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NFC South Spin cycle: Hard to doubt soaring Falcons

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Dan Parr

dparr@pfwmedia.com
Associate editor

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Posted Oct. 29, 2012 @ 1:24 p.m. ET
By Dan Parr

Half of the NFC South's teams went home happy with each club playing on the road in Week Eight. The Falcons returned to the elite form they displayed early in the season, and the Bucs had their most impressive win yet. However, the Panthers let another game slip away from them and the Saints were simply never able to get on track.

FALCONS

What we learned: It’s getting harder to doubt the Falcons. Yes, some league observers will not buy into Atlanta until it finally wins a playoff game. The Falcons, still undefeated, are doing all they can to ensure that they put themselves in excellent position to do just that. The Eagles have not played up to their potential this season, but they are a very talented team, and the Falcons never really let them get into the game Sunday in Philly. Atlanta countered every punch after building a 14-0 lead by the end of the first quarter of its 30-17 win. The Falcons are back to playing like a dominant team — closer to the one we saw in the first three weeks of the season than the second three — and a Week Seven bye appeared to serve the club well.

What’s in store next: The Falcons return home, where they have not lost since Nov. 13, 2011, to host the Cowboys, who are coming off another deflating loss, in a Sunday-night game. With the exception of a Week Two loss at Seattle, Dallas has played pretty well on the road this season, and it should be feeling a sense of urgency after falling to 3-4 in Week Eight. The Cowboys have said there is a chance RB DeMarco Murray will be able to return from the foot injury that has kept him out of their last two games. QB Tony Romo, who is on pace to throw 30 interceptions, could certainly use his help — the Cowboys averaged only 2.2 yards per carry in their past two games.

What the heck? From the department of weird — in 20 career games (nine at home, 11 on the road), WR Julio Jones is averaging 36 yards per game at home and 103 yards per game on the road. In his 11 career road games, he has 10 touchdown catches, including each of his last six road contests. He has three career home TD grabs, none of which have occurred this season. Also, all seven of his 100-yard games have been on the road. What does the Georgia Dome have against Jones?

PANTHERS

What we learned: The Panthers are finding ways to lose games, and it’s probably going to result in more big changes for a franchise that fired its general manager a week ago. They were in control for most of Sunday’s game at Soldier Field and were so close to knocking off one of the NFC’s best clubs on the road, which would have given them a signature win to build on. Instead, the chatter in the press box after the game was focused on questionable decisions by head coach Ron Rivera (he passed on a chance to attempt a 51-yard field goal at the end of the first half and was criticized for being too conservative on offense and defense in the second half) after his team blew a 19-7 fourth-quarter lead.

What’s in store next: It will be a showcase of two of the most immensely talented quarterbacks to enter the league in each of the past two seasons when Cam Newton and Carolina visit the Robert Griffin III-led Redskins on Sunday. Both of the teams have seen better days. They have lost multiple key defensive starters to injury this season and are on losing streaks (two games for Washington and five for Carolina), but the Redskins, 3-5, are still not completely out of the wild-card picture in the NFC.

What the heck? The Panthers are now 0-2 this season when they record six sacks or more and they have wasted solid defensive efforts in each of the past three games. Carolina sacked Jay Cutler six times (all in the first half) Sunday after sacking Falcons QB Matt Ryan a franchise-record-tying seven times in Week Four. It’s generally a winning signal to get to the quarterback with such frequency, but this season’s Panthers are defying logic with their futility.

SAINTS

What we learned: The Saints’ 0-4 start was not a mirage, and Joe Vitt is no magician. This is a bad team right now. They showed it again in a 34-14 loss to the Broncos (their last score was in garbage time) and there is no reason to think they have what it takes to get on the kind of hot streak they will need to put themselves in position to compete for a playoff spot. Just getting back to .500 seems like it’s a pipe dream for the Saints given the difficulty of their schedule for the remainder of the season.

What’s in store next: It will be a battle of two of the league’s most disappointing teams when the Saints host the Eagles next Monday night. The 3-4 Eagles have lost three games in a row and Andy Reid is coaching for his job. He just lost coming off a bye week for the first time since he was hired in 1999. The Saints will be closely monitoring the Eagles’ quarterback situation, as starter Michael Vick said Sunday that Reid is considering making a change at the position, but given the Saints’ ineptitude on defense, Reid may be inclined to at least give Vick a shot. If Vick cannot find his mojo against the Saints’ porous “D,” then the Eagles will be in far worse shape than the Saints.

What the heck? The Saints have been able to at least count on their offense to deliver this season, but it did not show up Sunday night. QB Drew Brees was off even though his pass protection was solid, the running game was ineffective yet again and, until late in the fourth quarter, they failed to put together a drive longer than 55 yards. Brees threw for a season-low 213 yards, and when he’s not on top of his game, the Saints just are not a very competitive team.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: The Bucs’ offense could be something special. It had its ups and downs in the first quarter of the season, averaging 20.5 points per game, but since a Week Five bye, Tampa Bay is averaging 34 points per contest. QB Josh Freeman and RB Doug Martin have hit their stride during the offensive explosion over the past three games — Freeman has thrown for 1,010 yards, nine touchdowns and only one interception, and Martin is averaging 7.1 yards per touch. This is becoming one of the most impressive young (Freeman is 24 and Martin, a rookie, is 23) QB-RB duos in the league.

What’s in store next: Tampa Bay will attempt to hit midseason at .500 against the Raiders, who are looking to achieve the exact same thing. Oakland has won two games in a row and has also played better since a Week Five bye. Sunday will be a good test for the Raiders’ defense, which has fared well against the likes of QBs Brady Quinn, Matt Cassel and Chad Henne during the team’s winning streak. Tampa Bay’s vertical passing game will force the Raiders’ “D” to raise its game. The Bucs’ balance on offense is making it very difficult to defend.

What the heck? The Bucs could be down both of their starting cornerbacks vs. the Raiders. According to reports, CB Eric Wright will be joining CB Aqib Talib on the suspended list for using the banned stimulant Adderall. It’s not clear whether Wright will be suspended before the Oakland game — the league and the Bucs have not confirmed the reports — but Talib will be out for another game while he finishes his four-game suspension for taking the same drug. If both are out, Tampa Bay could be starting E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson at corner. The lack of judgment shown by Talib and, apparently, Wright could really hurt the Bucs.

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