NFC South: NFL

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints announced their respective lists of inactives for Monday’s contest at Soldier Field.

The Bears go into the matchup without kicker Robbie Gould (right quadriceps) and free safety Chris Conte (back), along with cornerback Terrance Mitchell, offensive lineman Michael Ola, defensive end Trevor Scott, defensive tackle Brandon Dunn and quarterback David Fales.

Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette and left tackle Terron Armstead are both active after being listed as questionable, and both are big assets for New Orleans. Galette, who suffered a knee injury last week, is the Saints’ best pass-rusher.

The biggest surprise among the Saints’ inactives is cornerback Corey White, who has been a starter for most of the season. The Saints are expected to shuffle up their secondary, with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro likely shifting back into the nickel role where he thrived last year. Cornerback Terrence Frederick and safety Jamarca Sanford could see elevated roles.

Chicago defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff returns to the starting lineup for the first time since the club’s Nov. 23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s been active the last two games due to a knee injury.

Conte, meanwhile, will miss his first outing since Chicago’s loss on Oct. 19 to the Miami Dolphins.

Conte suffered his back injury during the third quarter Dec. 4 in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Prior to that, Conte left the club’s loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving because of an eye injury. Conte has been diagnosed with two concussions this season, in addition to missing time with sprains of both shoulders.

Rookie Brock Vereen will start at free safety in Conte’s place.

The Saints activated veteran Robert Meachem as their fourth receiver after releasing Joe Morgan earlier this week. Recently-promoted rookie receiver Seantavius Jones is inactive.

Also inactive for the Saints: cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Ronald Powell and Moise Fokou, defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil and offensive tackle Nick Becton.
When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday. Where: Soldier Field, Chicago. TV: ESPN.

Call it the Disappointment Cup, Underachievers Bowl, The Battle of We’re-Not-What-We-Thought-We-Were teams. But any way you bill it, Monday night’s game between the New Orleans Saints (5-8) and Chicago Bears (5-8) at Soldier Field makes for an intriguing matchup, even if Bears receiver Brandon Marshall believes ESPN should take the teams off "Monday Night Football."

Despite New Orleans’ dismal record, there’s still plenty of incentive to win, considering the Saints remain alive in the playoff hunt. The same can’t be said of Chicago, but how this club finishes should go a long way toward determining the extent of upcoming changes this offseason, whether in personnel, the front office or the coaching staff.

ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the matchup:

Wright: Team leaders have called the Saints' effort in the loss to the Carolina Panthers unprofessional, which frankly is odd considering the Saints are still playing for a postseason berth. How is the team handling the situation moving forward because it has the easiest remaining schedule in the league based on average DVOA of opponent?

Triplett: First of all, the Saints’ remaining schedule is pretty meaningless considering the opponent hasn’t mattered much this year. When the Saints have shown up, they’ve beaten the Green Bay Packers by 21 points at home and played great in a win at Pittsburgh, among others. When they haven’t, they’ve been blown out at home by Carolina and Cincinnati, among others. And that’s the point the leaders were getting at when they talked about professionalism. As veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief put it, you can’t just show up and expect to win. They have to treat every game with the same season-on-the-line intensity that they showed in those good games.

Clearly they still have a high ceiling, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The loss to Carolina this past week was extremely disturbing, and it led to a major roster shake-up. There’s clearly no excuse for a lack of urgency at this point.

I obviously haven’t been too impressed by what I’ve seen from the Bears in their recent national TV appearances. And I know how much they’ll miss Marshall. But I still see a lot of talented playmakers on that offense and think they could cause big problems for a Saints defense that is struggling in all areas. Am I wrong?

