NFC South: Denver Broncos

Wrap-up: Broncos 31, Buccaneers 23

December, 2, 2012

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 31-23 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday:

What it means: For the second straight week, the Bucs got to the corner and couldn’t quite turn it. There’s no question the Bucs are on the right path, but this was another game in which they showed they’re not ready to beat a good team. But they’re close. They lost by a point to Atlanta last week, and they controlled the Denver game for the first half before the Broncos took control by scoring 21 points in the third quarter. At 6-6, the Bucs remain in the playoff picture for this season. But the postseason might be a more realistic goal for next season. Somewhere along the way, the Bucs have to figure out how to beat good teams if they truly want to take the next step.

What I liked: The way Tampa Bay compensated for its problems in the secondary in the first half. The Bucs held Peyton Manning to one first-half touchdown pass, and that was to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein. They were able to keep their young cornerbacks from getting exploited, and that was largely because Tampa Bay’s offense did such a nice job of controlling the ball and keeping Manning off the field.

What I didn’t like: The offense went completely cold in the third quarter. That gave Manning an opportunity to pick on rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson, and the complexion of the game changed rapidly.

What else I didn't like: The Bucs put virtually no pressure on Manning. They are without defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who is out for the season with an injury. But ends Michael Bennett and Da'Quan Bowers and tackle Gerald McCoy can generate a pass rush. They didn't do it against the Broncos, and that's why Manning hung the secondary out to dry.

Injury watch: Kickoff returner/reserve cornerback LeQuan Lewis went down with a knee injury, which didn't look good, late in the fourth quarter. If Lewis misses any time, the Bucs might turn to rookie running back Michael Smith as their kick returner.

It happened again: Remember early in the season when the Bucs still were going hard against the New York Giants with Eli Manning lined up in the victory formation? The Bucs did the same thing to his brother. Peyton Manning took a knee twice at the end of the game, and the Bucs came after him. Manning didn't get touched, but his offensive lineman didn't react kindly, and there was some pushing and shoving with Tampa Bay defenders. Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano talked to Manning after the game, but it wasn't clear whether the quarterback had any problem with Tampa Bay's tactics. I'm sure Manning will be asked about it in his postgame interview.

What’s next: The Bucs host the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday.

Halftime thoughts: Buccaneers-Broncos

December, 2, 2012
If you’re not watching the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos, you might want to get to a television quickly.

The Bucs are in position to pull off an upset that could mark a key turning point for a team with a first-year head coach and a young roster. At halftime, the Bucs have a 10-7 lead.

Although the Bucs went into Denver with a depleted secondary, it hasn’t been exploited all that much by Peyton Manning. The defense has performed better than anyone realistically could have expected. That’s largely due to the Tampa Bay offense, which has done a nice job eating up the clock and keeping Manning and the Denver offense off the field.

Time will tell if the Bucs can pull this one off. Feel free to share your thoughts on the Bucs in the comments section below.

I'll be back with a wrap-up soon after the game ends.

Video: Buccaneers at Broncos prediction

November, 30, 2012

The NFL Live crew makes their picks for Tampa Bay at Denver.

Video: Breaking down Bucs-Broncos

November, 29, 2012

Prim Siripipat goes inside the numbers for the Buccaneers-Broncos.

Wrap-up: Broncos 36, Panthers 14

November, 11, 2012
Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 36-14 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: Did you really expect it to go any other way? Carolina’s dismal season just continued to get worse as former coach John Fox, armed with Peyton Manning, came to town and provided another painful reminder of how far the Panthers have fallen since their glory days under Fox. It’s sad to say, but the best of times for this franchise now seem like they came a very long time ago. That’s only because the best of times for the Panthers were in the middle of the last decade. The Panthers are now 2-7 and appear well on their way to another losing season.

Can’t blame it all on Newton: Quarterback Cam Newton has become a lightning rod for all that ails the Panthers. But you can’t hang this one on Newton because he never had a chance. Newton was sacked seven times.

Insult to injury: Denver’s Von Miller, who was selected one spot behind Newton in the 2011 draft, had a sack, forced a fumble and had four tackles for loss. In fact, Miller really rubbed it in by doing his version of Newton’s "Superman celebration" after a sack on Carolina’s second series.

