NFC South Spin cycle: Falcons not playing pretend

Posted Dec. 17, 2012 @ 2:07 p.m.
Posted By Dan Parr

The Falcons bounced back in a big way Sunday as the Panthers stayed hot and the Saints dealt the Bucs a brutal loss.

FALCONS

What we learned: The Falcons did not buy into talk of their demise. Their doubters were out in full force after the Panthers handled them in Week 14, but the Falcons improved to 12-2 and bounced back about as strongly as a team can in Week 15 with a 34-0 thumping of the Giants. Maybe the Panthers loss was not a terrible thing for the Falcons — head coach Mike Smith said his team’s focus was heightened in practice leading up to the meeting with the Giants. The Falcons were dominant against the defending Super Bowl champions — who knocked them out of the playoffs last season — and the Falcons had looked anything but dominant recently. We called this a measuring-stick game for the Falcons going into it, and they did much more than just measure up.

What’s in store next: Atlanta has a slightly shorter week than usual — it will visit the Lions (4-10) on Saturday night, and it will find a team in freefall when it arrives in the Motor City. The Lions are in the midst of a six-game losing streak and they just suffered their most lopsided loss of the season in Arizona, where the Cardinals, who had been defeated 58-0 a week earlier, beat them 38-10.

What the heck? The Giants’ run defense has been a weakness this season, but Falcons RBs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers were mostly kept in check — Atlanta’s running game continues to be an area of concern. Turner and Rodgers combined for only 77 yards on 27 carries (2.9 average). RB Jason Snelling fared well, rushing six times for 39 yards and WR Julio Jones had an 18-yard rush. WR Harry Douglas had a carry, too, so offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is getting creative with the running game, but it is still not where the Falcons would like for it to be.

PANTHERS

What we learned: Their win over the Falcons in Week 14 was no fluke — the Panthers are playing their best ball of the season. They discarded the Chargers with a 31-7 road win and have won three of their past four games. A 7-9 finish — which would be a one-game improvement over last season’s record — is possible and the outlook for head coach Ron Rivera is a lot better than it was a month ago, when Carolina was coming off a collapse to the Buccaneers. His players have not quit on him, and owner Jerry Richardson is taking notice of that fact.

What’s in store next: The Panthers will host the 4-10 Raiders on Sunday. Oakland snapped a six-game losing streak by shutting out the Chiefs, who notched a win over the Panthers in Kansas City in Week 13. Draft positioning and pride is about all that will be on the line when these clubs meet, but the Panthers do have a chance to win their third consecutive game, which would be their longest winning streak under Rivera. A loss at home to Oakland would be another strike for Rivera, who can ill afford those at this point.

What the heck? For the second season in a row, the Panthers are playing their best when a fork has already been stuck in them. They won four of their final six games to close out last season and are making a similar run this season after losing too many close games in the first half of the season, which is why some league observers remain skeptical that Rivera will be back next season. Richardson will take wins any way he can get them, but he knows his team has started to figure things out too late in each of Rivera’s seasons at the helm.

SAINTS

What we learned: The Saints have never quit on their season. They didn’t give up when they were 0-4, and they did not throw in the towel after a tough Week 14 loss to the Giants even though they no longer had a chance to finish the season with a winning record. New Orleans demolished the fading Buccaneers at the Superdome Sunday in a 41-0 blowout win and still have a chance to finish a disappointing season on a positive note.

What’s in store next: A road trip to Dallas and a chance to play spoiler awaits the Saints. The Cowboys are one of three 8-6 teams in the wild NFC East, but they would miss the playoffs if they started today. After starting the season 3-5, Dallas has won five of its last six games, including an overtime thriller against the Steelers in Week 15, and is fighting to keep its playoff hopes alive. Expect suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton’s future to be a topic of discussion in advance of the meeting between New Orleans and Dallas — Payton’s future is uncertain and it is believed that he would have interest in talking to the Cowboys about becoming their coach if he and the Saints don’t get a deal done before he becomes a free agent.

What the heck? The Saints’ defense made a 180-degree turn. After getting ripped for 52 points in their loss to the Giants last week, the Saints shut out the Buccaneers. They recorded 10 QB hits vs. QB Josh Freeman, who turned the ball over five times (four interceptions, one fumble). Freeman had torched the Saints for 420 yards and three touchdowns on Oct. 21. For at least one week, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo won’t have answer questions about what went wrong defensively.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: The Bucs are in full-blown free-fall mode. After a fourth-quarter collapse at home to the Eagles in Week 14, the Bucs came out a week later and laid an egg in New Orleans, getting wiped off the field in a 41-0 embarrassment Sunday. Tampa Bay was 6-4 and very much alive in the playoff race a month ago. Four consecutive losses later, this team is completely unraveling and head coach Greg Schiano has to find a way to save face and avoid having the Bucs end a second straight season with a meltdown.

What’s in store next: Tampa Bay will host the Rams (6-7-1) in its final home game of the season. The Rams had a three-game winning streak snapped in a 36-22 loss to the Vikings in Week 15 and one more loss will guarantee St. Louis its ninth consecutive season without a winning record. The Bucs will try to bounce back and snap a seven-game losing streak in the month of December.

What the heck? It’s not at all uncommon for players and coaches to have heated exchanges on the sideline, but they rarely turn physical. A spat between Bucs LB Adam Hayward and assistant coach Bryan Cox took that turn Sunday in the second quarter when the two engaged in a shoving match. Schiano said after the game that the situation had been resolved, but he admitted he was not happy about it. The Bucs seemed like one big, happy family not too long ago, but the frustration of their decline boiled over Sunday.