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NFC South Roundup: Week Seven

Posted Oct 15, 2013

News from around the division, where the Saints took their first loss in painful fashion, the Falcons got some much-needed time to heal and the Panthers continued their recent roller coaster ride

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Falcons will likely get RB Jason Snelling back to face the Bucs on Sunday, but RB Steven Jackson's status is less clear
  • The Panthers got a dominant win in Minnesota behind aggressive play-calling and one of Cam Newton's best performances
  • The Saints appear to have dodged a bullet with the injury to TE Jimmy Graham, who could return to action after the bye
A last-second Tom Brady touchdown pass in Foxborough has the New Orleans Saints dissecting a loss for the first time this season, but the Carolina Panthers are feeling good after a dominating win in Minnesota.  The Atlanta Falcons didn't play this past weekend, taking advantage of a much-needed bye that could solve some – but definitely not all – of their injury woes.  With the Saints now getting their turn to take a weekend off and the Falcons getting ready for a visit from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the division once again.

**

In Atlanta, the Falcons are hoping that their bye week will cure some of their many ailments, though there will be no return for star wide receiver Julio Jones, who is out for the season with a foot injury that required surgery.  The team filled his spot with wideout Brian Robiskie, the son of Falcons Wide Receivers Coach Terry Robiskie and a former second-round pick of the Cleveland Browns.  With Roddy White also ailing, the Falcons will look for more from such pass-catchers as Harry Douglas, Kevin Cones and the newly-signed Robiskie.  Meanwhile, running back Jason Snelling is back on the practice field and looks like a good bet to be ready to face the Buccaneers on Sunday as he returns from a concussion.  That's good news for the Falcons because there is less certainty about the weekend readiness of running back Steven Jackson, who hasn't played since Week Two due to a thigh injury.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that neither Jackson nor White took part in practice on Monday, and that starting left tackle Sam Baker was also held out.  Jones was hurt in Atlanta's Week Five home loss to the New York Jets just before the bye week, which not only weakened the depth chart but also dropped the defending division champs to 1-4.  That has prompted some outside speculation that the team might be ready to give up on the season and trade Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez (a notion that Head Coach Mike Smith calls "preposterous"), but ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure sees a way for Atlanta to get back into the playoff hunt, starting with a projected win this Sunday against Tampa Bay.  "Can the Falcons join the group?" writes McClure.  "It would take a dramatic turnaround by the defense, a dynamic effort from the $100 million quarterback [Matt Ryan] and maybe a little luck. Since Ryan and Smith joined the team in 2008, the Falcons have rattled off seven winning streaks of three games or more, including two eight-game winning streaks."  There are a few other problems that need to be corrected, according to White, who hasn't been much of a factor this year due to a high ankle sprain.  White says the Falcons lack an "identity" and aren't very good in the red zone.  D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Journal-Constitution points the finger elsewhere, saying the team's problems can be traced to poor play by the offensive line, which has been a season-long theme thanks in part to several injuries.  Meanwhile, with the Buccaneers scheduled to come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday, the staff for the team's web site looks at the top storylines to follow for the week, including the Bucs' approach to pass coverage and the Falcons' emerging dual-tight end threat.

-- Saints TE Jimmy Graham will have a bye week to deal with his foot injury
**

In Carolina, the Panthers' emotional pendulum has swung back to the positive side after a dominating 35-10 win in Minnesota.  Prior to that, the Panthers had been handled easily in a 22-6 Week Five loss at Arizona; had completely manhandled the Giants, 38-0, in Week Three before their bye; and had opened the season with consecutive losses.  Carolina returns home this weekend to take on the St. Louis Panthers and at least Chase Stuart of the New York Times thinks the team's roller coaster ride may stop.  Stuart sees signs of a breakout for Carolina, beginning with some more aggressive coaching from Ron Rivera in recent weeks.  Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer has seen the same thing and calls it a "welcome and overdue change" that may be Rivera's effort to remain the Panther's head coach beyond 2013. Rivera's fortunes will get a boost if third-year quarterback Cam Newton – also a popular target for criticism during the team's slow start – continues to play as he did in Minnesota, where he threw for three touchdowns, ran for a fourth and finished with a passer rating of 143.3.  Rivera called it one of Newton's finest performances as a pro.  "I liked the play calling coming out for the third quarter," said Rivera. "Cam was instantly engaged. He ran the ball, he had to make decisions on the reads. I think that really helped him."  The offense, which rang up 367 yards including 131 on the ground against the Vikings, could get even better with the potential return of running back Jonathan Stewart from the PUP list.  Stewart is eligible to begin practicing as early as this week but the team has up to three weeks to make that decision and then, from the point he starts practicing, three weeks before they have to make a roster move.  Of course, the Panthers already have the league's seventh-ranked rushing attack, but David Newton of ESPN.com reports that Rivera doesn't think the return of Stewart would upset the team's balance in the backfield.  As for Carolina's defense, which held Adrian Peterson to 62 yards and no touchdowns, it now ranks third in the entire NFL and has helped the Panthers outscore their opponents by 41 points.  Newton has thoughts on this, as well, pointing to the outstanding play of Thomas Davis at weakside linebacker as one of the reasons Carolina was willing to let go of LB Jon Beason in a recent trade with the Giants.  Senior Writer Bryan Strickland of the Panthers' web site agrees but adds safety Mike Mitchell to the list out strong defensive performers.

**

In New Orleans, the Saints are now five-and-one after a heartbreaking last-second loss at New England, and after returning from Foxborough, they're feeling…just fine, actually.  John DeShazier of the team web site lists 10 particularly good things from the Saints' first six games and contends that, even in first place in the division by 2.5 games, the Saints have yet to play their best football.  DeShazier points out that tight end Jimmy Graham is the league's leading receiver despite being completely shut out in New England for the first time since he's a rookie.  That's obviously a good thing, but part of the reason Graham got the goose-egg was because he left the game with a foot injury, which prompted an MRI that caused understandable concern for Saints fans (and fantasy football players).  Fortunately for the Saints, they now enter their bye week – strangely, the four NFC South teams took their byes in separate but consecutive weeks – which will give Graham time to heal before the Saints return to action against Buffalo in Week Eight.  Those same Saints fans breathed a little more easily on Tuesday when ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that there is optimism in the New Orleans organization that Graham's injury would prove minor.  If Graham's foot is fine, then opposing defenses will have to go back to figuring out how to stop him, which so far only the Patriots have done, partly by plastering CB Aqib Talib on coverage against him on Sunday.  The Patriots' defense employed a more physical style overall against the Saints' high-powered offense, but New Orleans isn't worried that a magic formula has been found to slow them down.  That's the analysis of ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, who also says that undrafted rookie RB Khiry Robinson is making a case for more playing time on offense.  Terrance Harris of the New Orleans Times-Picayune picks up that topic and discusses with Saints fans whether Robinson should get more carries.  Head Coach Sean Payton, who has been given a good amount of credit for the Saints' turnaround this year, took some heat after the loss to the Patriots for the play-calling on New Orleans' last possession.  Payton said he understood that a loss is going to focus more attention on single plays, but he said his coaches and players were handling it just fine.  "I thought the overall mood and spirits were good," he said.  "Obviously it was a tough loss and when you do it long enough they understand there are going to be some games like that where you are wrestling over one specific play or one sequence of plays.  We certainly do that as coaches and like I told them after the game, I was proud of how they played in the second half specifically.  We were able to get the stops defensively.  We weren’t able to get that one first down that we needed and gave them the opportunity to go ahead and win the game, which they did."

Game Rewind: Tampa Bay Buccaneers