Wright: No, you’re correct. But it all comes down to execution, and we haven’t seen any evidence the Bears can do that on a consistent basis, which has been the group’s main problem all year. Even without Marshall in the lineup, there are still plenty of weapons in running back Matt Forte, receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. My expectation is the Bears will lean on Forte early and try to use him to set up play-action so the Bears can go deep to Jeffery or hit Bennett down the seam or on intermediate crossing routes. Forte is the key here, and one of the main issues we’ve seen with this offense is the Bears never truly commit to establish the rushing attack, which eventually forces them to be one-dimensional, thus much easier to defend.

New Orleans and Chicago play similar offenses, which should make for an intriguing matchup. What has gone wrong with the Saints, offensively?

Triplett: The Saints’ offense has been good at times, especially since they now have a consistent run game to balance their prolific passing offense. The two problems that have crept up most are turnovers and the disappearance of the downfield passing game.

Drew Brees has been sharp at times. He’s on pace for another 4,900 passing yards and he’s leading the NFL with a completion percentage of 69.3. But he has turned the ball over way too many times in big spots (12 interceptions and two lost fumbles). A big part of the problem is that he’s pressing too much to do it all by himself with the Saints’ defense struggling so badly. Their other star, tight end Jimmy Graham, has also been too up-and-down.

And defenses have done a great job of taking away deep passes and forcing the Saints to patiently work their way down the field. The Saints are decent at that; they lead the NFL in third-down efficiency. But that also increases the opportunity for mistakes.

When I look back on past Saints-Bears matchups, I think of the Cover 2 defense that forced the Saints to patiently work their way down the field (something they finally did successfully last year). Is that still the case -- on their good days, at least?

Wright: Mike, I don’t think so. They’ve moved away from playing Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 style of defense and become more of a traditional under 4-3 that plays a variety of coverages on the back end based on that week’s game plan. Against a quarterback such as Brees, the Bears would probably play more Cover 2 early on to force him to slowly move the ball down the field. But if the Bears can’t generate consistent pressure with the front four, they’ll try to manufacture pressure via the blitz. Chicago fares well against average quarterbacks protected by average to below average offensive lines. But when this team comes up against the top quarterbacks and good offensive lines, they struggle tremendously, and the main reason for that is the inability to consistently generate pressure with just the front four. When Chicago can’t do that, it dials up the blitz. But if the rushers can’t get home -- which is often the case -- it puts this team’s horrid secondary in coverage situations it can’t handle.

How “real” is this rift between Sean Payton and Rob Ryan, and how do you think the situation will affect how the Saints perform the rest of the way?

Triplett: Both guys went to great lengths to downplay it and insist they have a ton of respect for each other. And I haven’t heard otherwise from sources I’ve talked to. So I think that story was overblown at least a little bit. And the sideline shouting matches are typical of Payton, as he has explained, so I also don’t read much into that.

But there’s no question that Ryan must be sitting on an extremely hot seat with a defense that is by far the worst in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s efficiency rating. This defense was supposed to be a great strength after they finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed last year, and they’ve totally imploded with everything from a lack of a pass rush, a lack of turnovers, a woeful run defense, missed tackles and assignment breakdowns in the secondary. That doesn’t all fall on Ryan, but the results are unacceptable.

That offensive line has become New Orleans North. Was sorry to see Brian de la Puente wind up on injured reserve. How are Jermon Bushrod and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer faring?

Wright: I guess the answer to that question depends on perspective with regard to Bushrod. New Orleans didn’t mind letting Bushrod walk for a reason, in my opinion. The Bears overpaid Bushrod to anchor that offensive line, but the truth is he has struggled, especially during the second half of the season. Going into the team’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Bushrod produced four consecutive games with negative ratings, according to Pro Football Focus, and that registers among the worst in the league. As for Kromer, it’s difficult to determine how he’s faring because nobody really knows how much input he has in what’s going on offensively. Even though Kromer holds the title of offensive coordinator, head coach Marc Trestman actually calls all the plays. The truth is it would be nice if Trestman relinquished those duties over the team’s final three games to see what Kromer can do. Just based on interviews with Kromer, it seems his philosophies differ a little from Trestman’s. I definitely sense Kromer is more committed to establishing the run than Trestman is.

