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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC South Roundup: Week 16

The division standings were shuffled on Sunday and Monday, leaving both the Saints and Falcons controlling their own fates but the Panthers still very much alive with two weeks to go.


The New Orleans Saints tweaked their defense and got an immediate payoff in Chicago, riding three interceptions and seven sacks to a dominant victory that put them back in first place in the NFC South. Carolina survived the absence of QB Cam Newton, slipping by the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers to remain right behind the Saints and set up a big game in Week 16 against the visiting Cleveland Browns. Even the Falcons, who lost at home to Pittsburgh and slipped to third place in the division standings, can still make the playoffs by winning out in Weeks 16 and 17, and that job will be easier if WR Julio Jones returns from his hip injury. With everything on the line and less than a fortnight left in the 2014 NFL regular season, it's time once again for our weekly check of the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division.


We'll start this week in New Orleans, because that's where the division standings began after an important Monday night win in Chicago keyed by a much-improved performance by the New Orleans' defense. A week after the Panthers rolled over them in a critical 41-10 defeat in the Superdome, the Saints tinkered with their defensive lineup and came up with three interceptions and seven sacks against Jay Cutler on Monday night. Among the new starters were S Jamarca Sanford and CB Terrence Frederick, and the defense also spent more of the game in a 3-4 alignment than in recent weeks.

Second-year S Kenny Vaccaro was "demoted" from the starting lineup in the process but still played extensively in the nickel, seeing action on 70% of the defensive snaps, and the shakeup paid off immediately. "A lot of people are gonna go in the tank, get mad. I wasn't mad," said Vaccaro. "I'm a team player, whatever my coach wants me to do, that's what I'm gonna do." Meanwhile, the Saints' defense continued a recent trend by being coolly efficient and nearly mistake-free in road games, with QB Drew Brees leading the way.


While throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions, Brees also recorded his 85th 300-yard outing in 200 career games, while the Saints improved to 12-4 on Monday Night Football since 2006. The win was a big one for the Saints, as it coupled with an Atlanta loss to Pittsburgh to put New Orleans in the lead in the NFC South. New Orleans, which plays host to the Falcons next Sunday in the Superdome, can take the division crown by winning its last two games. The Saints could even clinch the division in Week 16 if they win and the Panthers lost to the visiting Cleveland Browns, but, amazingly, the Saints could also be eliminated in Week 16. John DeShazier of the Saints' web site writes that, a week after a loss the team referred to as "embarrassing," the game in Chicago showed the NFL the type of team the Saints could be with the playoffs looming. "I just think we responded well as a team," said Brees after the game, as reported by DeShazier. "We were embarrassed about what happened last week and we know we're better than that. Certainly, a great sense of urgency going into this game, just knowing what's at stake and what a win would do for us, not only in the standings but just from a confidence standpoint."

Monday's win was the third in a row on the road for the Saints, as the team's home-road narrative continues to be flipped on its head. New Orleans has also lost four in a row at the Superdome after winning the previous 11 at home. Will Brinson of writes about the Saints' suddenly competent work away from Louisiana while also noting that they are on a path to starting the playoffs at home with a record of .500 or worse. The Saints head back home in Week 16, of course, and Brees says it's important for his team to handle success as well as it handled adversity after that Week 14 loss to the Panthers.**



The good news in Atlanta is that, even with the loss to Pittsburgh and a drop to third place in the division standings, the Falcons still "control their own playoff destiny," as the saying goes. That's because Atlanta's remaining two games are against their two division-title competitors, and the Falcons aren't taking that remaining bit of good fortune for granted. "Honestly, it's a blessing to be in the situation that we're in right now," said WR Devin Hester. "Even though we're not putting up the (wins) we should, God has continued to put us in the right position every time. We've got to start playing like the position that we're in."

