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NFC South Spin cycle: Disturbing start to December for Falcons

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

The Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers each took a big step backward Sunday, but the Panthers earned their best win of the Ron Rivera-era.

FALCONS

What we learned: Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Falcons’ Week 14 loss to the Panthers was that it did not come as that much of a surprise. Yes, they had won three games in a row heading into Sunday’s game, but they were not playing to the potential they showed early in the season. We might have to go all the way back to the first half of the season to find a game where Atlanta had a performance that was great all-around. The offense was sluggish again at Carolina, and the defense played its worst game of the season. The Falcons still have a 1½-game lead for the top seed in the NFC, but in a time where they want to be playing their best football, the Falcons are playing their worst.

What’s in store next: The NFC South-champion Falcons will get the rare opportunity to measure themselves against a fellow division leader when they host the Giants in Week 15. It will be the first meeting between the teams since the wild-card round of last season’s playoffs, when the Giants handed the Falcons an embarrassing 24-2 loss on their way to a Super Bowl run. The Falcons failed to score on offense (their only points were from a safety) that day at MetLife Stadium. The Giants are coming off an offensive explosion in which they handled the Saints in a 52-27 win. They have a one-game lead at the top of the NFC East.

What the heck? It’s hard to explain why the Falcons came out so flat Sunday. They had extra time to rest up and prepare for the Panthers — their last game was on a Thursday night — but isn’t that supposed to play to their advantage? What if they secure a first-round bye in the playoffs? Will they respond the same way after an even longer layoff between games? The Falcons could not put together a drive longer than 31 yards on their first four possessions and punted the ball away each time. However, the Panthers scored on each of their first five possessions. The Falcons fell behind 23-0 and it was as if they didn’t know what had hit them.

PANTHERS

What we learned: It could be too little too late, or it could lead owner Jerry Richardson to reconsider if he is leaning toward firing Ron Rivera, as many believe he will do after the season — either way, beating the Falcons is the biggest win the 4-9 Panthers have in their two seasons under Rivera. Carolina became only the second team to beat Atlanta this season, and Carolina won comfortably on a day where it was at far, far less than full strength because of injuries. Five starting players, including RB Jonathan Stewart, did not play, yet the Panthers built a 23-0 lead and held on for a 30-20 win.

What’s in store next: The Panthers will travel to face another team that has had a disappointing season but continues to fight for a head coach many have written off. Rivera will be among familiar surroundings Sunday when he leads Carolina to San Diego, where he served as defensive coordinator for Norv Turner before being hired by the Panthers. The Chargers went on the road and dealt the Steelers a 34-24 loss in Week 14 and will finish the season at .500 if they win out, which means they are technically still alive in the AFC wild-card hunt.

What the heck? If you’re a Panthers fan, does a game like Sunday’s make you want to pull your hair out, at least a little? The Panthers beat the team with the best record in the NFC one week after losing to arguably the league’s worst team (the Chiefs). Carolina was rail-thin at safety and defensive tackle vs. the Falcons, and they still held a potent offense to only 20 points, and seven of those came in garbage time. It was a good win for the Panthers, but it has to make them think about what might have been if they had managed to hold a few more leads earlier this season.

SAINTS

What we learned: It would be too simple to say the Saints (5-8) missed the playoffs this season because they started the season 0-4. They battled back into the race by winning five of their next six games after that slow start and have shown three weeks in a row that they do not measure up to playoff-caliber competition. The Saints have lost to three NFC division leaders — the 49ers, Falcons and Giants — in the past three games, and they lost each game by at least 10 points. Sunday’s loss was their most lopsided of the season — a 52-27 drubbing by the Giants — and there is a chance New Orleans might finish the season playing even worse than it did at the start of the season.

What’s in store next: The Saints will get an opportunity to complete the season sweep of the Buccaneers and ensure that the 6-7 Bucs will not finish the season with a winning record. Tampa Bay has also lost three consecutive games, including a heartbreaker to the Eagles in Week 14, when the Bucs blew an 11-point fourth quarter lead at home. This game looked like it could have major playoff implications not long ago, but it does not appear either of these NFC South squads will be sneaking into the postseason.

What the heck? Thanks to the Saints’ poor kickoff coverage and sloppy play on offense (the Saints had four turnovers), the Giants had stunningly great field position all game long. They started half of their offensive drives (7-of-14) in Saints’ territory. In fact, the Giants’ average drive starting point was the Saints’ 49-yard line. It was actually surprising the Saints were down by only eight points heading into the fourth quarter given the field-position advantage the Giants had enjoyed.

BUCCANEERS

What we learned: The Bucs’ loss Sunday is the type that could linger for a while. They took an 11-point lead at home with 7:21 left in the fourth quarter vs. the Eagles — a team that had not won a game since September — and they let that lead get away. Rookie QB Nick Foles threw a touchdown pass to WR Jeremy Maclin in the final seconds for the comeback win. The Bucs may have to look back at the end of the season and say that Philadelphia effectively kept them out of the playoffs, and that will be a tough pill to swallow if things play out that way. This was a big step backward for Greg Schiano and really cast a pall over what has been a solid season for the Bucs.

What’s in store next: Tampa Bay will try to get back to .500 against another team that it blew a lead against this season. The Saints, who came back to beat the Bucs in Tampa Bay in Week Seven, will host the Bucs on Sunday. A fourth consecutive loss for Tampa Bay will end their chances of a winning season. The Bucs’ pass rush, which recorded a season-high six sacks vs. the Eagles, will need to be more of a factor than it was the last time it lined across from Drew Brees. He was not sacked, or even hit, in that game.

What the heck? Where was the Buccaneers’ offense for the first two-plus quarters against a defense that has played poorly all season? They had 10 drives in the first three quarters and nine of them concluded with punts. They didn’t have a drive longer than six plays or 40 yards until late in the third quarter when things finally started to click at least a bit for QB Josh Freeman. The Bucs’ offense, which once looked so potent, picked a really bad time for a slump.

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