Bucs to recognize Devon and Leah Still

November, 30, 2014
Nov 30
12:05
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Hours before Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced they were joining the Bengals and defensive tackle Devon Still in the fight against pediatric cancer.

Five days after Still found himself in the middle of a controversy about him continuing to pay child support for his cancer-stricken 4-year-old daughter, Leah, the Buccaneers said they were donating $2,500 to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital and Medical Center in her honor. In addition, the team will show a special tribute video on Raymond James Stadium's video boards just before kickoff.

In conjunction with those efforts, the Bucs are hosting as team guests 50 members of the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, including children and families battling cancer.

The Stills became one of those families on June 2, when Leah was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer that gave her a 50-50 chance of surviving.

She has since had her cancerous tumor removed, but continues undergoing radiation and stem cell treatments to rid her body of other cancer-causing cells. Over the course of her battle with the illness, Leah has captured the attention of the country.

On Aug. 31, her father had been cut by the Bengals as they were trimming their preseason roster down to the 53-man regular-season limit. A day later, they re-signed him to the practice squad, where he remained for two weeks before getting added to the active roster. He told reporters back then that he couldn't focus fully on football in the preseason because of her condition.

Since the season began, Still has made regular trips to Philadelphia, where Leah is getting treatments at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. After Sunday home games, he flies there, spending time with Leah on Mondays and Tuesdays. When she's not in the hospital, Leah lives in Delaware with her mother, Channing Smythe.

Last Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported that Smythe sent a letter to the NFL asking to investigate whether Still had violated its personal conduct policy for allegedly failing to make payments to Smythe.

"I don't consider him a deadbeat dad," Smythe told the Daily News. "I know he loves and cares for his daughter and he is there for her. I just need him to help me financially."

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said the team remained "very confident" in Still in the wake of the allegations.

"We're not privy to all the facts of it," Lewis said at the start of his weekly news conference, "but Devon is very confident that he's taking care of business the right way and eventually, at some point, if there's things that need to be done through the legality through the courts, that all would come out that way.

"We're going to continue to support him. We're very confident in the things he's done."

Still also released a statement that said the following:

"My daughter's battle with cancer has been inspirational to many all over the world. When she gets older, I want her to be able to look back and read about her positive impact on the world, not about the private issues her parents were going through. I am not going to retaliate against the mother of my daughter, and the untruthful reports in the New York Daily News article, by criticizing her character. I am going to continue to allow the court system to handle this matter, as it has been doing these past couple of months."

The Buccaneers joined the Patriots and Saints as other teams that have recognized the Stills during Bengals road games this season.

When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Soldier Field, Chicago TV: Fox

The records scrub away some of the shine for Sunday's matchup at Soldier Field between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears, but the storylines involved remain interesting for what should be a competitive contest.

First off, there's the obvious with Lovie Smith coming to town to coach against his former team, which is led by former Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown. But even with the Bucs owning a 2-8 record, they're just two games out of first place in the NFC South.

The Bears, meanwhile, are looking to win back-to-back contests for the first time this season since Weeks 2 and 3.

Remember, the Bears fired Smith after a 2012 season in which he led the team to a 10-6 record. The club hasn't recorded a double-digit win season since, and doesn't appear to be on the way to doing it this year, either.

Bears reporter Michael C. Wright takes a look at the matchup with Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinkas:

Wright: Pat, the Buccaneers are coming off a big road win at Washington, and I've long thought they were a much more talented team than the record indicated. Obviously, it's probably too late to save the season. But how's the atmosphere out there coming off this win, and what's the next step for the Bucs?

Yasinkas: The atmosphere is a lot better than you would expect from a 2-8 team. That's mainly due to the fact the Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South. And, you're right, this is a talented team. If the Bucs can put that talent together down the stretch, they could end up being a playoff team. It may sound crazy, but they're not far off the pace in the NFC South.

