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NFC South Roundup: Week 12

Posted Nov 19, 2013

News from around the Buccaneers' division, where Tampa Bay was joined in the winners' circle in Week 11 by New Orleans and Carolina, two streaking teams fighting it out for the NFC South crown

  • Atlanta is rearrangings its linebacking corps after the return of Sean Weatherspoon from IR
  • Carolina QB Cam Newton had a statement game Monday night and WR Steve Smith went viral with his postgame statement
  • New Orleans lost CB Jabari Greer to what is considered a significant knee injury
While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were throttling division-rival Atlanta in Week 11, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints were winning signature games against tough opponents, each with the help of a controversial official's ruling.  Atlanta is contemplating some lineup changes as they try to snap a four-game skid, while both the Panthers (DE Charles Johnson) and the Saints (CB Jabari Greer) may have to replace important starters on defense, at least in the short run.  The Falcons and Saints don't have long to work through their issues; they meet on Thursday night in the Georgia Dome.  With the season's stretch run approaching, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division once again.


In Atlanta, the Falcons are still trying to figure out their unexpected struggles in 2013, which continued on Sunday with a 41-28 loss to the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.  Head Coach Mike Smith says his team has not handled in-game momentum swings well this year, something they had done in the previous five seasons, all winning campaigns.  "Football is a game of winning the line of scrimmage," said Smith on Monday. "It’s a game of taking advantage of the momentum and it’s playing with confidence. Right now, I don’t believe we are playing with a whole lot of confidence as a football team and we need to change that.”  The Falcons did make a few changes to their depth chart on Monday, most notably two prompted by the return of LB Sean Weatherspoon from injured reserve.  Weatherspoon takes back over on the weak side, which pushes rookie Paul Worrilow, the undrafted tackling machine, to the middle and Akeem Dent out of the starting lineup.  The Falcons also replaced S Thomas DeCoud with rookie Zeke Motta during Sunday's game but have not made a corresponding change on the depth chart.  Atlanta moved Peter Konz to right guard to start Sunday's game but Konz had a difficult time with Bucs DT Gerald McCoy, and several more switches to the front line were made during the game.  There may be more changes coming, including the possibility of more work for newly-signed T Sean Locklear, C Joe Hawley and RB Antone Smith.  Smith was a rare bright spot for the Falcons on Sunday, gaining 50 and 38 yards on his two carries in the fourth quarter.  Smith is likely to get some more carries despite a backfield that also includes Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.  The only injury of note to come out of Sunday's game for the Falcons was one to the leg of backup QB Dominique Davis, who briefly replaced Matt Ryan in the second half when the game was out of hand.  The Falcons did have to put out an official injury report on Monday, as they are next up on Thursday Night Football against the visiting Saints.  TE Tony Gonzalez, who made it through the game in Tampa despite an injured toe, is still dealing with that issue and did not practice to start the short week.  ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure says that the toughness and commitment Gonzalez is showing in fighting through his injury during what is likely his last season is setting an example for his teammates.  Gonzalez may not return next year but General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and Head Coach Mike Smith will, judging from the comments made by Falcons Owner Arthur Blank outside the locker room at Raymond James Stadium.  "We love our head coach and we love our general manager," said Blank. "We’ll candidly look at everybody honestly, critically and see what we have to do. It should be nobody that escapes that critique. That’s their job and I have confidence that they’ll do it. They are doing it and they will do it.”

-- Atlanta RB Steven Jackson could cede some carries to Sunday standout Antone Smith

