In Atlanta, the Falcons are in the midst of a streak of a different kind, having lost their fifth straight last Thursday against the Saints. With their record at 2-9 and tied with Jacksonville and Houston at the bottom of the overall NFL standings, some attention in Atlanta has turned to next year's draft, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mark Bradley hoping the losses continue to mount in a quest for South Carolina pass-rusher Jadaveon Clowney. Even though Head Coach Mike Smith insists that Falcons remain focused on the current season and not next year's roster, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff sees plenty of draft depth along both lines. "There are some really hot positions out there right, interestingly enough, along both fronts, again, which is rare to have two seasons in a row that there a number of defensive linemen out there as well as a number of offensive linemen that are going to be difference makers,” Dimitroff told Atlanta radio station 790 TheZone. “So, that’s a positive.” The Falcons are reportedly turning their attention to the future in another way, too, as it appears they are close to signing standout wide receiver Roddy White to a long-term extension. White has struggled with injuries in 2013 but came into the year on the heels of six straight seasons with at least 83 catches and 1,153 yards. With White missing significant time and Julio Jones on injured reserve, the Falcons have looked for other receivers to step up; Harry Douglas did so first, and now Darius Johnson is beginning to make an impact. With Atlanta now officially eliminated from the playoff hunt, Smith says it's time to get young players like Johnson more playing time. One young player who has been playing extensively all season is first-round cornerback Desmond Trufant, and his season is gaining momentum down the stretch. He may have turned in his best performance yet in Week 12, helping the Falcons hold New Orleans' high-powered offense to just 17 points in a narrow loss. Atlanta's offense continued to struggle in that game, and the offensive line remains under scrutiny after allowing five sacks of QB Matt Ryan. That crew has dealt with injuries and lineup changes all season, most recently losing starting left tackle Sam Baker to injured reserve. With young Lamar Holmes getting a long look at that spot, some are speculating that Baker could be moved to the right side next year. There could be a change on the right edge even sooner than that, however, as former Buccaneer Jeremy Trueblood had some tough moments in the Saints game, prompting the Falcons to consider using rookie Ryan Schraeder or recently-signed veteran Sean Locklear. According to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, Atlanta's problems on offense – much of which can be traced to injuries – came to a head late in the New Orleans game when Smith had to make a critical decision. The Falcons' decision to try a 52-yard field goal rather than go for it on fourth-and-15, says Wesseling, indicated that Smith had more confidence in his defense than his offense at that point.
In Carolina, the Panthers extended the NFL's longest current winning streak on Sunday in Miami, overcoming a slow first half to pull out a 20-16 win that Head Coach Ron Rivera said was, upon further review of the tape, a better performance than he originally thought. Carolina trailed 16-6 at the half and had just 116 yards through two quarters of play, but Rivera was joined by a variety of players who spoke up in the locker room during halftime. The coach was pleased by the show of leadership. “Part of coming together and being a team is not having to rely on just one leader," said Rivera. "It’s relying on a group of men that can come together and take ownership. That was kind of interesting to see. I think that’s part of the maturing process that we’ve gone through." Linebacker Thomas Davis, who has already battled back from ACL tears twice during his career, showed leadership and toughness on Sunday when he suffered a finger dislocation that broke the skin but didn't miss a single defensive snap. Defensive end Greg Hardy also sustained a finger injury during the game, but neither his nor Thomas' are considered serious; in addition, defensive end Charles Johnson is expected to test his sprained knee on the practice field Wednesday. Johnson, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks even after missing the game in Miami, would provide a further boost to a Panthers' defense that now ranks third in the NFL after shutting down the Dolphins in the second half. That defensive effort made it possible for QB Cam Newton to lead a last-minute game-winning touchdown drive for the second straight week, and gain another nickname in the process. The Panthers' official web site points out that Newton's growing confidence has been infectious in such situations, and that the team is finally learning how to finish games after struggling in that regard for the first two-plus seasons of Rivera's time at the helm. "I think it has a lot to do with us growing up," Rivera said. "It's the growth of our quarterback and our offensive unit and the growth of our defensive unit as well. "These guys understand what it takes now, and they're still learning and growing and getting better and better. By no means are we there, but we've done the things that we've done to give ourselves a chance to win." Newton's late-game heroics this season have flipped his reputation and that of the Panthers, says Yahoo.com. Newton led the Panthers in rushing in Miami, with 51 yards on eight carries, which helped the team rack up 136 yards on the ground and average 4.7 yards per carry. Carolina's rushing attack is ranked ninth in the NFL and is not having a problem integrating the recently-returned
In New Orleans, the Saints have kept just ahead of the streaking Panthers by winning three in a row…in the span of 12 days. John DeShazier of the Saints' official web site says the consecutive wins over Dallas, San Francisco and Atlanta - the last two nail-biters, was confirmation of the team's "intestinal fortitude." That will continue to be tested in the coming weeks, as the Saints head to Seattle for a Monday night tilt in Week 13 and then host Carolina six days later in the Superdome, the first of two December clashes between the division rivals. The Saints will get a national audience two weeks in a row because their Week 14 game against the Panthers has been flexed to Sunday night on NBC. That Monday night game this week happens to pit two of the teams that have performed the best in that long-running series in recent years. The Saints head to Charlotte in Week 16 for a rematch that could decide the division; Terrance Harris of Nola.com strikes up a debate as to whether or not Carolina is a real threat to the Saints for the title. Head Coach Sean Payton says the encouraging thing about that three-wins-in-12-days streak is how well his team handled a variety of different challenges. “I think we’ve gotten a little bit better defending the run and a little bit better running the football," said Payton. "I think the things we pointed out with the bye week whether it was Dallas, San Francisco or Atlanta, that all three of those teams are different in how they attack offensively and all three of those teams are different defensively. I think we’ve been able to see that. I think we’ll see some real good opponents coming up, starting with Seattle. I think from that standpoint, I’m encouraged.” It was seventh-year veteran Pierre Thomas who led the team to 103 rushing yards and a 4.1 per-carry average in Atlanta as the Saints did indeed find more offensive balance in the win. ESPN.com's Mike Triplett pegged Thomas and TE Jimmy Graham as the key players in that victory in the Georgia Dome. While Payton pointed out that Thomas had more to do in part because running back Darren Sproles was out due to injury, Larry Holder of the New Orleans Times-Picayune believes that Thomas is "the perfect back for the New Orleans Saints' offense." Triplett refers to Thomas as the Saints' secret weapon, backing it up with an evaluation from Pro Football Focus and appreciative words from quarterback Drew Brees. "One of the most complete backs I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with,” said Brees. “He certainly does not get the credit he deserves around the league. Yet there’s not a guy that’s respected more in this locker room than Pierre." On defense, the Saints' rising star continues to be defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had 2.5 sacks against Atlanta and now has 9.5 on the season, which is tied for seventh in the NFL.