I thought last year's strong finish by Chicago would carry over into this season. But it hasn't. What's gone wrong for the Bears?

Wright: Where do I start? I think people put too much faith in the offense, expecting it to perform at the same level or better than it did in 2013. But what folks don't understand is the Bears sort of caught teams by surprise last season because opponents didn't know exactly what to expect out of a Marc Trestman offense. Opponents adjusted in 2014 to what the Bears put on film in 2013, and they've had trouble coming up with a sufficient counterpunch. On the other side of the ball, the Bears revamped the front four, but haven't received the production commensurate with the investment. The Bears miscalculated what the staff would be able to get out of the linebacking corps, which has struggled, not to mention the secondary.

Surely, there's quite a bit of disappointment about Tampa Bay's record, especially when considering how the Bucs have squandered fourth-quarter leads five times this season. Why haven't the Bucs been able to hold leads, and overall, what's the thought out there regarding the job done so far by former Bears coach Lovie Smith?

Yasinkas: The Bucs have had their share of disappointing losses. They've blown five fourth-quarter leads and the reasons for that are collapses by the defense and an inability by the offense to protect a lead. That has been very disappointing and you can make a strong case that the Bucs should have a much better record than they do. Fans aren't very pleased with what Lovie Smith has done so far. He has been stubborn, sticking to a Tampa 2 defense that may be antiquated and an offense that's conservative. But the Washington game was a good example of what "Lovie Ball" can be when it works properly. Smith's record isn't very good, but he's not on the hot seat. Ownership believes he can show some promise down the stretch and turn things around with another offseason.

There has been a lot of talk about Jay Cutler's future in Chicago. Does he have one?

Wright: Boy, that's a good question that I'm not sure I can answer at this point. Obviously with the contract, Cutler is sort of handcuffed to the team for the next couple of seasons. But if Cutler doesn't improve down the stretch, I could see the Bears looking for ways to cut ties (a trade perhaps?). The Bears gave Cutler a $126.7 million contract, and he certainly hasn't produced at the level you'd expect a player making that type of money. So if the arrow isn't pointing up for Cutler at the conclusion of the season, it certainly wouldn't surprise me if the Bears entered 2015 with an open competition at the position or looked to trade him in the offseason.

Speaking of quarterbacks, when Josh McCown left Chicago to sign with the Buccaneers, it seemed like an ideal match, especially when considering how he performed in 2013 as the fill-in for Cutler. Can you give me a rundown as to why has McCown struggled this season?

Yasinkas: McCown admitted recently that he was pressing too much in the first three games. He was trying to make something happen out of nothing and that led to some mistakes. But McCown got five games to sit back and watch while he dealt with a thumb injury. In the past two games, he has been much more efficient. The Washington game was similar to what he did in Chicago last year. If he can continue to do that the rest of the season, the Bucs will be very happy.

I know it's only Year 2, but this league doesn't have much patience anymore. Is Marc Trestman on the hot seat?

Wright: Similar to Cutler's situation, I think it all depends on how the team performs down the stretch. At this point, I don't think general manager Phil Emery is inclined to fire Trestman in part because of the investment in Cutler. Prior to Trestman's arrival, Cutler had played for three different offensive coordinators in three different systems over four seasons. So for Emery, gaining some level of stability for Cutler was important, which is what the GM believed he did in bringing aboard Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. Remember, the Bears signed Cutler to a seven-year contract, and Emery doesn't want his quarterback playing in yet another system for another coach. So unless the Bears totally nose dive over the last six games, Trestman's job is safe. Certainly, there will be scapegoats let go at the conclusion of the season regardless of what happens. But I don't think Trestman is on the hot seat. He'll get another season unless things go totally awry.
The start of Week 12 means only one thing in these parts. It's time to start playing with ESPN's Playoff Machine, which provides playoff seeding for any series of regular-season game results you can imagine.

