NFC South Spin cycle: Saints, Bucs keeping playoff hopes alive

Posted Nov. 12, 2012 @ 3:05 p.m.
Posted By Dan Parr

The talk of an undefeated season is over for the Falcons, but the playoff hopes for the Saints and Buccaneers are still very much alive coming off their Week 10 victories. The same can't be said for the Panthers, who continued their march toward a losing season.

FALCONS

What we learned: Yes, Michael Turner ran for 102 yards and a TD only a week ago, but the Falcons have reason to be concerned about their running game. One week after the Eagles racked up 221 yards on 29 rushing attempts vs. the Saints’ porous defense, Turner’s inability to get anything going on the ground stunted the Falcons’ offense in the team’s loss at New Orleans. He managed to gain only 15 yards on 13 carries (1.2 average) and actually had three carries for zero yards in the second half. Turner used to be so reliable on the goal line, but he has not been this season. He had minus-2 yards on four goal-to-go carries Sunday.

What’s in store next: Atlanta will return to the Georgia Dome to host the Cardinals, who are trying to regroup after a Week 10 bye. Arizona has fallen on hard times since marching out to a 4-0 start this season. Losers of five games in a row, the Cardinals will be looking to get back to .500. The Falcons might look a bit more vulnerable coming off their first loss of the season, but they have not lost at home in a year and have not lost consecutive regular-season games since December of 2009.

What the heck? The Falcons’ winning streak was not the only streak that ended for them Sunday. It was also the first time all season that they had more penalty yards than their opponent. Head coach Mike Smith prides himself on having a disciplined team that does not shoot itself in the foot with foolish mistakes, but the Falcons did not play their usual style of game Sunday. Smith was fuming on the sideline and let Asante Samuel hear about it after Samuel was penalized for excessive celebration after he made an interception. In all, the Falcons were penalized six times for 53 yards and the Saints had five penalties for 35 yards. The Falcons had the look of a team that lost its focus a bit, and it cost them.

PANTHERS

What we learned: The Panthers cannot put together back-to-back strong performances and they struggle to even play complete games. They have been blown out at home in each of their games coming after a win this season, with the Broncos disposing of them on Sunday in a 36-14 drubbing. Carolina actually scored first Sunday and had a 7-0 lead for five minutes, but the Broncos put their foot on the gas pedal and scored 29 points before Carolina scored again. The Panthers have failed to carve out a consistent identity this season, and it’s another reason why head coach Ron Rivera is on the hot seat.

What’s in store next: Carolina gets an opportunity to avenge its Week One loss to the Buccaneers (5-4), who will look to extend their winning streak to four games in Week 11. Tampa Bay was the first, but far from the last, team to shut down the Panthers’ disappointing running game this season. The Bucs held the Panthers to 10 yards rushing on 13 carries (0.8 average) in the season opener and Carolina is still struggling to get its once vaunted rushing attack on track.

What the heck? He has not played well this season, but QB Cam Newton still is the franchise cornerstone the team is trying, albeit quite unsuccessfully these days, to build around. They are going to need to start doing a better job of protecting him. He was sacked a career-high seven times Sunday. Only five quarterbacks have been sacked more than Newton this season.

SAINTS

What we learned: The Saints’ win over the fading Eagles in Week Nine was not just a matter of running into the right team at the right time. It was not a fluke. The Saints are still very tough to beat at home and they are improved in the two areas of the game (running the ball and playing defense) where they struggled most in the first half of the season. The Saints have teased us before with a two-game winning streak only to follow it up with a clunker, but this team could be getting ready to play its best football of the season at the right time.

What’s in store next: New Orleans has to head out to the West Coast, but they do get to play a Raiders team that has not showed it's capable of stopping anyone defensively recently. Oakland has given up 97 points in its last two games (losses to the Buccaneers and Ravens), and the Saints, who have rediscovered balance between the pass and the run on offense, have the ability to rack up points against the Raiders’ feeble “D.”

What the heck? For the second week in a row, the team’s leading rusher, Pierre Thomas, had fewer touches than RBs Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory, and for the second consecutive week, the Saints had great success running the ball. Thomas played more snaps than any other Saints back Sunday, but he does not have the hot hand at the moment. It’s going to be very interesting to see just how playing time is distributed when Darren Sproles returns from his hand injury, which has kept him out of the last two games.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: The Bucs are now the team that makes fewer mistakes than their opponent. It certainly was not that way last season and for the first quarter of this season. The Chargers had almost twice as many first downs (23) as the Bucs (12). They gained 147 more yards and they were far more efficient than the Bucs on third down (10-of-15 for San Diego compared to 3-of-9 for Tampa Bay). But the Bucs did not turn the ball over. The Chargers did twice — two Philip Rivers interceptions, including one that was returned for a TD, and the Bucs also blocked a punt and returned it for a TD. Bucs QB Josh Freeman, who threw 22 interceptions last season and five in the first five games of this season, has not thrown a pick since Week Six. When the Bucs take care of the ball, they are very tough to beat.

What’s in store next: Tampa Bay will finish off its season series with the last-place club in the NFC South — the Panthers — at Carolina. The Bucs beat the Panthers, 16-10, in Week One, and that game was a bit of a preview of things to come for both teams, although the Buccaneers’ offense has really taken off since their Week Five bye. Meanwhile, Carolina’s offense continues to struggle to establish an identity. The Panthers, who lost at home to the Broncos on Sunday, have dropped six of their last seven games.

What the heck? The Bucs are not typically in the conversation when discussing the league’s most opportunistic defenses, but they are working their way into an honorable mention. Only the Bears (19) and Giants (17) have more interceptions than the Bucs (15), and look at who is doing the intercepting for the Bucs — CB Leonard Johnson, an undrafted rookie, has one pick in each of the last three games, including one he returned for a TD Sunday. LeQuan Lewis, who was called up from the practice squad last week, was called into duty Sunday and made the first pick of his career. The Bucs are getting big plays from unexpected sources these days.