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NFC South Spin cycle: Falcons earn top seed, Bucs keep sinking

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Dan Parr

dparr@pfwmedia.com
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By Dan Parr

The Falcons clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC with their win over the Lions in Week 16, and the Panthers and Saints will head into their Week 17 meeting with winning streaks intact. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, continued their implosion in Week 16.

FALCONS

What we learned: The Falcons have put themselves in an enviable position, but not one that is without its potential pitfalls. They head into Week 17 as the only NFC playoff team locked into its seed, and for the Falcons, it’s the seed all teams strives for — No. 1. Atlanta secured home-field advantage with its win at Detroit in Week 16 and head coach Mike Smith will have the option of resting his starters in the regular-season finale without running the risk of hurting his team’s playoff position. Of course, with that luxury comes some potentially controversial coaching decisions — Smith has said his team will play to win in Week 17, but he’ll be taking plenty of heat if a significant injury knocks out a key starter in a game with no bearing on Atlanta’s playoff seed. Smith will be walking the fine line that all coaches in his position have to face, but it’s still a spot every team would love to be in.

What’s in store next: Atlanta will host Tampa Bay — losers of five games in a row — to close out the regular season. The Bucs’ losing streak began with a 24-23 loss at home to the Falcons in Week 12. At that point the Bucs were 6-5 and looked like a resilient team that could bounce back and maybe even fight its way into the playoffs, but they have unraveled, suffering their two most lopsided losses of the season in the past two games. Even if the Falcons are resting their starters for much of the game Sunday, the second- and third-stringers could give the Bucs plenty of problems given the team’s recent struggles.

What the heck? One thing the Falcons ought to try to figure out in the next couple weeks is how to get RB Jacquizz Rodgers going again. His production had dropped off in recent weeks — Rodgers has 17 carries for 39 yards (2.3 average) in the past two games, and he has made only two catches since he had a season-high six receptions in Week 14. Rodgers had one of the best games of his career (79 yards from scrimmage, one TD) against the Bucs in Week 12, so perhaps this will be a good opportunity for him to get back on track heading into the postseason. Rodgers is a key, and sometimes overlooked, piece in Atlanta’s offense.

PANTHERS

What we learned: It’s not a great sign that the Panthers didn’t bury a Raiders team with an impotent offense, but Sunday still counted as a win for the Panthers, who have won three in a row and four of their last five games. They will improve on their record from last season (6-10) by one game with a Week 17 win, and, barring a blowout loss in the finale, head coach Ron Rivera, a hot-seat occupier, looks like he will be able to make a case to owner Jerry Richardson that he has the team trending upward heading into 2013.

What’s in store next: The Panthers will visit a fellow non-playoff team, the Saints (7-8), to close out the regular season and can avoid a last-place finish in the NFC South with a win. Carolina beat New Orleans in Week Two and is riding the longest winning streak it has had under Rivera (three games). The Saints are playing well, too — after a 41-0 win over the Bucs, the Saints beat a Cowboys team battling for a playoff spot in overtime in Week 16.

What the heck? Panthers QB Cam Newton let his emotions get the best of him a couple of times in a chippy game vs. the Raiders. He appeared to kick DT Tommy Kelly after one play as Kelly was getting off Newton following a play, although Kelly was the one who was penalized for pushing Newton after being kicked. Newton made an even bigger mistake in the fourth quarter, when he bumped referee Jerome Boger in anger after taking a hard hit that he thought should have drawn a penalty flag. Instead, Newton was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Newton apologized for the incident after the game, but he’s likely to be fined by the league.

SAINTS

What we learned: Few leads are truly safe for the Saints — they have to make improving on defense their focus this offseason. They had a 14-point lead with less than five minutes left against the Cowboys on Sunday but the Cowboys came roaring back, scoring two touchdowns in the final 3:35 of regulation to send the game into overtime. New Orleans’ defense buckled down on the Cowboys’ only possession in overtime and the Saints kicked a field goal to win the game, but when your offense cranks out 562 yards and 33 first downs, as the Saints’ did, a game should not be as close as Sunday’s was in Arlington.

What’s in store next: The Saints need a win over the Panthers to avoid their first losing season since 2007. The Panthers beat the Saints in Week Two and enter the game on a bit of a roll, having won their last three games. Keep an eye on the Saints’ run defense — Carolina ran for a season-best 219 yards and three touchdowns on 41 attempts vs. New Orleans when these teams last met. The Saints have shut down RBs DeMarco Murray and Doug Martin in the past two weeks, though.

What the heck? The Saints have preached patience this season with their young cornerbacks, like second-year CB Johnny Patrick, but they have to be worried about Patrick’s confidence after Sunday’s game. “I feel devastated right now,” Patrick said, per NOLA.com. “We won the game. But I feel like I almost let my team down.” Patrick was called on after CB Jabari Greer left the game in the first half with a concussion and he was beaten in coverage on both of the Cowboys’ fourth-quarter touchdowns. Patrick, a third-round pick in 2011, let a great opportunity turn into a near-disaster.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: The Bucs might freefall into the offseason for the second year in a row. They have dropped five consecutive games and have suffered their two most lopsided losses of the season in their past two outings, which were both against teams that, like the Bucs, will not be heading to the playoffs this season. The Bucs, who once appeared headed for a winning season, have lost eight December games in a row and can’t be certain heading into the offseason that head coach Greg Schiano has the team on the right track or that Josh Freeman, who has thrown four interceptions in each of the past two games, is a quarterback that can lead them to a Super Bowl.

What’s in store next: Tampa Bay will finish the season with a road trip to Atlanta to meet the 13-2 Falcons, who already have clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Falcons head coach Mike Smith said Sunday that he expects his team to play to win in Week 17, but that doesn't mean he won’t rest starters. For the Bucs, just playing a relatively clean game regardless of the competition would be a positive step, and a win over the division champions to end the year would at least give the team a little bit of reassurance after their collapse. The Falcons are 4-0 at home against the Bucs under Smith.

What the heck? We considered Freeman an MVP candidate about a month ago, but he seems to have completely lost his way. He threw for 372 yards Sunday against the Rams, but most of that production came when the game was already out of hand. Freeman showed great promise in 2010 and for much of this season. He clearly has the physical ability to be a fine NFL quarterback, but he is wildly inconsistent, and that leads to more questions than answers heading into his contract year.

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