The possibilities are particularly relevant now, at a time when two-thirds of NFL teams (21 of 32) are either sitting in a playoff position or are within one game of it. And even as the NFL seems destined to expand the postseason field, perhaps as early as next year, the NFC South is vying to send a sub.-500 team to the playoffs. It's not too difficult, in fact, to find scenarios where someone clinches the NFC South with just five wins.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesMike Evans and the Bucs are 2-8, yet very much alive in the NFC South race.
Currently, the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons are atop the division at 4-6, with the Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) only semi-comatose at their heels. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 2-8, a near-fatal record in most years but one that has kept them in contention as Thanksgiving approaches. In fact, a 4-2 finish could be all the Bucs need.

That's right. If everything goes their way -- and with six weeks remaining, there are so many variables -- the Bucs could win the division at 6-10. The Panthers could win it with as few as five victories, as could the Falcons. It appears the Saints would need at least six victories to win the title, based on tiebreakers. (Note: I didn’t consider future ties in generating these scenarios.)

The NFC South debacle conjures bad memories of the 2010 NFC West race, the only other instance since 1967 when a division leader has been two games under .500 this late in the season, per the Elias Sports Bureau. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks overcame the St. Louis Rams in Week 17 to win the NFC West at 7-9.

What would you think if the 5-11 Falcons hosted an 11-5 Philadelphia Eagles team on wild-card weekend, while a 10-6 San Francisco 49ers team stayed home? That could happen, according to the Playoff Machine.

How would you react if the 11-5 49ers had to make a cross-country trip to face the 5-10-1 Panthers, with the 10-6 Eagles home for the holidays? That could happen as well.

Expanding the playoffs a year after a sub-.500 team wins its division might be a bad look, but as we discussed in the spring, it appears inevitable. It's also worth noting that adding a seventh playoff team to each conference, for a total of 14 league-wide, would reduce the chances of a team like the Eagles or 49ers in our scenarios of missing the postseason.

The NFL tabled discussions on a proposed 2015 playoffs expansion during its spring meeting, and perhaps the delay -- and the NFC South's situation -- will spur further discussion. Is there a way to reduce, but not eliminate, the reward of winning a division? Should playoff seeding be based purely on record, or is there a way to differentiate division winners from wild-card teams while still avoiding a 5-11 team hosting a playoff game?

Have an idea? Leave it in the comments section. We have plenty of time to hash it out. And who knows? Maybe an NFC South team will emerge to make the discussion moot for another year.

NEW ORLEANS -- First, it was the Joker. Now it's the gold-clad football snatcher.

One week after New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was "groped up" during a leap into the Superdome's end zone seats by a person wearing a Joker costume, another Saints fan drew the ire of at least two Cincinnati Bengals fans on Sunday.

Midway through the third quarter, Cincinnati tight end Jermaine Gresham caught a 1-yard touchdown pass that put the Bengals up 19-3 when he jogged over to the end zone wall. As he approached, two female Bengals fans -- one dressed in a black A.J. Green jersey and the other in an orange Bengals T-shirt -- had just jogged down the section's steps to the edge of wall. They were excitedly pleading for the ball when Gresham complied.

But what none of them, not Gresham nor the women asking for the ball, had expected was the male Saints fan lurking nearby in the first row.

As the ball left Gresham's hands, the Saints fan, identified by the Cincinnati Enquirer as a man named Tony Williams, leaped in front of the two women. As the one in the Green jersey -- identified by the Enquirer as Versailles, Kentucky, native Christa Barrett -- caught the flip, Williams snatched the ball from her. In the same motion, he sat back down, putting the ball underneath his right arm.

It stayed there the rest of the game.

"He should be ashamed of himself," Gresham told a reporter from The Associated Press. "And you can put that on the record."

That was a telling quote for Gresham, a player who typically shies away from talking to reporters. He's permitted Cincinnati media to talk with him on the record only once this season.