Same old story: It’s been pointed out frequently that Carolina is not getting much out of highly paid running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Let’s go ahead and point it out again because the Panthers piled up 52 rushing yards against the Broncos, and seven of those came from Newton.

What’s next: The Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.

Video: Broncos at Panthers preview

November, 9, 2012

Prim Siripipat goes inside the numbers for the Denver-Carolina matchup.

Wrap-up: Broncos 34, Saints 14

October, 28, 2012

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 34-14 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday night:

What it means: There was a school of thought among some New Orleans fans that, with the Saints playing better the past two games and interim head coach Joe Vitt returning from a six-game suspension, everything would change. The hope was the Saints would go on a miraculous run to turn their season around and make it to the playoffs. There were no miracles in Denver and that means the chances of a miraculous run to the playoffs have dwindled to almost zero. The Saints are 2-5 and they’re in third place in the NFC South. This may have been the ugliest New Orleans loss in recent years because the Saints rarely have been so thoroughly beaten.

Critical call: With the game tied 7-7, the Saints faced a fourth-and-2 near midfield with 9:17 left in the second quarter. Vitt has been Sean Payton’s right-hand man since 2006 and I think the interim head coach made the same decision the suspended coach would have made. He left the offense on the field and went for the first down. The only difference is that Vitt didn’t get the same result Payton usually got when he made bold moves in the past. Instead, quarterback Drew Brees was intercepted. Five plays later, the Broncos scored a touchdown that put them in control the rest of the night.

Making history: New Orleans became the first defense in NFL history to give up 400 yards of total offense in seven straight games.

It’s not all on the defense: The numbers ended up being lousy. But, at least early on, the defense played much better than I expected against Peyton Manning and the Denver offense. The Saints got a fumble recovery and a couple of first-half stops before getting worn down in the second half. I think you can put the blame for that on Brees and the offense. Brees was uncharacteristically inaccurate, there was no running game and the offense never really got into a rhythm. If the Saints are going to have any chance at winning, their offense has to put up big numbers. That didn’t come close to happening.

Milestone time: The one highlight of the night was Brees’ second-quarter touchdown pass to Darren Sproles. It was the 300th of his career and ties him with Dan Marino for No. 6 on the all-time list.

What’s next: The Saints host the Philadelphia Eagles in a "Monday Night Football" game on Nov. 5.

Halftime thoughts on the Saints

October, 28, 2012
The New Orleans Saints’ defense, which has been the league’s worst, hasn’t been all that bad so far in Sunday night’s game against the Denver Broncos.

But the problem is the New Orleans offense has been unusually quiet. That’s why the Broncos have a 17-7 lead at halftime.

The Saints have made a few stops of Peyton Manning and the Denver offense and they also got a fumble recovery. It’s come with linebacker Jonathan Vilma making his first start of the season and shifting to the outside from his traditional spot in the middle and with rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks replacing Brodrick Bunkley in the starting lineup.

But quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t been nearly as sharp as usual. He’s completed 9 of 18 passes for 104 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Saints have only 121 yards of total offense at halftime.

I don’t know if the defense can continue to do a decent job of slowing Manning. But I do know the Saints need to get Brees and the offense going in the second half.

Otherwise, the Saints will be in a deep hole at 2-5.

I’ll be back with a wrap-up soon after the game ends.

The day ahead in the NFC South

October, 28, 2012
I’ll be watching the 1 p.m. ET games between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles and the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears and providing wrap-ups on both games soon after they end.

I’ll also weigh in if there are any significant developments during the game.

Please feel free to use the comments section below to share your thoughts on the games involving the Panthers and Falcons.

After those games are over, we’ll come back and do it all over again Sunday night when the New Orleans Saints play the Denver Broncos.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 26, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

[+] EnlargeAsante Samuel
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireFalcons defensive back Asante Samuel will face his former team in the Eagles this week.
Samuel’s homecoming: It’s pretty safe to assume Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel will go into Philadelphia with a chip on his shoulder. Samuel always carries some swagger, but I’d expect it to be even more obvious against the team he played for from 2008 through last season. He had 23 interceptions in his time with the Eagles, tying him for second in the NFL in that span. But it was reported that Philadelphia coach Andy Reid decided to trade Samuel because he was in "steep decline." That could come back to haunt Reid. Samuel is a guy with a lot of pride and you can bet he’ll be giving everything he has against the Eagles.