Considering all of the possibilities over the next two weeks, ESPN's Vaughn McClure considers it "improbable" for the Falcons to take the division crown, though not impossible, after the Saints' "momentum-building win." However, there is additional good news in Atlanta: The team seems confident that Julio Jones, perhaps the NFL's best receiver, will be back in action in New Orleans on Sunday after missing the Pittsburgh game with a hip injury. That's obviously good news, but at least one observer thinks the Falcons' over-reliance on Jones – and the fact that QB Matt Ryan must play a near-perfect game for the team to win – is a problem that must be rectified.


Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution * hit on several similar notes but also pointed out that Atlanta's lack of a pass rush continues to be one of the team's main problems. The Falcons will *not be getting CB Robert Alford back this season; he was placed on injured reserve on Monday and the team subsequently promoted rookie CB Ricardo Allen from the practice squad to the active roster. If the Falcons do win the division, they'll join the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only teams to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record, but Head Coach Mike Smith says that won't matter once the postseason is underway. "When it's all said and done, you're not going to remember what your seed was (or) what your record was," said Smith. "It's that you're in the second season. That's our goal every single year and the easiest way, and the clearest path to the second season is to win your division."

As the Falcons prepare for their do-or-die game in New Orleans on Sunday, they are keeping a hit made by Vaccaro on Atlanta QB Matt Ryan in the first meeting at the front of their minds. WR Roddy White vowed not to let it happen again without some kind of response. Rookie T Jake Matthews is still upset about that hit, as well, but he seems equally angry about the protection lapse that allowed it to happen. Even with the playoff race coming to a head, the Falcons also continue to make news off the field as a result of the efforts to get a new stadium built. The NFL has agreed to waive league debt rules to allow the team to borrow additional funds for the stadium project, the budget for which has increased this year to $1.4 billion.**



Finally, in Carolina the Panthers are feeling good about their playoff chances again after a second straight victory kept them within a half-game of the division lead at 5-8-1. "People can make all the jokes they want," said WR Jerricho Cotchery, who scored his team's only touchdown in a 19-17 win over the Bucs on Sunday. "We are playing meaningful football in December." Unlike the Saints and Falcons, however, the Panthers can't make the playoffs without a little help, some of which could come from the Buccaneers.

Starting QB Cam Newton is probably feeling a little better, too, as he's now a week removed from the frightening auto accident that left him with two transverse process fractures in his back. Whether or not Newton returns to the lineup in Week 16 could be a matter of how well he can protect himself, but even if he is sidelined for another game or two the team has confidence in reserve QB Derek Anderson. Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula joked that he had to tear up about 30% of the playbook – mostly involving plays with the QB running – when Anderson stepped in, but says the team is in good hands with the veteran at the helm. Carolina also had the advantage of a tuned-in Newton helping on the sideline on Sunday against the Buccaneers; apparently, Newton even suggested a key passing play that helped extend Carolina's final clock-killing drive.


Anderson has actually started two games for the Panthers this year, both against the Buccaneers and both victories. If he gets a third start on Sunday it will be against the Cleveland Browns, a team he left under unhappy circumstances in 2009. The Browns recently made their own change at quarterback, going to rookie Johnny Manziel against Cincinnati on Sunday. Even though it was a very tough debut for the former Heisman Trophy winner, Panther defenders are still intrigued by the challenge of facing Manziel. The Panthers were facing the possible loss of one of their key defensive players, too, when LB Thomas Davis went down with a leg injury in the second half on Sunday. Davis has been diagnosed with a hyperextended knee but Head Coach Ron Rivera thinks his starting weakside 'backer will be on the field to start practice on Wednesday.

The Panthers' defense is also getting another contributor back as DE Frank Alexander has been reinstated after missing 10 games due to suspensions arising from violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Rivera will have to see Alexander in action on the practice field before deciding how big of a role he will have over the next two weeks (and possibly in the playoffs). "We've got to make sure he's in football shape, and then we'll make a decision later in the week," said Rivera. "Coming out of training camp, he was our number three defensive end, and then obviously the situation and circumstances changed. It will be good to have him back and see what kind of impact he can potentially have."**


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