Other Bengals players told ESPN.com they were flabbergasted by the snatch.

"That was dirty!" said offensive tackle Andre Smith, who watched the incident from the sideline.

The woman in the orange shirt, Barrett's friend, Cara Meadows, told the Enquirer how firm Williams was in wanting to keep the football.

"He kept saying, 'No ma'am,'" Meadows said. "'No ma'am.'"

Once the game ended, the Saints gave Barrett another football.

Williams kept his.

"It's very simple," Williams told the Enquirer. "I caught the football.

"I didn't mean to hit that young lady," he said. "I was just reaching for the football."

Cameras from CBS, the network broadcasting the game, caught the snatch.

What they didn't catch, however, was the audible frustration fans in the section had during the post-point-after attempt timeout. As the teams prepared for the ensuing kickoff, fans in the section chanted, "Give her the ball! Give her the ball!" The chants could be heard throughout the building.

The catch was the second scoring play Gresham was part of. He also recovered his own fumble in the end zone in the first quarter after catching a 12-yard pass.
Update: Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green will not play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, sources told ESPN on Friday.

With the
Cincinnati Bengals reeling from what ended as a 26-point loss to the Patriots and the Carolina Panthers looking to build off their big win over Chicago, we begin tiptoeing into the middle part of the season with this intriguing nonconference matchup.

The Panthers go on the road Sunday afternoon for just the third time this season, traveling to a building that hasn't witnessed a regular-season home-team loss since Dec. 9, 2012. Inside Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals are winners of their past 11 games. Their last victory there, three weeks ago against Tennessee, set a franchise record for consecutive home wins.

It isn't just that the Bengals have won there, either. Their past seven wins at home have been of the lopsided variety. Cincinnati has won those past seven games by an average score of 38-15.

Can the Panthers snap the streak? Or will the Bengals add to it? ESPN's David Newton (Panthers reporter) and Coley Harvey (Bengals reporter) are here to help you figure it out.

Harvey: You touched on this on your blog earlier this week, David, but how important are these next five games for the Panthers? Specifically, how important is this week's game to sending a message to the league considering how poorly Carolina has played against the AFC North so far?

Newton: Depends which person you ask, Coley. If you want the Ron Rivera answer, this game is the most important one because it is the next one. If you ask me, which obviously you are, going no worse than 2-3 in this stretch is pivotal. To go 3-2 or better would put Carolina in solid shape as far as the NFC South the way the rest of the division is going. Here’s the deal. If the Panthers want to be considered a playoff team, they need to beat other playoff teams, which all five (Cincinnati, Green Bay, New Orleans, Seattle, Philadelphia) of their next opponents should be. It’s like last season when Carolina played at San Francisco and at home against New England in consecutive weeks. The Panthers were 5-3 going into those games but were not taken seriously. After winning both, as Rivera said often, they became relevant. As for this game, it’s more about sending a message to the Panthers that they have righted the ship after being outscored 75-29 by Pittsburgh and Baltimore than sending a message to the rest of the league.

Coley, are the Bengals as good as their 3-1 record or did New England find something that makes them vulnerable moving forward?

Harvey: David, the Bengals are most certainly as good as their record indicates, and I'd argue that they actually are better than the 3-1 mark indicates. They should be 4-0 right now. Upon further review of last week's game, it wasn't that New England came up with a grand scheme to expose the Bengals, it's just that the Patriots executed a rather simple game plan and had a few wrinkles that exposed some weaknesses that shouldn't be there this weekend. The Patriots also played with something the Bengals ought to have this week: emotion. Just six days after getting embarrassed on "Monday Night Football," the Patriots played angry, like they had something to prove.

