NFC South Spin cycle: Falcons cross one hurdle

Posted Dec. 03, 2012 @ 3:15 p.m.
Posted By Dan Parr

The NFC South-champion Falcons dealt the rival Saints a blow in the first game of Week 13, and the Panthers and Bucs both came up short out West on Sunday.

FALCONS

What we learned: Atlanta is probably going to have to play better offensively than it did in Week 13 to finally win in the playoffs, but we know they will be playing at least one postseason game for the third consecutive season — the Falcons have clinched the NFC South title. The Falcons’ defense snapped Saints QB Drew Brees’ record streak of consecutive games with a TD pass at 54 games Thursday night and became the first team to intercept Brees five times in one game. New Orleans has had Atlanta’s number over the past several seasons, so to deal such a devastating blow to their rival as it tries to remain in the playoff picture was a major victory for the franchise.

What’s in store next: It will be a rematch of a Week Four game that was decided in the final seconds when the Falcons visit the Panthers on Sunday. Carolina nearly pulled off an upset against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Week Four. The Panthers had a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter but the Carolina defense allowed Atlanta to drive 77 yards on five plays in 54 seconds, and PK Matt Bryant made a 40-yard field goal with only a few seconds left on the game clock. The Panthers are coming off a loss to the Chiefs and are guaranteed to finish with a losing record for the third season in a row.

What the heck? The Falcons’ offense did more than enough to win at home against New Orleans, but QB Matt Ryan was held to a season-low 165 yards passing and failed to lead a TD drive in the final 44 minutes of the game. This happened against a defense that has been ranked among the worst in the league all season. Ryan has only two touchdowns in the past three games, and has turned the ball over seven times in that span.

PANTHERS

What we learned: The chances of Ron Rivera returning to coach the Panthers next season took another big hit on Sunday. Carolina became only the second team to lose to the Chiefs this season and Rivera’s defense allowed 27 points to a team that had not scored more than 16 points in a game since September. The Panthers are guaranteed to have their third consecutive losing season and they would have to win out to improve their record from last season. It’s likely that the Panthers will finish with a worse record than they did in Rivera’s first season at the helm.

What’s in store next: Carolina will host the NFC South-champion Falcons, who will be well-rested coming off a Thursday-night game, on Sunday. The Panthers played one of their better games of the season at Atlanta in Week Four, but they failed to hold on to a late lead in that game. The Falcons clinched the division title with the Bucs’ loss on Sunday, but they still are trying to secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and could actually do so Sunday, although it will take a win and some help from the other contenders in the conference.

What the heck? Chiefs QB Brady Quinn found a defense he could dominate on Sunday. After throwing no touchdowns and four interceptions in his first three starts of the season, Quinn threw for a season-high 201 yards, two TDs and no interceptions vs. Carolina. Quinn completed 19-of-23 passes and improved his record as an NFL starter to 4-12. The Panthers’ defense is not a great unit by any means, but it has played much better than it showed on Sunday. That was an embarrassing display for the Panthers and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The Chiefs scored 27 points after scoring 28 combined in their previous three games.

SAINTS

What we learned: At 5-7, it’s going to take something close to a miracle for the Saints to make the playoffs. Even if they win out — which is a long shot — they could still miss the postseason. Their margin for error is basically gone and they are going to need teams ahead of them in the standings to fall back. The Saints have missed great opportunities in each of the past two games, losing to the 49ers and Falcons, and the schedule does not get any easier for them in the final month of the season.

What’s in store next: The Saints have to play a division-leading team for the third game in a row. A trip to face the NFC East-leading Giants awaits the Saints, who have won their last three games against the G-men dating back to the 2006 season. The Giants will have a short week to prepare — they play the Redskins Monday night — and the Saints have extra time to get ready for them since they played the Falcons on Thursday night. The Giants are only 1-5 in their last six December home games.

What the heck? Roles were reversed Thursday night, as the Saints defense came to play and QB Drew Brees was off his game. His five interceptions — one week after he threw two pick-sixes vs. the 49ers — were a career high and he had his NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass snapped at 54. It was surprising to see him manage the clock so poorly at the end of the first half vs. the Falcons, when the Saints failed to put points on the board despite driving all the way to Atlanta’s 5-yard line. His receivers let him down at times (Lance Moore dropped a would-be TD pass) but Brees fell on his sword after the game, and it wouldn't have made sense if he didn't.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: The 6-6 Bucs may not get another chance to measure themselves against a contender playing to win this season. They have only one game left against a team with a record above .500 this season — they visit the Falcons in Week 17, but Atlanta may not be playing all of its starters for a full game, if at all, by the time that game rolls around. Tampa Bay played the Broncos tough for a half — the Bucs actually had the lead at halftime — but Peyton Manning poured it on in the third quarter and Denver pulled away. The Bucs’ wild-card hopes are still alive, but they don’t have a win against a team that currently has a record better than .500 and still have some work to do before they can be counted among the league’s best teams.

What’s in store next: Tampa Bay will host the unraveling Eagles, who have lost eight games in a row. Philadelphia scored a season-high 33 points at Dallas Sunday night, but their defensive woes continued in a 38-33 loss. The Eagles have not won a road game since they beat Cleveland by a point in Week One. The Bucs need to end their two-game losing streak to remain a viable wild-card contender.

What the heck? The Bucs really have to find a way to start getting more production out of their pass rush. They can’t expect to beat teams led by the league’s best quarterbacks if they can’t get pressure on them. Tampa Bay was credited with a grand total of one QB hit in the past two games. The Bucs did not so much as hit Manning on Sunday.