The Saints' poor play on defense was not enough to keep the team from winning its second game in a row as the rest of the NFC South came up short with the first-place Falcons on bye.
What we learned: The Panthers are as big of a mess as any team in the league. They are 1-5 after falling to the Cowboys in their third consecutive home loss and owner Jerry Richardson fired their general manager for the past decade — Marty Hurney — on Monday. There is little hope of turning their season around at this point. It’s possible this team has not hit rock bottom yet, so don’t count the Panthers out of drafting first overall for the second time in three years. It’s getting more ugly by the week for a team that was talking playoffs — a Super Bowl, even — before the season.
What’s in store next: The Panthers will be the visiting team for the first time since Sept. 30 when they meet the Bears at Soldier Field on Oct. 28. It can’t hurt Carolina that Chicago will be coming off a short week (they host the Lions on Monday night), but the Bears have the second-best winning percentage (.800) in the NFC as of this writing and are 4-1 in their last five games against NFC South opponents, including a 34-29 win over the Panthers on Oct. 2, 2011 in which Jay Cutler threw for a season-low 102 yards. The Bears’ defense is extremely opportunistic and we know what the Panthers’ history is when Cam Newton gets picked off — Carolina has an 0-12 record in games when he throws at least one interception.
What the heck? Where did RB DeAngelo Williams go? He played only five snaps and rushed twice for four yards on Sunday. Head coach Ron Rivera’s explanation after the game was that Williams’ reduced role had to do with a trade-off based on personnel. That’s not a good enough explanation. The day before Hurney, who signed Williams to a deal that included $21 million guaranteed before the 2011 season, was fired, Rivera sent a pretty clear message about what he thinks of Williams’ value and offered another concerning sign on his grasp of how best to utilize offensive personnel.
What we learned: The Saints are serious about making a run at second place in the NFC South, but that still is not saying much with the Panthers (1-5) and Buccaneers (2-4) as their only competition for the spot. New Orleans’ defense is still one of the league’s worst — the Bucs racked up 513 net yards against it on Sunday and the Saints rank 32nd in average yards allowed. It didn’t prevent the Saints from holding off Tampa Bay just enough for a 35-28 win to improve to 2-4, but defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat on a weekly basis.
What’s in store next: The interim-interim head coach (Aaron Kromer) will pass the baton back to interim head coach Joe Vitt, whose six-game suspension is over. That could provide the team with an emotional lift heading into a critical Sunday-night game at Denver. The Broncos (3-3) gave themselves an emotional boost of their own heading into their Week Seven bye with a stunning comeback win over the Chargers in their last outing. With a win over the Broncos, the Saints could find themselves in the thick of the race for a wild-card spot as we approach midseason.
What the heck? So much for the idea that not having TE Jimmy Graham would slow down the Saints’ passing game. Graham was inactive Sunday, but QB Drew Brees threw for 377 yards and four touchdowns — including one to Graham’s backup, David Thomas — and only one interception vs. the Bucs. Brees racked up 370 yards, four TDs and had only one pick in the Saints’ Week Five win over the Chargers, when Graham suffered the ankle injury and was held to one catch for four yards. We know Graham is a rare talent, and that’s what makes it so remarkable that the Saints really have not missed a beat without him.
What we learned: The Bucs are having trouble holding leads. They have scored first in five of their six games, but they are only 2-3 in those games. They have blown double-digit leads on two different occasions this season. They blew a 21-7 second-quarter lead in their loss to the Saints on Sunday and let a 27-13 second-half lead vs. the Giants get away from them back in Week Two. The Bucs are extremely inconsistent and still don’t quite know how to finish games against solid competition.
What’s in store next: It will be a short turnaround for the Bucs this week, so they have the opportunity to quickly get the bad taste of the loss to the Saints out of their mouths. They will return to the site of their last road victory when they visit the Vikings on Thursday night — Tampa Bay beat Minnesota, 24-20, at the Metrodome in Week Two last season, which was about a month before the Bucs’ season went down the tubes. The Vikings are 4-0 at home this season, however, after holding off the Cardinals on Sunday and they are in the lead for a wild-card spot in the NFC at 5-2.
What the heck? Tampa Bay has to relocate its pass rush. It disappeared on Sunday. The Bucs failed to record a single QB hit vs. Drew Brees and the defense has only one sack in its last three games after recording seven in its first three games. The lack of pressure is not going to work in today’s NFL given the talent at quarterback and the potency of passing games around the league. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and head coach Greg Schiano have to reassess their scheme and look for ways to manufacture pressure.