Cincinnati had been playing that way all year but just didn't match the Patriots' intensity. If the Bengals had, I'd argue that they would have won the game. They certainly had chances well into the third quarter before the Patriots got some help with turnovers and pulled away. Before last week, the Bengals had only one turnover all year. They had three at New England. If they can play clean football moving forward, they'll be just fine. Likely getting linebacker Vontaze Burfict back this week will help, too. His absence was something the Patriots were able to smartly expose by flustering his replacement, Emmanuel Lamur. A series of quick snaps had the Patriots running plays before Lamur could get the play fully set. With Burfict on the field, you probably won't see that happen.

Speaking of New England's quick-snap offense, I'm curious about Carolina's no-huddle, which it seems has been run a lot. What type of impact has that up-tempo scheme had on the offense’s success with Cam Newton leading it?

Newton: First, to say the Panthers have run "a lot" of no huddle is a bit overstated. They ran it to open the Baltimore game and were having success until self-destructing inside the 20 on the first drive. They ran it at the end of the first half and beginning of the second half against Chicago to wipe out a 21-7 deficit. That was more out of necessity. It has helped get Newton and the offensive line into a rhythm. Newton ran the no-huddle exclusively in college and feels comfortable in it, although he ran more out of it in college than he’s able to do now because his left ankle isn’t 100 percent. But as offensive coordinator Mike Shula said, the Panthers aren’t so good at it that they’ll use it for anything more than to mix things up. He still wants to be that ball-control team that eats up the clock with long drives. He still wants to achieve more balance between the run and pass, something the Panthers haven’t done well in the first five games. Having the backfield decimated by injuries has factored into that.

When DeAngelo Williams has been healthy (basically for five quarters), the run game has been effective. Williams likely won’t be there again this week, but with Cincinnati ranked 27th against the run, I suspect you’ll see Carolina attack that -- even if it’s out of the no-huddle. The Panthers don’t use the no-huddle to go up-tempo as much as they do to find a rhythm. Ideally, they’d use it like they did on the first drive of the second half against Chicago with five passes and four runs.

I noticed in your "The Film Don't Lie" post that you focused on Cincinnati needing to stop the run. Is there a reason for the Panthers to believe they can run against the Bengals?

Harvey: If the Bengals tackle as poorly as they did Sunday, yes. If the Bengals don't have Burfict, yes. If the Bengals fail to extend blockers in a way that would allow their teammates to seal off running lanes and finish tackles, yes. Otherwise, the Panthers could have difficulty running the ball if they already have had trouble doing that this year, particularly with Williams likely out. Although there have been issues for Cincinnati against the run in the past two games, the Bengals began the year by shutting down Baltimore's and Atlanta's ground games. The two top-10 rushing units gained less than 100 yards in their respective games against the Bengals. The Titans (149 yards) and Patriots (220 yards) were a slightly different story. A large part of the problems in those games stemmed from taking poor tackle angles and problems wrapping up. Some of that also could be attributed to a pair of ill-timed injuries.

Burfict is a noted run-stopper who hasn't played since a Week 2 concussion sidelined him, and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson has been missing since the same week because of a knee injury. A number of the runs that have hurt the most have come up the middle of the field, and they've occurred because the Bengals miss Burfict's enforcer style of hitting. One way the Panthers can exploit the Bengals in the running game is by getting Newton, bum ankle or not, to scramble for yards in the middle of the field. That worked for Matt Ryan and Jake Locker.

Back to Carolina's offense. Greg Olsen has been a growing part of the offense in the four seasons he's been there. What is it about his play that makes him such a weapon, particularly in the red zone?

Newton: As I wrote Wednesday, Olsen isn’t the most imposing figure when you think of prolific NFL tight ends. But he is smart and a great route runner. He knows how to create separation and find that crease in the secondary. Helping him more this year is the presence of rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin demands extra attention. When the safety cheats over to help the corner, Olsen typically finds the open spot. That happened a lot against Chicago. It’s particularly effective in the red zone because opponents are aware Newton simply will lob the ball high and let Benjamin go up and get it. That again has opened the middle, as you saw with the winning touchdown to Olsen against Chicago. But even before Benjamin arrived, Olsen was Carolina’s most consistent weapon the past two seasons (sorry, Steve Smith). As I’ve written several times, he’s the best tight end active today who hasn’t been selected to the Pro Bowl. That he’s been in the same division as Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez hasn’t helped. Now that Gonzalez is retired, Olsen should get as much attention off the field as he’s getting on it.

