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NFC South Roundup: Week 15

Posted Dec 10, 2013

News from around the Buccaneers' division, where the Panthers absorbed a rare loss in the win column and potentially another one on the depth chart Sunday and the Saints moved back into first place



STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Atlanta took some lumps with its young players on Sunday in Green Bay but that still stands as valuable experience for next year
  • Carolina's top-ranked defense wasn't able to slow down Brees in the Superdome
  • New Orleans is in good position to earn a first-round playoff bye but will be sure not to take St. Louis lightly in Week 15
The first of two big December showdowns between Carolina and New Orleans went to the Saints in Week 14, and in decisive fashion.  Both teams still look like strong bets for the playoffs, however, while the Falcons are a potential top-three team in next year's draft order after a tough loss at Green Bay.  Carolina could be without RB Jonathan Stewart for the rest of the season but is getting some key players back from injury.  Atlanta is taking a closer look at the youth on its roster and the Saints are making sure to avoid falling into a "trap game" in St. Louis.  With the postseason looming,  it's time to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division once again.

**

In Atlanta, just a season after coming within minutes of making it to the Super Bowl, the Falcons are now unquestionably in the running for one of the top two or three picks in next year's draft.  A one-point, fourth-quarter loss in Green Bay on Sunday dropped Atlanta to 3-10, putting it even with Washington and one game behind the 2-11 Houston Texans.  Many of the early mock drafts have Atlanta linked to South Carolina pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, such as the two already posted by draft experts Rob Rang and Dane Brugler on CBSSports.com.  The Falcons got a little bit closer to that high pick in Week 14 in part because they have already turned an eye partially to next season by giving such young players as T Ryan Schraeder, CB Robert Alford and S Zeke Motta a closer look.  D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that hurt the Falcons at Lambeau when several such young players made key mistakes.  It might help them in the long run; however.  The Falcons at times had a half-dozen rookies on the field at the same time on defense, and they expect that experience to pay off next  year, particularly in regards to the cornerback duo of Alford and Desmond Trufant.  The youth movement doesn't mean Atlanta is any less intent on winning in the season's final month, however, as was clear in the postgame comments in Green Bay. “We think every time we go out and play that it’s a game we should have in the win column," said Head Coach Mike Smith, after his team coughed up a 21-10 lead with a scoreless second half.  "I felt like in the first 30 minutes of the ball game we played well enough to win and the second 30 minutes we played poor football and didn’t play well enough to get the job done.”  The Falcons may have to fill a hole on their coaching staff in 2014, too, if Boise State tabs Atlanta's offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, for their head coaching vacancy.  Koetter flew to Idaho on Monday to interview for the position and is expected to get a second meeting on Tuesday.  The Falcons are preparing for the possibility that Koetter, who had led the Falcons' offense to an eighth-place ranking in the NFL in his first year at the helm before the injury-plagued 2013 campaign, will return to the team he led from 1998-2000. "Any decision he makes, he's a grown man," said WR Roddy White.  "He's a good guy, good coach, great offensive coordinator. Good mind. If he takes the job, then he takes it. If he doesn't, he doesn't. " In addition to some upcoming important draft and coaching decisions, the Falcons will also have to deal with some impending veteran free agents, and the defensive  tackle position is particularly up in the air.  Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry are all due to hit the market, though all three have said they would like to return.  In a more immediate sense, a decision will have to be made on the condition of starting safety Thomas DeCoud, who is being run through the league's concussion protocol.  Tight end Tony Gonzalez will be on the field; he's in the final month of his Hall of Fame career, and he intends to get as much action as he can before it's over.  Gonzalez played every offensive snap for the Falcons in Green Bay.

