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NFC South Spin cycle: Falcons keep hanging on

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Dan Parr

dparr@pfwmedia.com
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Posted Nov. 26, 2012 @ 11:55 a.m. ET
By Dan Parr

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 27 at 1:03 p.m. ET

It will not quiet the skeptics, but the Falcons did ensure this would be their third consecutive double-digit win season on Sunday by beating the Buccaneers. Things will not get much easier for the Bucs, or the Saints, in Week 13, and the Panthers got back on track with a win against the Eagles Monday night.

FALCONS

What we learned: The Falcons missed a chance to quiet at least some of their doubters. In fact, they might have emboldened those that still are not buying into the team as being a championship-caliber one on Sunday. The Falcons are now 10-1 after hanging on for a one-point win over the Buccaneers, but it was the “hanging on” part that a lot of people will focus on. Good teams go on the road and beat tough division opponents. Most people would probably agree that the Falcons are a good team. The question of whether they are an elite team is the one that sparks debate, and Atlanta did not do anything to settle that by rallying from a six-point fourth-quarter deficit for a win by the slimmest of margins.

What’s in store next: A short week and an all-too-familiar foe are ahead for the Falcons. They will host the Saints on Thursday night, just 18 days after the two teams last met. New Orleans has won its last four games against Atlanta, including a 31-27 win at the Superdome in Week 10, and is trying to stay in the NFC wild-card picture. The Saints missed an opportunity to move into the sixth-seed spot in the NFC in Week 12 — a win would have put them in that position, but they lost at home to the 49ers. The Saints have dominated the series against the Falcons in recent years, and this game could have far greater consequences for New Orleans than Atlanta, which has the NFC’s best record, but an opportunity to set the Saints back in their playoff push should undoubtedly stoke the Falcons’ fire.

What the heck? The game Sunday would not have been so close had Falcons PK Matt Bryant made kicks he usually makes. In a stunner, Bryant’s 22-yard attempt at the end of the first half sailed wide left. His 48-yard attempt on the Falcons’ final possession was wide right. Bryant, who missed only one field goal in the first seven games of the season, has missed two FG attempts in two of the team’s past four games. The Falcons have to hope Bryant can put the misses behind him because they certainly don’t need a kicker controversy in the final month of the regular season.

SAINTS

What we learned: The Saints are not seizing the moment. They had a chance to move up to become the sixth seed in the NFC with a win Sunday and would then be in control of their own destiny, but they put themselves in a big hole early in the second half and could not rally back in a loss to the 49ers. Fortunately for the Saints, most of the other teams in the hunt for a wild-card spot lost in Week 12, too. They are still on the fringe of the playoff picture, but the margin for error appears very slim with two road games against division-leading teams up next for them.

What’s in store next: At least New Orleans will not have to wait a full week for an opportunity to get over Sunday’s loss — they are going to be on the road in a short week. The Falcons will host the Saints Thursday night in the second meeting between the two teams in less than three weeks. At 10-1, the Falcons have a four-game lead in the division and the best record in the NFC. However, the Saints beat the Falcons in Week 10 and have had their number. New Orleans will not be intimidated going into the Georgia Dome, where Atlanta is 5-0 this season.

What the heck? The Saints’ offense actually went 24 real-time minutes without touching the football in the second half Sunday. With a seven-point lead, the 49ers went on a 16-play, 85-yard drive that began with 2:18 left in the third quarter and ended with a field goal at the 7:50 mark in the fourth quarter. It was nice that the Saints’ defense held them to a field goal, but it’s embarrassing, not to mention absurdly tiring, for a defense to be on the field for that long on one drive. In a game in which the 49ers returned two interceptions for touchdowns, it’s fair to say that Sunday’s loss was not totally on the defense. It was culpable, though.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: The Bucs are getting closer, but they still are not quite where they need to be to beat the type of the teams they would run into if they made the playoffs. For the second time this season, they blew a lead at home against a division opponent and for the second time this season they blew a lead against one of the best teams in the NFC. As for those home games — the Bucs let a 14-point second-quarter lead against the Saints turn into a seven-point deficit in Week Seven and let the Falcons overcome a six-point fourth-quarter deficit Sunday. The Bucs also blew a 14-point second-half lead over the Giants in Week Two. The Bucs are still in the hunt for a wild-card spot, but they have only one win against a team with a record of .500 or better (the Vikings).

What’s in store next: It does not get any easier for the Bucs. In fact, it might get tougher. They will go on the road to face the Broncos, who have won six consecutive games and can clinch the AFC West title on Sunday. A top MVP candidate, Broncos QB Peyton Manning, will get a chance to line up across from the league’s 32nd-ranked pass defense (315.5 yards allowed per game). The Bucs have played well on the road (3-2) and are 3-0 in non-conference play, but two of those three non-conference wins came against the woeful Chiefs and Raiders.

What the heck? There were moments we found more puzzling from a Bucs perspective than Greg Schiano’s decision to attempt a 56-yard field goal that was missed short late in the fourth quarter (Bucs PK Connor Barth, had made a 57-yarder at home earlier this season). What about the lack of safety help on an 80-yard Julio Jones touchdown in the third quarter or allowing WR Roddy White to get open on third down for a play that basically sealed the win for Atlanta? Those were moments that proved critical, and the Bucs just didn’t seem ready for them.

PANTHERS

What we learned: The Panthers dug themselves too deep of a hole to become relevant in the playoff picture this season, but they could do enough to make owner Jerry Richardson’s decision on head coach Ron Rivera a difficult one. For much of the season it has looked as if Rivera’s fate would be sealed. He may be fired no matter what happens in the final five games (the team will be hiring a new general manager that could have the freedom to fire Rivera), but winning on the road on Monday night was a step in the right direction for Carolina, even though the victory was against a woeful Eagles team. The Panthers have some very winnable games remaining on their schedule and Rivera still has time to build a case that he has the team on the right track.

What’s in store next: Carolina will visit Kansas City to find another team in worse shape than they are in. The Chiefs have the league’s worst record (1-10) and point differential (minus-140). They have lost eight games in a row and have yet to win at home (0-6) this season. The defense held Peyton Manning and the Broncos to 17 points in Week 12, but Kansas City’s brutal offense mustered only three field goals in the game. No team has scored fewer points than the Chiefs (161).

What the heck? There were signs of futility, even on a winning night, for the Panthers. Graham Gano, the placekicker they signed last week to replace Justin Medlock, missed an extra point following Carolina’s final touchdown of the game at the 4:40 mark in the fourth quarter. So, instead of making it a two-possession game, the score was 30-22 — Philly still had a chance to tie with a TD and a two-point conversion. Of course, the inept Eagles fumbled the ball away on the ensuing kickoff and never got the ball back, but a mistake like the missed extra point could have been very costly for the Panthers against a better team.

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