-touchdown fourth-quarter lead in Dallas before taking the game in overtime, 34-31. It was very much a typical game for New Orleans in 2012, with the two teams combining for 1,008 yards of offense and the Saints winning despite a 400-yard, four-touchdown performance by Cowboys QB Tony Romo. The Saints could set the NFL record for most yards allowed per game in a single season, but they continue to insist that there are other, more important numbers on which to focus. “I don’t really care,” said Lofton about the potential record. “I think the main thing for me is that we want to get a win. If we get a win no matter how many yards we give up, we get a win. I take a W any day. There are a ton of other stats that are way more important, but this year has been very different for me and a lot of the guys giving up the yards and all that stuff. The first four games were tough, but you look at the last seven games, we’ve played great defense.” The Saints get a rematch with the Panthers in Week 17, and Interim Head Coach Joe Vitt said finishing with a victory is important not only for the players’ desire to finish at 8-8 but also to set the tone for what they hope will be a more successful 2013. “I think how we finish the season, how we start the parameters and how we start our offseason affects everything that you do during the season,” said Vitt. “What you do in the offseason has a direct correlation to what you do during the season. I think that we’ve been able to build the past couple of weeks on the character that we have in the locker room.”