**

-- The Saints' defense sacked Carolina QB Cam Newton five times on Sunday night
In Carolina, the Panthers are feeling something they hadn't in two months: the sting of defeat.  In a battle for first place in the NFC South in New Orleans – a fight that will get a rematch in two weeks in Charlotte – the Saints dominated on Sunday night, 31-13, breaking Carolina's NFL-long eight-game winning streak.  Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes against a defense that hadn't allowed more than two TDs of any kind in a game all season.  Head Coach Ron Rivera said it was a "humbling" loss, and hinted that it might have been just what his team needed.  "As I told them [Sunday] night, this was a very humbling experience," said Rivera. "Maybe we needed a little bit of that. Maybe we got a little full of ourselves and thought we were capable of just showing up. I’m not saying that’s what we did because there were some bright spots. We did some good things early."  Even with the loss, the Panthers are 9-4, one game behind New Orleans in the division standing and in very strong position to grab a Wild Card berth at the least.  Rivera says his team will bounce back from the defeat in the bayou.  "I think our guys will be zeroed in," he said of the preparations for a home game against the unpredictable New York Jets. "We know what's at stake. We know how important these last three games are. There are a lot of possibilities still."  ESPN.com's David Newton explains the position Carolina now finds itself in in the NFC playoff hunt.  The Panthers' offense played much of the season without running back Jonathan Stewart, and they'll have to do it again for at least the next two weeks.  Stewart suffered what was initially feared to be a torn MCL in his knee in the loss to the Saints.  The Panthers later confirmed that diagnosis but Rivera said there was a chance Stewart could return this season.  Fortunately for the Panthers, they got running back DeAngelo Williams back on the field after he missed one week (against the Buccaneers); the team also welcomed back sack leader Charles Johnson, starting linebacker Chase Blackburn and valuable tight end Ben Hartsock.  Williams ran for 52 yards as part of a fine 128-yard evening on the ground, but the passing game produced just 111 net yards on 39 drop-backs and quarterback Cam Newton was sacked five times.  NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal said Sunday night's game showed the stark contrast between the explosive offense in New Orleans and the "methodical" one in Carolina.  Of more concern, however, was the way Brees and his blockers made the Panthers' top-ranked defense look average, a rare occurrence this season.  David Newton points out that, "According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was 22-of-26 against four or fewer pass-rushers, the highest completion percentage the Panthers have allowed in a game in the past six seasons."  Part of the problem was that, even though Johnson was back in the lineup, he didn't have much of an impact in his return.  Johnson says he'll be closer to his normal self next weekend against the Jets.

**

In New Orleans, the Saints maintained their home dominance, where they are undefeated in 2013, just as they were in and 2011.  Of course, until they show the same sort of domination away from the Superdome, some will still question their status as true Super Bowl contenders.  That was the point raised by NFL.com's Judy Battista on Monday, as she envisioned an eventual playoff trip to Seattle for the Saints.  The New Orleans players, of course, don't share those opinions about their vulnerability on the road, and indeed the Saints are 3-3 away from home this year.  Safety Roman Harper pointed to a different issue, one that was even a bit of a problem on Sunday night in the Superdome: “It’s not so much about being on the road that really causes us problems," said Harper.  "It’s the fact that when we don’t have success early, how guys respond and things like that. When we come out and we play fast early, we get off to good starts offensively and defensively, that’s when we’re at our best. We’ve got to try to find a way to, no matter where we’re at location-wise, be able to come out of the locker room and start fast. When we do that, we have success.”  As Battista noted, the Saints are in great shape at 10-3 to get a first-round bye and play at least one postseason game at home, since the East division leader is just 8-5 and the North leader is 7-6.  The Canal Street Chronicles site breaks down all the ways the playoff race could break down for the Saints over the next three weeks.  In search of an ever more daunting home field advantage, the folks in New Orleans tried to break Seattle's record for stadium volume on Sunday but couldn't quite get there…though there was still some grumbling afterward.  The Saints had lost in that very Northwest venue the week before – and badly, falling 34-7 to the top-seeded Seahawks – but the easy win over Carolina proved to many that the team has the mettle to bounce back from a difficult outing.  Since Sunday's bounce-back game was on national television, it was also a chance for some of the team's young stars to move out from under Brees' shadow and get league-wide recognition.  The player who took advantage of that opportunity the most was third-year defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had two of the Saints' five sacks.  Jordan now has 11.5 QB takedowns on the season, tied for fourth in the NFL, and is looking like a good bet to be making a trip to Hawaii in February.  That Sunday-nighter was also the Saints' third high-profile outing in a row, as a Thursday night nationally-televised affair in Atlanta came before the Seattle and Carolina games.  In Week 15 they'll travel to St. Louis for a "normal" early-Sunday game against the Rams, the kind of assignment that looks like a "trap game" after the emotional win over a division foe.  However, ESPN.com's Mike Triplett says the Saints will "stay on the gas pedal" in the Gateway City and not take the 5-8 Rams lightly.

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