Remember the Georgia Dome: This game is in Philadelphia, but the Falcons should just close their eyes and imagine they’re at home and think back to last season. In Week 2 of 2011, the Eagles had a 31-21 fourth-quarter lead on the Falcons, but Atlanta rallied to win. That marked the start of a really bad thing for the Eagles. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Eagles have a league-high seven fourth-quarter blown leads since the start of the 2011 season, and the first one came in Atlanta.

Throw it deep: There’s a reason why New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has looked better the past three games than in the first three. He’s throwing the deep ball better. In the past three games, Brees has completed 75.6 percent of his throws of 10 yards or more with seven interceptions and just one touchdown. In the first three games, Brees completed just 47.8 percent of throws of 10 yards or more with only two touchdowns and four interceptions.

Manning and the bye: The Saints will be going against New Orleans native Peyton Manning and Denver on Sunday night. Manning’s coming off his bye week and that’s not good news for the Saints. Manning has won his past six starts after a bye week, throwing for 15 touchdowns with three interceptions while his team has averaged 33 points per game.

Can’t beat the good ones: As he approaches the halfway point of his second season, one troubling trend has emerged for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. In games against teams that have a .500 or better record since the start of last season, Newton and the Panthers are 2-12. And let’s keep in mind that Newton’s seven career wins include six victories in 2011 against the Jaguars, the Buccaneers (twice), the Texans with T.J. Yates, the Redskins with John Beck and the Colts with Curtis Painter.

Video: Saints-Broncos predictions

October, 26, 2012

The "NFL Live" crew makes its picks for New Orleans at Denver.
ATLANTA -- With some help from ESPN Stats & Information and Atlanta’s media relations department, let’s take a look at some statistical superlatives from the Falcons’ 27-21 win against the Denver Broncos at the Georgia Dome on Monday night.
  • Atlanta’s Matt Ryan didn’t have a spectacular night in a game that many anticipated would be a shootout with Denver’s Peyton Manning. But Ryan did outshine Manning in one key category. When it came to passing inside the numbers, Ryan completed 77.3 percent (17-of-22) of his passes, while Manning completed just 37.5 percent (6-of-16) of his attempts. Manning also threw all three of his interceptions inside the numbers. Also, Ryan was 5-of-6 for 75 yards when targeting Roddy White inside the numbers.
  • Although the Falcons didn’t get much out of their running game, they did well when it came to play-action passes. In those situations, Ryan was 12-of-13 for 95 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Falcons are now 27-6 under coach Mike Smith in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons also are 5-0 in Smith’s home openers.
  • The Falcons forced four turnovers. That marked the 35th time in the past 37 games that Atlanta has had at least one turnover.
  • Atlanta running back Michael Turner didn’t have a big night. But he scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. That was Turner’s 51st touchdown run, a franchise record, since joining the Falcons in 2008. In that same time span, only Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson has had more rushing touchdowns (54).
  • The Falcons intercepted Manning three times in the first quarter. The last time the Falcons had three interceptions in a game wasn’t that long ago. It came in the 2011 season finale against Tampa Bay. It also marked the first time in franchise history they’ve picked off three passes in the opening quarter. The Falcons previously had three interceptions in a quarter three times before. The first time was against Washington in the fourth quarter of a 1994 game. They also did it against Minnesota in the second quarter of a 2002 game and a 2003 game against Tampa Bay.
  • The Falcons had takeaways on three straight possessions for the second straight game. They also had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the season opener against Kansas City.
  • In Smith’s tenure, the Falcons now are 19-1 when they have had three or more takeaways in a game.
  • This season, the Falcons lead the league with 26 points after takeaways.
  • Ryan had a 101.5 passer rating. Dating back to last season Ryan has had a passer rating above 100 in three straight games. In Ryan’s career, the Falcons are 25-0 when he has a passer rating of 100 or higher.
  • Ryan now has 100 career touchdown passes.
  • Since his entry into the league in 2008, the Falcons are 26-5 when Ryan has had two or more touchdown passes. He has at least one touchdown pass in 17 straight games and in 32 of his last 33 games.
  • Ryan now has a franchise record 233 consecutive passes without an interception. The previous record was 197 attempts by Steve Bartkowski in 1982 and ’83.
  • White had 102 receiving yards. He has a franchise record 29 games with at least 100 receiving yards.

