- Atlanta has lost RB Antone Smith for the rest of the season but has gained a share of first place
- Carolina has gotten a series of slow starts from QB Cam Newton but still had a chance to win on Sunday
- The Saints' offense uncharacteristically lacked big plays against Cincinnati in the Superdome
The Atlanta Falcons' Antone Smith is done for the season and that's likely the case for the New Orleans Saints Brandin Cooks, too, but the good news for those two teams is that they are tied atop the division with six games to play. Atlanta recorded a huge win in Carolina on Sunday, catching the Saints at 4-6 and also sending the reeling Panthers to their sixth straight loss or tie. The Panthers also put their starting right tackle, Nate Chandler, on injured reserve, and are fielding criticism about conservative play-calling. With six weeks to go and two games separating all four squads in the NFC South, it's time once again for our weekly check of the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division.
In Atlanta, the Falcons captured the division's most important win of the weekend but also may have absorbed the toughest losses on the depth chart. Atlanta's 19-17 decision in Charlotte might have been an "ugly" win to some observers, but the result was a share of first place in the division. As the Falcons try to vault from that position to an NFC South title, they'll have to do it without RB Antone Smith for the remainder of the year thanks to a broken leg, and without starting CB Robert Alford for up to a month due to a fractured wrist. Smith is listed third on Atlanta's depth chart and actually had the fourth-highest number of carries on the team, but he has provided a series of big plays and five total touchdowns. With him sidelined, Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman should see more action behind starter Steven Jackson. "Antone has done some really good things for us, not only on special teams, which he's an ace on our special team unit, but he's also a guy when he touches the ball he's got the ability to take it the distance," said Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith. "He's created a lot of explosive plays for us, and he'll be someone that we'll miss, but it'll give touches and some other opportunities for other guys to touch the ball." Alford is tied with S Kemal Ishmael for the team lead with three interceptions but it is fellow second-year CB Desmond Trufant who has been turning heads with his play of late. As ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure reported, the Falcons like the 'swagger' with which Trufant has been playing. "I like to say he's a very confident player," said Smith. "He's confident in his abilities. There's been times that we've asked him to shadow and mirror certain receivers throughout the season, depending on what our game plan is. And he's up for that challenge. ...He's had some opportunities to really make some big plays for us, and he's done that." Atlanta needed good work from the secondary against the Panthers because the offense wasn't at the top of its game and needed four field goals from Matt Bryant to pull it out. Still, QB Matt Ryan set a new team record with his 20th fourth-quarter comeback win while WR Roddy White surpassed 10,000 receiving yards for his career. White is the 42nd player to hit that mark and the eighth among active players. Atlanta has won two in a row after a five-game losing streak, both within the division, and at 4-6 have caught the Saints at the top. They currently have the tiebreaker edge but a series of 1,000 simulations run by Grantland.com still considers the Saints the favorite, giving them the division 59.0% of the time as compared to 33.1% for the Falcons. Now that they've notched their fourth win within the division, the Falcons need to prove they can beat a team from another division; currently, they're 0-6 in such games. Up next is the Cleveland Browns in Atlanta, and Smith is expecting Cleveland to give his team a full dose of WR Josh Gordon, who was just reinstated after a 10-game suspension.
