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NFC South Spin cycle: Stage set for Falcons-Bucs battle

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Dan Parr

dparr@pfwmedia.com
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Posted Nov. 19, 2012 @ 2:30 p.m. ET
By Dan Parr

The Panthers hit a new low, but the rest of the NFC South was victorious Sunday, including the Falcons and Bucs, who will meet for the first time this season next week.

FALCONS

What we learned: The Falcons’ biggest problems — running the ball and stopping the run — are not going away. They have been talking about addressing those issues all season and say they have put a greater emphasis on them in practices, but those are still the team’s two weakest areas. It has to be a major concern for head coach Mike Smith that he and his staff can’t seem to get the rush offense and defense, once consistent strengths of Smith’s team, pointed in the right direction. Atlanta was held to 58 yards rushing on 24 carries Sunday (2.4 average) and Cardinals RB LaRod Stephens-Howling had a career-high 127 yards rushing on 22 carries (5.8 average).

What’s in store next: Atlanta will get its first taste of the new and improved Buccaneers. Tampa Bay, coming off an overtime win over the Panthers, hosts Atlanta on Sunday and has won five of its last six games after starting the season 1-3. The Falcons have fared well against the Bucs since Smith and QB Matt Ryan, who threw a career-high five interceptions against the Cardinals, arrived in 2008. They are 6-2 against them. However, Ryan has a touchdown-to-interception of 8-to-9 in those games, and Atlanta lost at Tampa Bay last season.

What the heck? Smith has built his reputation on being well prepared and making very few obvious mistakes, but he admitted after the game that he messed up in a key situation Sunday. After the Cardinals’ Greg Toler appeared to come very close to stepping on the sideline as he flipped a loose fumble back toward the field, Cardinals S Rashad Johnson recovered it and the officials ruled it was the Cardinals’ ball. The play was going to be reviewed, but Smith threw the challenge flag —  the rule is that the play is not reviewable if the challenge flag is thrown before the review is initiated. Smith might have cost the Falcons an opportunity to get the ball back. “My guys bailed me out today,” Smith said. “That’s what they did. I’ll learn from it and we won’t let it happen again. I can assure you that.”

PANTHERS

What we learned: The Panthers did not learn how to finish games in their win over the Redskins a couple weeks ago. They let an 11-point fourth-quarter lead slip away in the final four-plus minutes of regulation against Tampa Bay on Sunday, and then the defense did not put up much of a fight in overtime, when the Bucs drove 80 yards in eight plays for the game-winning TD. This is still a Panthers team that will find ways to lose if given the opportunity, and it has people asking when, not if, head coach Ron Rivera will be fired.

What’s in store next: Carolina gets a chance to atone for its embarrassing performance in a nationally televised game vs. an NFC East opponent. The Panthers were blown out by the Giants on a Thursday night game back in Week Three, but they will run into a team with significant problems of its own on Monday night when they travel to face the 3-7 Eagles, who have lost six games in a row.

What the heck? Rivera is facing criticism for punting on 4th-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 49-yard line late in the fourth quarter, but the fact is there was a little over a minute left in the game and the Bucs were out of timeouts with a first down at their own 20-yard line. Rivera should be able to count on a defense that had held the Bucs to 13 points in 59 minutes to get a stop in that situation. However, in fairness to those criticizing Rivera’s decision not to let QB Cam Newton dive forward on fourth down — the Carolina defense has failed in late-game situations over and over again this season. Rivera probably had too much faith in his defense and not enough in his offense. Regardless, his team once again found a way to fold.

SAINTS

What we learned: Some bad teams (the Panthers and Chiefs come to mind) have given the Saints all kinds of problems this season. In fact, the Saints are the only team the Chiefs have defeated this season. The Saints did not play down to their competition or blow a lead Sunday in Oakland, though. The Raiders are one of the league’s worst teams at the moment, but the Saints are doing what good teams are supposed to do — taking care of business against lesser competition. That is not something they were doing in the first half of the season. Coming off three consecutive wins and five in their last six games, the Saints are in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs as a wild card.

What’s in store next: A daunting fight to the finish begins in earnest for the Saints in Week 12 when they return home to host the 49ers. It will be the first of three consecutive games against division-leading teams with road games at Atlanta and the Giants to follow. Sunday’s game vs. San Francisco will be the Saints’ chance to avenge their divisional-round playoff loss from last season, when the 49ers eliminated them in a 36-32 win. New Orleans will be catching the 49ers coming off a short week — they host the Bears on "Monday Night Football."

What the heck? While they dominated in almost every aspect of the game Sunday, the Saints did get crushed in penalty yards. They racked up 11 penalties for 109 yards. The Raiders had four penalties for 40 yards. The Saints were able to get away with that sloppiness against Oakland, but it will probably come back to bite them if they make the same mistakes against the tougher competition awaiting them in the next few weeks. Mark Ingram, a Heisman Trophy winner, actually was flagged for taunting on his TD run — he should act like he has been there before because he has.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: If a team does not shut the door on the Buccaneers, they will come roaring back. These Bucs are not a team that shuts it down or loses confidence when it’s not playing very well and on the verge of a loss. They were trailing by 11 points in Carolina with a little over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Sunday, and they were down by eight with only 20 seconds to play when QB Josh Freeman fired a TD pass deep up the middle to Vincent Jackson. Freeman threw to Jackson again for the two-point conversion and the Bucs didn’t even let the Panthers touch the ball in overtime, driving 80 yards in eight plays before Freeman connected with TE Dallas Clark for the game-winning score on their first possession.

What’s in store next: The Bucs will return home and get their first chance of the season to play NFC South-leading Atlanta. The Falcons have not played particularly well in either of their past two games, although they did escape with a win over the Cardinals Sunday despite turning the ball over six times and finishing minus-five in the turnover battle. Mike Smith’s team has won 6-of-8 games vs. the Bucs since he was hired in 2008, but Tampa Bay’s defense has given Matt Ryan problems during his career — he has actually thrown one more pick (nine) than he has TDs (eight) against them. The Bucs’ ability to run the ball and stop the run on defense should make them a tough matchup for the Falcons, who have struggled mightily in both of those areas.

What the heck? Freeman made some tremendous throws late in the game, but he made some awful ones earlier. His two interceptions were poorly thrown. He overthrew Clark on a first-quarter pass, which was returned for a TD by Captain Munnerlyn, and the pick by Haruki Nakamura in the third quarter was on a badly underthrown pass to Jackson. It was Freeman’s first game with more than one interception since Week Two and he had gone the previous four games without being intercepted. Hopefully for the Bucs, Freeman did not become overconfident, but it sure looked like he had fallen back into the old bad habits that defined his performance last season.

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