In Atlanta, the Falcons will be gearing up for another shot to play spoiler after their dramatic game in San Francisco. Atlanta closes with a home game against the Carolina Panthers, and while it can’t keep its division foe out of the playoffs, it can keep Carolina from winning the division and earning a first-round bye. A Falcons win paired with a New Orleans victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday would give those spoils to the Saints. Atlanta’s game in San Francisco turned on a tipped-ball 89-yard pick-six by 49ers LB NaVorro Bowman, a play that did not diminish how well Falcons QB Matt Ryan played throughout the evening. Despite a 4-10 record and a two-score deficit, the Falcons were still fighting in all four quarters on Monday night, nearly pulling off a comeback on a Tony Gonzalez touchdown catch and a successful onside kick. “The guys in that locker room are the most resilient guys I’ve ever been around,” said Head Coach Mike Smith after the game. “They fight their tails off. We want to finish strong, we want to continue to play hard, we want to continue to work on our execution, and they did that all night long. They played extremely hard.” After the game, the Falcons talked about the night’s momentum swings and the their refusal to quit. “It’s a game of momentum,” said Ryan. “We started off a little slow offensively, but we were going against a very good defense. You kind of know that there are going to be drives where you stall out. You just have to stay patient and stick with the plan. I thought we did a great job of that. I though the second quarter and the fourth quarter that we had the momentum. We just couldn’t find a way to get it done.” Gonzalez’s fourth-quarter scoring catch was the 111th touchdown of his sure-to-be Hall of Fame career, which is now down to a single remaining game. The Falcons’ web site celebrates that 17-year career with a wide-ranging photo gallery, and says Gonzalez is still trying to improve using something called “fusionetrics.” Atlanta’s loss at Candlestick did, of course, help the team’s eventual draft status next spring, but a rash of losses by the other teams with similar records meant the Falcons didn’t move up in the order. In that analysis, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter also ticks off the reasons that Atlanta went from the #1 NFC playoff seed in 2012 to a shot at the first pick in the draft in 2013: 1) A veteran roster purge; 2) Injuries; 3) O-Line troubles; and 4) Lack of a pass-rush. That injury bug struck again last night when starting DT Corey Peters sustained an Achilles tendon injury; his status for the season finale will be updated on Tuesday. Peters was certainly not feeling good about the injury in its immediate aftermath, breaking down in tears on the sideline. As the Falcoholic blog points out, Peters is due to become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason; his injury could play a role in whether he stays in Atlanta or finds other suitors.
In Carolina, the Panthers are still buzzing about the play of linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Sunday’s comeback win over the Saints. Kuechly piled up an incredible 24 tackles and Davis added 14 stops, and both players turned in key interceptions. ESPN.com’s David Newton was so impressed by Kuechly’s efforts that he made the case for the Panthers’ defensive quarterback as the NFL MVP, an award almost certain to go to an actual quarterback. The coaches’ film review upped Kuechly’s total to 26, but either number topped the Panthers’ previous single-game record of 20; in addition, he became the first linebacker since the Bucs’ own Derrick Brooks in 2001 to have 20 tackles and an interception in the same game. That’s the good news. The bad news for Panthers fans: wide receiver Steve Smith sustained a knee injury against New Orleans that is almost certain to keep him out of Sunday’s game at Atlanta. Head Coach Ron Rivera called Smith “highly doubtful” for the Week 17 game in Atlanta but the receiver was actually encouraged by the diagnosis because there is a belief he could return for the playoffs, especially if the Panthers earn a first-round bye. ESPN.com’s Newton believes that will be important because there is nobody to replace what Smith brings to the Panthers’ offense. Carolina clinched a playoff spot with their Week 16 win and can take the division title and a first-round bye with another victory in Atlanta in Week 17. There is even a scenario that makes the Panthers the NFC’s top seed, which would necessitate a 49ers win and a Seattle loss. Smith was already out of Sunday’s game when the Panthers took the field in sloppy conditions with 55 seconds left, needing a score to avoid a 13-10 loss. Newton promptly led one of the best drives of his career, ending in a game-winning touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon. Newton’s presence in the huddle at the start of the drive impressed his teammates. “He just said, ‘Let’s get it done,’” said tackle Jordan Gross. “He went into his focus mode. He wasn’t the jovial self that he can sometimes be.” That final drive was only possible because the Carolina defense forced a three-and-out after the offense punted away just at the two-minute warning. Rivera has earned the nickname of “Riverboat Ron” this season for a series of successful gambles on fourth down, but in this case he elected to punt and Panthers.com Senior Writer Brian Strickland said that move was actually another gamble. "Despite his nickname, I thought that was the right call – especially now that it worked out," said Gross. "That was a gutsy call, just like going for a fourth-and-one is. He put it in the hands of the defense." That defense may be the NFL’s best, especially when Kuechly and Davis dominate as they did on Sunday. They are not the only Panther stars on that side of the ball, however. DE Greg Hardy, who had three of Carolina’s six sacks of Drew Brees Sunday, helped the Panthers’ defensive line set the tone of the game early. "They did an outstanding job, and Greg was the leader of that group,” said Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott. “ Just a great job on his part, and we got some great push to help him out as well."
In New Orleans, the Saints are treating their regular-season finale against the Buccaneers as a de facto playoff game, focusing on getting into the postseason field rather than the different division-winning and bye-earning scenarios. “The main thing is, there’ll be a lot of different scenarios,” said Head Coach Sean Payton. “We’re approaching this like a playoff game itself. There’s a handful of things that we can’t control, but we can control this week. I think the key for us is to handle the holiday week, put together a good plan and a good set of practices and put our focus into playing our best football Sunday. We control one thing. We know if we’re able to go out and play well and win, we’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.” Payton said he doesn’t want his team focusing on what others are doing early Sunday afternoon, but that’s now a possibility after the Bucs-Saints contest was flexed to 4:25 p.m. ET. The Saints will have to play that game without the services of outstanding rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who suffered a broken ankle on Sunday in Charlotte. Terrance Harris of the New Orleans Times-Picayune says that replacing Vaccaro in the defense means more than upping the playing time of veteran safety Roman Harper because the rookie’s versatility had him on the field on a lot of different roles. The Saints had already made a significant lineup change on offense in Week 16, but this one was not prompted by injury, nor was it particularly successful. The struggles of Charles Brown at left tackle prompted Payton to go with untested rookie Terron Armstead, who got his first extended NFL action. While Armstead’s play was panned by many, Payton said the rookie would “absolutely” get a second start on Sunday, and that game tape review showed the outing to be more encouraging. “Grading him out, I think, and I’ve read a handful of different articles about his performance,” said Payton. “Certainly there are growing pains, but there are a lot of things that he did very well. I think as a staff going through the tape now twice, I was extremely encouraged by the way he played.” The Saints’ latest loss was their fifth on the road this season – they are 7-0 at home – and Payton had said before the game that it was now “valid” to question his team’s problems away from the Superdome. Now, unless they get some help from the Falcons, the Saints would have to open the postseason on the road – likely in Philly, Dallas, Chicago or Green Bay – if they make it into the playoff field. In a way, the game at Carolina could help the Saints in that situation because, despite the loss, they felt as if they played a solid game. “Of course it is painful, but we are trying to draw from the positives," said Brees. "We put together a game plan that I really felt like we executed for the most part really well, both offensively and defensively. And, you know, it didn't result in a lot of points, it didn't result in a lot of flair. But the fact of the matter is it gave us a chance to win in the end. [There are] just a couple little things here and there that I think we recognize that we can still improve upon. But it's all out there in front of us."