Atlanta's defense winning with swagger

September, 18, 2012
William MooreKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWilliam Moore's first quarter interception set the tone for the defense Monday night.
ATLANTA -- They still are wearing disguises -- lots of them -- but the days of the Atlanta Falcons masquerading as a team capable of going deep into the postseason might be ready to end.

If you saw Atlanta's defense in Monday night’s 27-21 win against the Denver Broncos at the Georgia Dome, you probably didn't recognize it. It looked nothing like the Atlanta defense that spent the previous four seasons without establishing any sort of true identity.

The Falcons have an identity now under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. They're aggressive, they've got swagger, and, most important of all, the defense is capable of winning a game on a night when the offense never fully hit its stride.

The Falcons intercepted Peyton Manning on his first three drives, the first time in his career Manning has opened a game with three straight interceptions.

"It all came down to disguising things," said safety William Moore, who played what easily was the best game of his career.

Moore set up Atlanta's first touchdown with an interception and came up with a critical sack in the fourth quarter to help ice the game.

Let's begin with Moore's interception because that set the tone for the game. It started with a disguise. On Denver's third play of the game, Moore started off lining up at middle linebacker. As the ball was snapped, he quickly became a safety, dropping fast into coverage.

Moore picked off Manning’s pass at the Denver 34-yard line and returned it to the 1-yard line to set up Michael Turner's touchdown three plays later.

"It all comes down to looks," Moore said. "You can't show your hand to Peyton Manning, or he'll eat you alive."

The Falcons threw all sorts of looks at Manning, and he threw all sorts of uncharacteristic passes. They went almost all game with only two linebackers, sometimes only one, on the field. They lined up defensive backs at linebacker, sometimes dropping them into coverage and sometimes having them blitz.

Safety Thomas DeCoud picked off Manning on Denver's second drive, and cornerback Robert McClain, who played only briefly while a couple of corners were banged up, came up with the first interception of his career on Denver's third drive.

"We were able to disguise our coverages pretty well," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

That’s an understatement. The Falcons (2-0) left a certain Hall of Famer looking hopelessly confused. That’s because the Falcons looked nothing like the play-not-to-lose defense they were under former coordinator Brian VanGorder. Under his watch, the Falcons played plenty of Cover 2 and always seemed to be on their heels.

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireSean Weatherspoon and an aggressive Falcons defense pressured the Broncos all night.
There’s nothing laid-back about Nolan’s defense. Outside linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas were all over the field, and the Falcons kept decent pressure on Manning. But it wasn't just Manning who was off balance.

Denver running back Knowshon Moreno lost a fumble near the end of the first quarter. Nicholas forced it and Weatherspoon recovered it as the Falcons finished the first quarter with four turnovers.

"It’s Peyton Manning," DeCoud said. “We weren't expecting to get three or four turnovers right off the bat."

It turned out to be a very fortunate thing that the Falcons got those early turnovers because their offense wasn't nearly as explosive as the defense. The Falcons managed only a touchdown and a field goal after the three Manning interceptions. They got only a field goal after the Moreno fumble. The offense seemed to go conservative at a time it could have been blowing the Broncos out of the building. Turner looked slow as he finished with 42 yards on 17 carries, and 15 of those yards came on a run late in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Julio Jones, who looked so good in the season opener, dropped several catchable passes and finished with four catches for 14 yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan (24-of-36 for 219 yards with two touchdowns), receiver Roddy White (eight catches for 102 yards and a touchdown) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown) were the bright spots for an offense that wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

But that's why the Falcons should take plenty of optimism out of this one. You look at their offensive talent and you know they'll usually be more productive on that side of the ball.

The defense? That's another story.