In Carolina, the Panthers are 3-7-1 and still right in the thick of the NFC South race despite a six-game winless streak. Ron Rivera's team, have a history of finishing strong, and this time it could give them the division title if it happened again. "As crazy as it seems, we still have an opportunity, said Rivera. "We play each of those teams one more time, and if we take care of our business and put ourselves in position, we have a chance to win the NFC South," Rivera said. "We're in the middle of a division race, and I don't believe it's faint hope; I believe it's strong hope. That's how I feel about our team." The Panthers had a chance to snap their losing streak and pull within a half-game of first place on Sunday against Atlanta, but usually reliable K Graham Gano missed a 46-yarder that would have put Carolina up with just over a minute to play. Before that try, Gano had not missed a field goal at home in the previous two years. Unfortunately, Gano has an extra week to think about the miss as the Panthers head into their bye week, but that rest will be much appreciated by several injured teammates. Jumbo RB Mike Tolbert is expected to return after missing eight weeks with a fracture in his leg; he was activated on Tuesday, taking a roster spot opened when starting right tackle Nate Chandler was placed on injured reserve. The Panthers also cleared another roster spot with the release of WR Jason Avant, insisting the move had nothing to do with Avant's criticism of the team's play-calling. As for that issue, Rivera and Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula are drawing barbs for being too conservative, which would represent a drastic switch from the approach that earned Rivera his "Riverboat Ron" nickname during last year's division title run. The Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person writes that the team failed to "go for the jugular" in the plays leading up to Gano's miss, instead trying to "rid the Falcons via death by paper cuts." ESPN.com's David Newton says beleaguered Panthers QB Cam Newton can use the bye week to work on footwork, specifically stepping into his throws, and also notes that slow starts have become a major problem for the fourth-year passer. Newton has been outstanding in the fourth quarters this season, with an 8-1 TD-INT ratio and a 113.1 passer rating that ranks third in the NFL. In the first three quarters, however, Newton has tossed just four touchdown passes against nine interceptions. Indeed, Newton's third pass of the game against Atlanta was intercepted, quickly putting him in the team's record book thanks to a streak of seven straight games with at least one pick thrown. The Observer's Jonathan Jones reports that Newton is taking the heat, noting that he has to play better. "I know I'm better than how I'm playing," said Newton in Jones' story. "The ball just wasn't falling our way early. Anytime when you get in a game like that, Coach says when you play just good enough, you play good enough to get beat, too."
Actually, it might bein New Orleans, where an NFC South is dealing with the most significant injury of the weekend. Brandin Cooks was right in the thick of a rather incredible race to the finish among the receivers of the Class of 2014, but now he is out for at least a month, and perhaps the balance of the season, with a broken thumb. NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal says the injury means more action for Robert Meachem and Joe Morgan, and an opportunity for Kenny Stills to gain even more targets. The Saints also lost safety Rafael Bush – who was starting in place of Jairus Byrd, an earlier I.R. victim – to a broken leg, which has left the team thin at that position and perhaps needing to "look outside the building" for some help. The one healthy Saints safety is 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, who stirred things up with some postgame comments after the team's loss to Cincinnati about a lack of chemistry and undisciplined play. Head Coach Sean Payton said he liked the passion behind Vaccaro's comments and noted that the young safety was still playing hard in the waning minutes of a 17-point defeat. "When you watched that game towards the end when there's a pretty good chance that the score's gonna finish in the Bengals'] favor, I love watching how he's playing," said Payton, as reported by ESPN.com's Mike Triplett. "When you put that tape on later in the game when it appears that you know what the result is, watching the effort and watching the energy, that's a good evaluation. And I love the attitude and the toughness he brings." Triplett also reports [Payton as agreeing that the Saints were "flat" on Sunday, but says the team is in a tough spot because, despite a 4-6 record and two straight home losses, the team is still tied for first and has played very well at times this year. Next weekend, the Saints will enjoy a third straight game at home, where they had not lost for nearly two years before a narrow defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10, and they are focusing on starting a stretch run. "It's pretty obvious, it's a six-game stretch for us," said Payton. "Not really paying attention to the other teams and what they have to do. Fortunately, we've got a handful of NFC games remaining, we've got three divisional games remaining. But the focus is much shorter than that. The focus is the first step in this stretch of six games, and it's Baltimore at home." If it's unusual for the Saints to lose in the Superdome, it's even more strange to see Drew Brees and the team's explosive offense lack, well, explosion. New Orleans did not record an offensive play of longer than 17 yards in the loss to Cincinnati, but Payton said the team did not come in with a conservative game plan. "I don't think we went in with a conservative game plan," said Payton. "They play a lot of zone to begin with. We had a few shot opportunities, and yet they did a real good job of trying to stay on top. We were obviously going to have to move the ball underneath and do it with some balance."