A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
Atlanta was the lone NFC South team to claim a victory in Week 13, and as a result the Falcons also clinched the division title. The 6-6 Buccaneers and the 5-7 Saints both remain in Wild Card contention – and will play each other in what is likely a must-have game in Week 15 – while the Panthers are now tied for the worst record in the NFC. The Falcons' defense continues to thrive despite a string of injuries at the cornerback position, and the Saints beleaguered defense has also played two fairly strong games in a row, though both in defeat. Carolina is turning its attention to some of its younger players in hopes of getting them some experience for the 2013 season.
In Atlanta, the Falcons are celebrating their second NFC South title in the last three years, which was clinched by the Buccaneers' loss in Denver on Sunday, but they're still focused on another big goal this coming weekend. As run down by NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, there are a number of combinations of outcomes in Week 14 that could give Atlanta home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Falcons even have a shot at setting the franchise record with a 15-1 regular-season mark if they can win it, and they consider the upcoming schedule favorable. Atlanta began the process of clinching the division on Thursday night with a rousing 23-13 victory over the Saints, in the process snapping Drew Brees' NFL-record streak of 54 games with at least one touchdown pass. The Falcons' defense picked Brees off five times despite continued upheaval at their cornerback situation. Starter Asante Samuel re-injured a shoulder just three snaps into the game, which led to a much bigger role for Christopher Owens, and he responded well. "Asante knocked his shoulder again on the deep ball there," said Head Coach Mike Smith. "On the flip side of it, it was very good to see Christopher Owens to come in and man that corner position. I thought he did a nice job. He had a pass break up on a deep ball there in the second quarter and did some good things. He lined up at the corner position and we kept Robert McClain in his normal position at the nickel back." While the corners have dealt with a spate of injuries this year, and haven't had standout Brent Grimes since the season opener, the safety tandem of William Moore and Thomas DeCoud continues to play well at the back end of the secondary. They accounted for three of the five picks off Brees. "Both of those guys, fourth and fifth-year guys, are really starting to get an understanding of what it takes to be a top flight defensive back," said Smith. "I think they're both playing at a very high level right now."
In Carolina, the Panthers are coming off an emotional weekend, as well, for a highly unexpected and much less celebratory reason. It was Carolina that was scheduled to play in Kansas City just a day after Chiefs LB Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and then himself. The Panthers expected a charged atmosphere at Arrowhead Stadium and that's what they experienced in a 27-21 loss on Sunday. "I explained that it was going to be an emotional game for the Chiefs and that we had to raise our level to match their emotion and energy," said Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera on Monday. "The Chiefs played an inspired football game. You have to give them credit. They suffered through a very difficult time but they came together and rallied as a team." Though it was obviously nothing on the scale of the tragedy in Kansas City, the Panthers returned home with not only a loss but a significant injury. S Sherrod Martin will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee in Sunday's game. "It's very tough. The young man has played well," said Rivera. "We've been able to refocus him on the things he's needed to improve on, tackling being one of them. He has really done a nice job. His abilities seemed to start to show." The Panthers hope to use the final quarter of the season to finish strong after their loss in Kansas City dropped them to 3-9 and into a tie with Philadelphia for the NFC's worst record. However, they are also planning to give increased playing time to some of the team's younger players in the hopes of giving them a head start on the 2013 campaign. Rivera hopes he is around to see the benefits of that plan next fall. "As we go forward, you can say that, yes, we've played some young guys and have seen some good things and know that some of them can play as we look forward to next year…that's a big plus," he said. "People might say, 'You're just getting them ready for the next coach.' Well, I look at it like I'm getting them ready for me. I could be wrong but I'm not going to worry about that. I'm going to worry about these next four games, and then going forward we'll see what happens."
InNew Orleans, the Saints realize that the same game that led to Atlanta's division title also put them on the very fringe of the playoff race, with a 5-7 record. They are sure they will have to win their four remaining games, including one against the Buccaneers in Week 15, to have a chance. "We definitely need every win and we also need some help, too," said S Roman Harper. "We're taking all donations with other teams losing and we need to give us some wins too. The thing is, you like where our mindset is at as a team. Nobody is turning on anybody. Everybody is still confident. We believe in each other. Nobody is pointing fingers. You look at it, nobody wants to let the man down next to him." Harper went on to reference Brees' five-interception game on Thursday night, saying his teammates could see in the quarterback's eyes how much it bothered him. Not surprisingly, acting Head Coach Joe Vitt thinks Brees is taking too much of the blame, and expects him to be as effective as ever down the stretch. "I wouldn't except Drew to do anything else but take responsibility," said Vitt, "but really the responsibility falls on me to put our players in a different position and maybe work on some two-minute drills a little bit more. I have to do a better job at that. I think that Drew is well-prepared. He's prepared the last couple of weeks the same way as when I first knew him in '06 and again, sometimes you go on a little bit of a cool streak and you get balls tipped. You got the ball potentially on the wrong shoulder of a receiver and something catastrophic happens. This is a great quarterback with great intent. His best days are ahead of him. It was a bad night for our football team, not just Drew Brees." Lost in the turnover struggles was the fact that the Saints' defense showed improvement yet again. After holding an opponent under 400 yards for the first time all season in Week 12, the Saints held Atlanta under 300 yards, surrendering just 283, and only 159 through the air. "This defense is getting better every week," said Vitt, pointing in part to the continued improvement of former Falcons LB Curtis Lofton. "I think it's a credit to our coaches. I think it's an unbelievable credit to our players staying the course, not pointing fingers, working as hard as they can to get better."