This is an entirely new defensive scheme and a whole different attitude. If the Atlanta defense can go out and almost single-handedly beat Manning, the Falcons should be able to win a lot more games and they won't have to do it with only offense.

They suddenly have a defensive swagger.

"Hopefully, we made a big statement around the league," Moore said. "We went out and played an excellent game against the best quarterback in the league. If we have that [swagger] all season, it's going to be a great season."

If the Falcons play defense like this all season, they could be more than the winning team they've been in the Ryan/Smith era. They could have an explosive offense and an explosive defense, and that -- at long last -- could take them a long way in the postseason.


Rapid Reaction: Falcons 27, Broncos 21

September, 18, 2012

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 27-21 victory against the Denver Broncos at the Georgia Dome on Monday night:

What it means: It wasn’t the offensive shootout that many expected and it was far from the best game you’ll ever see. But the bottom line is the Falcons are 2-0 and in sole possession of first place in the NFC South. They already have a two-game lead on the New Orleans Saints, who were supposed to be their main competition in the division.

What I liked: Atlanta’s defense. The Falcons intercepted Peyton Manning three times in the first quarter. Aside from a touchdown drive at the end of the first half, Manning and the Broncos never really got into an offensive rhythm. This defense isn’t perfect, but new coordinator Mike Nolan definitely has brought a more aggressive attitude.

What I didn’t like: The officiating. It wasn’t like the replacement officials totally were wrong on a bunch of calls. It’s just that they didn’t seem to have control of the game (and there were a couple times when their math seemed to be a little off when marking off penalties). There were a lot of flags thrown, a lot of back and forth with coaches and a lot of replays. The first half took almost two hours and the game didn’t end until after midnight ET. The NFL is very conscious of its television audience. This was not a pretty game and, undoubtedly, a lot of viewers went to bed before it was over. If anything, this game might help prompt the league to resolve the labor situation with the regular officials.

What else I didn't like: The way Atlanta coach Mike Smith and/or offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter got so conservative with the play calling. The Falcons had a chance to blow the Broncos out early. Instead, they let them hang in way too late. It didn't result in disaster this time, but it's extremely dangerous to go conservative when you're playing against someone like Manning.

Game of his life: I thought Atlanta safety William Moore played as well as I’ve ever seen him play. He intercepted Manning on the first drive and returned the ball to the Denver 1-yard line, where the Falcons were able to punch it in for a quick touchdown. Moore also broke up another potential touchdown pass with a big hit on a receiver in the end zone and had good coverage all night. Moore also came up with a crucial sack midway through the fourth quarter.

Milestone time: The touchdown pass to Roddy White with 7:08 left in Matt Ryan's career.

Milestone-ending time: Atlanta receiver Julio Jones had the longest active streak in the league with at least one touchdown reception in his past five games. That streak is over. Jones didn’t catch a touchdown Monday and also had several drops. White picked up the slack and carried Atlanta’s receiving game. White topped the 100-yard mark in receiving for the 29th time in his career.

What’s next: The Falcons have a short week and a long road trip. They play at San Diego on Sunday afternoon. They’ll practice Friday at their facility before making the flight Friday afternoon.

Thoughts at halftime

September, 17, 2012

ATLANTA -- Peyton Manning was still a young man when Monday night’s game began.

By halftime, he’s middle-aged. I’m not just saying that because Manning was intercepted three times in the first quarter. I’m saying that because the first half between the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons is one of the longest I’ve ever seen.

Blame it on replacement officials, lots of replay reviews, challenges and a couple of injuries. Whatever, this game probably isn’t going to end until sometime Tuesday morning.

It’s halftime now and the Falcons lead 20-7. That score is somewhat misleading because the Falcons should be leading something like 35-0, but Atlanta’s offense has been strangely inconsistent.

That offense also has been way too conservative. It’s almost like coach Mike Smith saw the early Manning interceptions and went to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and said, “Let’s play it safe’’.

That’s pretty much what the Falcons have done and it could end up coming back to bite them.

They were up 20-0, but Manning led a touchdown drive right at the end of the first half. That puts the Broncos within striking distance.

We’ll find out in the second half if Smith and Koetter got too conservative. I'll be back after the game. Of course, that might not come until Tuesday morning.