A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
The Falcons made a big statement in Week 15, shutting out the defending-champion New York Giants and moving to within one win of home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. With games remaining against the Lions and Buccaneers, the Falcons are also hoping to get William Moore back from injury to put their outstanding safety tandem back together for the final stretch run. The Saints also got a shutout this weekend, at the expense of the Bucs, their first in 17 years, and that has sparked talk of a momentum-changing end to the season in New Orleans. Even the Panthers, who started the season at 2-8, are riding a hot streak, having won two games in a row for the first time all year as Cam Newton continues to improve.
In Atlanta, the Falcons closed in on a first-round playoff bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but perhaps even more importantly proved to themselves they could win a big game by blanking the defending-champion Giants, 34-0 on Sunday. "It's very important," said Head Coach Mike Smith, who watched his team improve to 12-2. "They don't remember what you do in September and October. It's all about December and January. We've been saying we haven't played our best. We haven't played our best game and when we watch the game tomorrow we'll probably have that same opinion. The guys did a very nice job across the board in all three phases." QB Matt Ryan was extremely efficient in the win over the Giants, completing 23 of 28 passes for 270 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 142.6 passer rating. According to Pat Yasinskas' NFC South Blog on ESPN.com, Ryan was especially lethal when the Giants tried to blitz, averaging 15.1 yards per attempt. "I thought Matt had one of his best games since he's been here," said Smith on Monday. "He ran the offense extremely well, exuded a lot of confidence, and I think that permeated around the team. I think as you guys know it's a quarterback driven League and when he plays well you enhance your chances. I thought Matt played well in the game yesterday." The Giants' Eli Manning, in contrast, had two interceptions, no touchdowns and a 38.9 passer rating. It didn't help that his first pass of the game was picked off by CB Asante Samuel. Thomas DeCoud, half of the Falcons' underrated safety tandem, later got his sixth pick of the season. The other half of that duo, William Moore, has missed the last two games due to a hamstring injury but will test out his leg with the Falcons' training staff on Tuesday in hopes of returning to practice this week. Atlanta is also getting reserve offensive lineman Joe Hawley back from a four-game suspension this week.
In Carolina, the Panthers are riding their first two-game winning streak of the season and have come out on top in three of the last four weeks after rolling the Chargers in San Diego, 31-7. One unifying factor during that stretch has been the outstanding play of second-year QB Cam Newton, who struggled a bit more than expected in the season's first half. Against the Chargers, Newton threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns and was not picked off. "He has really improved, especially with checking it down to the second read or dumping it off to the backs, or with getting the ball out of harm's way and throwing it out of bounds," said offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. "Those are the things that quarterbacks can do to keep drives alive. We've been good at creating big plays and getting things down the field. He's doing a good job of stringing those together with the checkdowns and the short passing game." Newton's improved decision-making has led to a franchise-record 152 straight passes without an interception. He and the Panthers are finishing the season strong for the second straight year, which may bode well for 2013 but also has the team thinking of what could have been. "There were a lot of plays that could have gone 50/50 and a lot of things we wish we could have done better," said Newton said of the Panthers' 2-8 start. "We've been through a lot this season to say the least. To grow from it is the only thing we can do, and that's what we have been doing." As the 2013 offseason approaches, the Panthers are searching for a new general manager to replace Marty Hurney, who was relieved of his post in November. Rivera is not yet sure if he will suffer the same fate, but he is expected to speak with team owner Jerry Richardson immediately after the end of the season. "I believe Mr. Richardson will decide our fate, as far as that's concerned," said Rivera of himself and his staff, which is in its second season in Carolina. Rivera would like an opportunity to continue the process of building a winner in Carolina, saying he has learned a lot during his first two years as NFL head coach. "The biggest thing is management," he said. "I'll put myself up against anybody with Xs and Os. I'm very confident about that. But I have had to learn a lot. You're managing 61 [players] and 17 coaches, and it's a little bit different. You're also managing the time as far as practices and schedules."
In New Orleans, the Saints are obviously feeling good after getting their first season sweep of the Buccaneers since 2006 and their first shutout of any team since 1995. That second accomplishment was a surprise, given that the Saints came in with the league's 32nd-ranked defense and had surrendered 513 yards to Josh Freeman and company in the first matchup at midseason. But the Saints' coaching staff has not believed the rankings have accurately described the team's defensive performance for some time, and Sunday's game was part of a second-half surge by that crew. "I think we've all said this as this year has progressed: This defense has really gotten better every week," said interim Head Coach Joe Vitt. "I think it comes with product knowledge. I think as hard as they work, as good of teachers as Spags [Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] and the rest of defensive staff are, as much pride as you have in these players that worked hand-in-hand to get better every single week…We knew there was going to be a learning curve. There is nobody that is patient in this business. Our defense has progressed [as] they have learned the core beliefs of Spags and Spags has a better understanding of what he can ask a player to do and not be able to do because schemes don't win, people win. I think it's been very impressive to watch." As the New Orleans Times-Picayune pointed out after Sunday's game, the 6-8 Saints are still mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, though the scenarios are so unlikely that the New Orleans players aren't really focused on that possibility. "Even though maybe that Super Bowl trophy can't be ours this year, we still have a lot to play for," said QB Drew Brees, who threw four touchdown passes against the Bucs for the second time this season. "We have a very prideful group of guys, but also we have guys that understand the big picture, and that is that we're going to be here for a long time. We can start building the foundation of something now that will carry over for years to come. Obviously there was a renewed focus, maybe a new set of goals for these last three weeks, the way we want to close out the season. I think earlier in the week, I know offensively, it was kind of decided that we want to do what we hang our hat on, now is the time. Certainly, there was a sense of urgency."