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NFC South Roundup: Week 11

Posted Nov 12, 2013

News from around the Buccaneers' division, where the Saints remain one game ahead of the Panthers as both teams had strong showings in Week 10

  • The Falcons are getting LB Sean Weatherspoon back from injured reserve, which may help them limit the big plays that have plagued them
  • Carolina's win in San Francisco makes next Monday's matchup with the New England Patriots an attractive prime-time affair
  • The Saints limited the snaps of TE Jimmy Graham on Sunday night but had no problem rolling up the offensive numbers
The Carolina Panthers have won five straight games, including a confidence-boosting 10-9 decision in San Francisco on Sunday, but are still chasing the New Orleans Saints, who were dominant in Week 10.  The Atlanta Falcons need some good news and apparently have some in the return from injured reserve of LB Sean Weatherspoon, although TE Tony Gonzalez is now a new injury concern.  With the 2013 season now into its second half, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division once again.


In Atlanta, the Falcons will soon be welcoming a couple of key defenders back to the lineup, as Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano pointed out on Tuesday, but they have suffered another loss on offense, with starting left tackle Sam Baker headed to injured reserve.  Baker's struggles with a knee injury have part of the team's season-long upheaval on the offensive front; now it appears as if Lamar Holmes will finish out the season on QB Matt Ryan's blindside.  The Falcons expect Holmes to handle that important job well.  “I think Lamar has progressed extremely well at left tackle,” said Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith. “He’s gotten better every week. You have to evaluate those guys individually and I think he’s done a very good job. He’s gotten better. I don’t think he’s really had a setback game. He’s gotten better individually every week.”  The Falcons' defense is almost certain to get better with the return of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon from injured reserve.  Weatherspoon hasn't been on the field since the second week of the season but he's an impact player who had 95 tackles and three sacks a season ago.  The Falcons are looking for a lift after suffering their third straight loss – and sixth in the last seven outings – in lopsided fashion.  The visiting Seattle Seahawks won 33-10 at the Georgia Dome on Sunday and rang up 490 yards of offense to Atlanta's 226.  Among the issues that plagued Atlanta in Week 10 – some of which have been season-long problems – were the continued disappearance of the Falcons' rushing attack and a defensive tendency to give up big plays.  Smith believes the Falcons have the horses in Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling to move the ball on the ground but game situations have not helped the cause.  "We didn’t get Steven going yesterday," said Smith on Monday.  "Unfortunately, he didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities. There were times, it just so happened when his number was called; the blocking wasn’t what it needed to be.  He was hit in the backfield and never really got an opportunity to get him going."  The Falcons' offense could have another problem if the toe injury suffered by Hall of Fame-bound TE Tony Gonzalez proves serious enough to limit or sideline him in Tampa in Week 11.  Don't expect an update on Gonzalez until after Wednesday's practice in Flowery Branch, at the earliest.  "Tony is one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around in terms of his pain tolerance and he was able to go back out there and play," said Smith.  "We taped him up and got him back out there."  It wasn't enough to help the Falcons make it a game, though.  After handing out a series of Fs in his report card for last week's loss at Carolina, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter did it again on Monday.  Ledbetter also states that Atlanta is now "in the hunt" for the first overall pick in next year's draft, and while he quotes the team as having  "a .00129 percent chance of winning the NFC South and .00957 percent chance of reaching the playoffs," the Falcons say it is not time to "reboot."   "We know that the scheme that we have and the plays that we run are capable of getting the job done," said QB Matt Ryan. "We just need to do it. And as a player, that's the only way your mindset can be."

-- Saints QB Drew Brees led a 620-yard attack on Sunday night that set an NFL record with 40 first downs