Everyone is chiming in on the controversial ending to Monday night's game in Carolina, but Panthers' Head Coach Ron Rivera is more concerned with an earlier no-call on a play that resulted in an injury to one of the team's star players.  Defensive end Charles Johnson, who has 8.5 sacks this season, suffered a knee injury when he was leg-whipped by Patriots T Marcus Cannon, and though he later came back into the game Johnson was sent for an MRI on Tuesday.  ESPN.com's David Newton says the initial report is that the injury is sprain but Rivera knows it could've been worse.  "That's a disappointing play,'' he said. "I'm pretty adamant about it. It happened to me when I played. I actually fractured my leg and sprained my interior cruciate. Whenever I see one of those, it really disappoints me."  Panthers.com Staff Writer Max Henson says the Panthers will turn to a trio of young ends – Frank Alexander, Wes Horton and Mario Addison – if Johnson misses next Sunday's game in Miami.  Johnson's injury is about the only thing the Panthers aren't smiling about on Tuesday morning, and in fact QB Cam Newton was smiling on the sideline Monday night before the game was even over, while his team's defense was on the field trying to close it out.  He had just guided the Panthers on their biggest drive of the season, a 13-play, 83-yard march that produced the game-winning score.  It was a moment Newton's teammates won't soon forget.  "He put a drive together that will probably be remembered for a long time around here," said linebacker Thomas Davis. "The offense stepped up big. Cam played tremendous. He didn't force things, and he put the ball on the money."  That Newton's big game – he completed 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while also running for 62 yards – came before a national audience means that it was also a statement for the rest of the league to hear, according to ESPN.com's Newton.  "For those who had any doubt about whether or not the Panthers (7-3) were legitimate playoff contenders," writes Newton.  "It's time to stop doubting."  The Charlotte Observer compiled the thoughts of a number of national writers Monday night who agree with Newton's assessment.  Cam Newton's favorite target, Steve Smith, knows a thing or two about making a statement – often during a game – and his head-to-head battle with New England CB Aqib Talib brought the best out of Smith's game as well as his mouth.  Smith caught four passes for 62 yards and drew Talib into committing a series of fouls.  Best of all, Smith capped the night with a quote that has gone viral and was deemed an "instant classic" by Yahoo.com's Anwar Richardson: "Ice up, son."  The Panthers' big win, on the heels of a defining win in San Francisco in Week 10, keeps them just a game behind New Orleans in the NFC South standings, as the Panthers have won six in a row and currently possess the NFL's third-ranked defense.  The Monday night victory continued to build on what has become something of a "magical" feeling in Carolina this season. "They always have a good team, and it was on Monday Night Football," said CB Captain Munnerlyn of beating the Patriots.  "The whole world was watching, and we did a great job of showcasing that we can be one of the great teams."


In New Orleans, the Saints are also well into their work week for that intra-division Thursday-nighter, and their first injury report of the week includes 13 players.  The only player who did not practice at all on Monday was cornerback Jabari Greer, who landed awkwardly on his left knee after breaking up a pass against San Francisco on Sunday, sustaining what Head Coach Sean Payton acknowledged was a "significant" injury.  New Orleans, which was already without standout rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro against the 49ers due to a second concussion in 2013, added to their secondary by signing second-year CB Trevin Wade, a former Cleveland Brown.  Assuming Greer can't play on Thursday, Corey White would step into a starting role, with Wade backing him up.  The Saints are at least heading into their short week following a satisfying Sunday, in that it ended in a last-second, 23-20, win over the strong San Francisco 49ers.  Drew Brees threw for 305 yards and one score, which for him is a relatively light stat line, but got 92 yards and 4.0 yards per carry from his rushing attack, which for the Saints' offense is a noticeable improvement.  The Saints, who came into the game ranked 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game and dead last in yards allowed per rush, gave up just 81 yards and 3.7 per carry to Frank Gore and the physical 49ers.  Payton was pleased by both of those accomplishments.  "I said after the game, what was encouraging was we were able to create those third downs that we felt were favorable," he said.  "And conversely we were able to run the ball, I thought in both of those areas against a real good 49er front, I thought we ran it very well and I thought against a very good rushing attack, one of the better rushing attacks in football, I thought we defended the run real well. Ultimately I think those two goals I would say were probably the most important keys to us winning that game and we achieved both of them.”  All of the Saints had to be pleased with the clutch performance of K Garrett Hartley, who had missed four of his previous six field goal tries, prompting the team to bring in a handful of kickers for tryouts last week.  Hartley held on to his job and delivered with game-tying (42 yards) and game-winning (31 yards) field goals in the game's last two minutes.  That game also included what might have been the weekend's most controversial moment until it was upstaged by the ending of Monday night's Carolina-New England contest.  ESPN.com's Mike Triplett discusses the penalty on San Fran LB Ahmad Brooks that overturned a sack-fumble in the fourth quarter and kept the game-tying drive alive; Triplett also says the Saints' protection of Brees was actually quite good during the rest of the game.  The win kept the Saints one game up on the streaking Panthers, who were also on the right side of the controversy on Monday night, and now New Orleans will hurriedly get ready for a trip to Atlanta, where they will go for the season sweep of their division rival.  With the Panthers winning six in a row, the Saints know they can't afford a let-down, even against a 2-8 opponent.  “It’s a divisional opponent, it’s our rival and to flip around and have a game Sunday and then have a game on Thursday, it’s going to say a lot about our fortitude and what we have on our team," said defensive end Cameron Jordan.  "We know them, they know us. Familiarity helps in a short week but at the same time, it’s going to be a physical, hard-fought battle regardless. We always play each other tough.”