** In Atlanta, the Falcons got their fourth win of the season on Sunday against Washington, but they had to withstand a last-second two-point conversion try by Washington and a barrage of big plays in the second quarter, including a 53-yard touchdown catch by WR Pierre Garcon. Head Coach Mike Smith says his team is continuing to take some lumps with a large number of rookies in the lineup but that it remains a valuable experience for some young players who could be prominently featured in 2014. One of those rookies, first-round CB Desmond Trufant deflected Kirk Cousins' pass on that fateful two-point try, keeping Atlanta from losing a second straight one-point game. Atlanta's win over the 3-11 Redskins didn't impress the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter, who handed out grades after a game his fellow columnist dubbed the game a "clown fest." "With so many young players on the field," wrote Ledbetter, "there was a lot of stumbling, bumbling, rumbling and, of course, fumbling." Indeed, there were seven fumbles in the game, but Atlanta's defense recovered five of them and also intercepted two passes. As the Falcons' web site points out in its "By the Numbers" recap of Sunday's game, those seven takeaways are the most by an Atlanta team in 25 years. Seven also happens to be the number of rookies who were on the field on defense for most of the game, and some are wondering if the preseason purge of such veterans as DE John Abraham – who has played well for the 9-5 Arizona Cardinals this year – is a major factor in Atlanta's fall from first to last. The Buccaneers replaced Abraham with another veteran pass-rusher, former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora, who started the season out strong but has seen his production tail off, leading to him being pushed to a reserve role this past weekend. Umenyiora did produce a sack in that role, and Smith indicated the idea was to get more quality with less quantity out of the veteran end. “We wanted to work Osi in our sub-package," said Smith. "In the way they presented the formations early in the ballgame, he was not out there. We wanted to put him on a pitch count a get him ramped up rushing the passer and I think it paid dividends. He did a very good job rushing the passer for us today in basically a DPR role.” The Falcons could look for a new pass-rusher in next year's draft, but Ledbetter explains that the win over Washington may have pushed the team out of range to get the top defensive prospect, South Carolina's Jadaveon Clowney. He cites an SI.com mock draft – an early, early mock draft – as matching Clowney with the Redskins' second-overall pick (a pick actually belonging to the Rams), and the Falcons going with Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews. The Falcons' need for a pass-rusher would be greater if Jonathan Babineaux is not back in 2014. ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure notes that Babineaux has quietly had a strong season on a struggling Atlanta defense, and that the pending free agent wants to return to Atlanta. There have been no reports of progress on a new contract for Babineaux, but Smith said the Falcons want him to stick around, as well. "Jonathan's been an integral part of our success here,: he said, "and I can hope that he continues to be an Atlanta Falcon. We all do.''
In Carolina, the Panthers are flying high again after their 30-20 win over the New York Jets and the Saints' 27-16 loss in St. Louis put the two teams back into a tie at the top of the division. Essentially, the 10-4 Panthers and 10-4 Saints each "control their own destiny," as the saying goes, because they are converging on a rematch this coming Sunday in Charlotte. The Saints would wrap up the division and a first-round bye with a win over the Panthers thanks to the head-to-head sweep, while Carolina would only need to follow a victory over the Saints with a Week 17 win at Atlanta to get that same prize. The Saints had pulled ahead in the division with their dominant 31-13 win over Carolina in New Orleans in Week 14, but the Panthers are confident going into Sunday's rematch at Bank of America Stadium knowing that the Saints have lost four of their last five road games. The Charlotte Observer does point out a scenario in which Carolina misses the postseason altogether, but Panther players are thinking in a much different direction after their boss' prediction about the Saints came true in Week 15. “He said keep believing and keep working, because the Saints are going to lose one on the road and we’re going to play them in two weeks for the division title,” said T Jordan Gross of his head coach, Ron Rivera. "That guy believes, man. It’s pretty infectious.” The Panthers' chances would decrease significantly if they were to lose QB Cam Newton, which is why halftime was a bit of a frightening time for its fans on Sunday. Newton went to the locker room just before the half after injuring his toe, but ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas reports that the injury is minor and not expected to affect the quarterback next week. In the same post, Yasinskas says Rivera has not yet ruled out a return by injured RB DeAngelo Williams in Week 17 of the regular season. Even without Stewart on Sunday, the Panthers and their eighth-ranked rushing attack racked up 131 of their 397 total yards on the ground. RB DeAngelo Williams not only ran for 81 yards but also caught a 72-yard touchdown pass, as the Panthers used big plays to put away the Jets. One of those big plays came on defense, as CB Captain Munnerlyn intercepted a fourth-quarter Geno Smith pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. The Panthers' defensive backs hadn't taken kindly to Jets WR Santonio Holmes calling the secondary the "weakest link" on Carolina's second-ranked defense, and they tried to set a physical tone early, according to Jets WR David Nelson. "It seemed like even if the ball wasn't in our hands, even if Geno was scrambling, it seemed like they were targeting -- not targeting, I don't want to use that word, but they were trying to be physical with us," Nelson said. "They tried to set the tone on the first series. It died down as the game went on, but you could definitely tell the comments didn't go over too well with them."
In New Orleans, the Saints are still resisting the label of a team that can't sustain its usual level of play on the road, though LB Curtis Lofton concedes that they are "proving everybody right" lately. Lofton says the main problem is not getting the game started off well, something that has to change if the Saints are going to lock down the division on Sunday in Charlotte. “I think that when you are playing on the road you have to be focused and you have to have energy from the play one," he said. "You can’t play catch up football and I feel like that is what we have been doing on the road. We have to come out and start fast, not only start fast, but we have to finish strong. We have to do that against Carolina.” Head Coach Sean Payton also pointed to the Saints' younger roster this season as a reason the team has been unable to overcome big momentum shifts on the road. It wasn't a rookie but fourth-year left tackle Charles Brown who was pulled by Payton midway through Sunday's loss in St. Louis, as noted in this playtime report. Terrance Harris of the New Orleans Times-Picayune looks at that move, in which right tackle Zach Strief was moved to the left edge and inexperienced second-year man Bryce Harris came in on the right, and wonders how Brown will respond this week. Payton could choose to stick with that O-Line arrangement, and he is reportedly contemplating some other moves – perhaps even replacing up-and-down K Garrett Hartley – with the understanding of how important Sunday's game in Charlotte is. "It's our jobs very quickly here with an important game coming up to make corrections -- and then also to look closely at who we're asking to do certain things," said Payton. "Whether it's [the kicker], the tackle position, whether it's a player on defense, the one thing I know I don't want to do is just repeat the process over and over again. So we're gonna look closely at what our options are and what gives us the best chance as we get ready to play this coming week and then obviously one week remaining." QB Drew Brees says he remains very confident in Brown, and was also pleased to see both Strief and Harris play well in their new roles. Brees also thinks the offense could potentially benefit from a simpler game plan, which may once again speak to the youth on the roster. There were already quite a few changes on the Saints' defense coming into 2013, following a disastrous 2012 campaign in which they broke the NFL record for most yards allowed, and for the most part they have worked well. The Saints have improved dramatically to fifth in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed, and they have been particularly good against the pass. However, the Saints now rank 21st in the NFL against the run after Zac Stacy and the Rams racked up 144 yards on them. The Times-Picayune's Ron Clements said the Saints had no answer for St. Louis' ground game.