In Carolina, the Panthers have gone from being a quietly hot team to a squad that could be "very relevant," according to Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera.  Rivera's assertion comes on the heels of the team's fifth straight win, and perhaps its biggest one yet, a 10-9 thriller in San Francisco against an obvious Super Bowl contender.  Rivera himself has gone from potentially being on the hot seat to drawing praise for his leadership, ever since he publicly adopted a more aggressive approach to in-game decision-making.  The win was Carolina's first this year against an opponent with a winning record, but the Panthers weren't looking for bandwagon-jumpers after improving to 6-3.  "We heard all the naysayers say we hadn’t played anybody and blah, blah, blah," said S Mike Mitchell.  "Well, we played somebody today on the road in their place, and beat them. So they shouldn’t have too much to say. We’re relevant. We’re here.”  The low-scoring affair in San Francisco broke a string of four straight games in which Carolina had scored at least 30 points and won by at least two touchdowns, but it was every bit as satisfying for the Panthers because they felt it was a test of their toughness.  ESPN.com has Carolina all the way up to number six in its NFL power rankings, its highest mark since 2008.  The Panthers are getting very good play from third-year CB Cam Newton, and that was true even in a game on Sunday in which his stats would seem to indicate otherwise.  Newton's play – he has a passer rating of 88.3 even after taking a hit in that category on Sunday – is just one reason the Panthers have been able to rebound from a 1-3 start to the season.  Jonathan Jones and Joseph Person break down the statistics behind the many improvements the 2013 Panthers have seen over the 2012 team.  Carolina's hot streak comes at a good time for Monday Night Football, as their Week 11 matchup against the visiting New England Patriots should make for a popular prime-time event.  Rivera thinks the MNF spotlight could bring some much-deserve attention to Carolina players who are having strong seasons, such as LB Thomas Davis, who is playing well after returning from a third ACL tear.  "I'll give you an example: Thomas Davis," said Rivera.  "To me, his story is a big-time story. I don't know if it got the attention it deserved. If you're winning games, doing things the right way, people pay attention. It's a tremendous story that people should pay attention to because it's about never giving up, never quitting, chasing your dream and then succeeding because of hard work." If there is one area in which the Panthers have run into some trouble this year, it's with injuries along the offensive line, particularly at guard.  The team even tried to move defensive tackle Sione Fua to the offensive side of the ball, but then released Fua on Tuesday, apparently not satisfied with the experiment.


In New Orleans, the Saints stayed ahead of the surging Panthers by demolishing the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, 49-17.  The bad news for upcoming New Orleans opponents: they believe they are just starting to hit their stride on offense."Everybody was clicking today," said RB Pierre Thomas after Sunday's game.  "The offense was doing a good job of moving the ball.  We were up-tempo, especially in the first half like we wanted to be. We just kept pressing at them. We didn't give up. It shows what we can do as an offense when we're clickign on all cylinders." It's hard to imagine the offense getting much better after it set an NFL record with 40 first downs and a franchise record with 625 total yards, but there has long been room for improvement in the running game and beleaguered third-year back Mark Ingram could be the answer. Ingram ran for 145 yards and a touchdown as the Saints put up 242 yards on the ground, their best total in 23 years.  Ingram gained a lot of his yards in the second half of a game that was out of reach, but the Saints were committed to running the ball right from the beginning.  "We wanted to establish this,” said Thomas. “We said it as a corps, as a group, as a running back group, that we [have] got to establish the run game today. It has to start tonight. We can't wait. We can't put it on the side anymore. We really have to come out here and run the ball and that's what we did." Sunday night's game was a lopsided affair as the Cowboys gained just nine first downs and 193 yards and failed to convert a single third down.  Part of that great defensive effort was the work of CB Keenan Lewis, a key offseason pickup against the Cowboys' top receiver, Dez Bryant.  Lewis didn't have sole responsibility for covering Bryant, but he helped quite a bit in holding the receiver to one catch for 44 yards.  ESPN.com's Mike Triplett took a closer look at Sunday's game tape and concluded that Lewis was indeed the main reason Bryant was silenced, noting that Tony Romo's 44-yard second-half pass to his top receiver was the only time Bryant was targeted when he was being covered by Lewis.  If there was anything that didn't go smoothly for the Saints on Sunday night it was the 37-yard field goal that K Garrett Hartley tried and missed.  Hartley has now missed four of his last six tries and the Saints rank 30th in the NFL in field goal percentage, which led to the team bringing in three kickers for tryouts on Tuesday.  There is also continued concern over the health of Jimmy Graham, the league's most productive tight end who saw a limited number of snaps against the Cowboys and didn't contribute much to the offensive explosion.  The Saints specifically wanted to keep Graham's exposure to a certain limit, which became easier to do when they pulled away from the Cowboys.  "They just want to make sure that they're handling me the right way," Graham said after catching five passes for 59 yards. "They really look to limit me at times. You know, I've got some issues. But you know, everyone does. So it's gonna be like that from week to week.  You know me, personally obviously I want to be in on every play. But now it's kind of changing gears and getting used to sitting out for five to six plays and then going in and staying fresh and making sure you stay warm. That's not something I'm used to."