It's obvious Newton is key to Carolina's success, even if he's not running much these days. How crucial is Andy Dalton to Cincinnati's success? Is he living up to the new contract he signed in August?

Harvey: As the quarterback, Dalton is most certainly crucial to Cincinnati's success or failure. But what we've seen this season is that when things are going well he isn't the only player making them go well. When things are bad, he isn't the only one making them go that way, either. I'll put it this way. Entering Sunday night's game at New England, the knock on Dalton had been that he didn't show up in prime-time games. He was 2-4 all time in those contests and had a penchant for turning the ball over. At Miami on a Thursday night last year, he threw three interceptions alone. But against the Patriots, he played well enough to earn my game ball. He has played better games, but he wasn't terrible. He had three passes dropped, including one in the end zone on a would-be touchdown to tight end Jermaine Gresham. Dalton also didn't have a turnover. He managed a losing game about as well as he could. He just needed more help.

When the Bengals have been good this season, he has played a major role in that, but he also has had strong play from his supporting cast. His receivers had been running crisp, precise, rhythmic routes. His offensive line had kept him so protected that he didn't get sacked for the first time until last week. And his running backs have often been there to bail him out of blitzes to catch short screens. So, yes, although Dalton is living up to his $115 million contract extension, he's been getting help from those around him.

CINCINNATI -- The war of words between the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons has already started, and it doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon.

So don't be surprised if Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium if the two teams play with an edge that's uncommon for an early season, cross-conference matchup like this one.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
Patrick Semansky/Associated PressAdam Jones has been engaging in a war of words with Atlanta's Devin Hester this week.
Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, for a chippy game.

For the past two days, boastful barbs have been lobbed back and forth between the locker rooms as players on both teams have used the media to state their case at positional supremacy. Primarily, it's been two of the four men in Atlanta's talented receiving corps who felt compelled to respond to one of the players who will be charged with stopping them. Bengals cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones levied the first blow in this verbal battle on Wednesday.

"He's a good returner," said Jones about Atlanta's receiver/return specialist Devin Hester, "but he's not better than me. He played more games than me, way more games than me. I don't feel like there's anybody better than me when I'm right there. I've said that a long time before now."

Hester has an NFL-record 18 combined kick-return scores in 124 career games, including an NFL-record 13 punt-return touchdowns. Jones has five career punt-return scores in 85 career games. Last week, Hester had a kick return for 21 yards and gained a yard on a punt return. Jones had one punt return for 45 yards.

In the career sense, Hester was right. So how did he respond?

"Every return man is going to try and compare himself to me," Hester told ESPN's Vaughn McClure in Atlanta on Thursday. "That's just the way it is. If you look at the stats, I'm on the top of the list. So everybody, when it's time to play me, is going to try and want to be the next Devin Hester."

Added Falcons receiver Roddy White: "Oh my God. You're talking about a Hall of Famer and then [Jones]. I don't even know how many Pacman's got. It's like apples to oranges, man. Devin, everybody knows what he can do in the return game."

Even if they tried to laugh them off, the two Falcons clearly weren't happy with Jones' remarks.

Atlanta's cornerbacks might not like what Bengals receiver A.J. Green said Thursday while noting the considerable height difference between he and the cornerbacks who will go up against him. Green said, "those guys are chippy, man. Chippy little guys, like little gnats."

At 6-foot-4, Green is athletic with tremendous leaping ability. His likely matchups, Robert Alford and Robert McClain, are 5-10 and 5-9, respectively. The best way to beat them, Green said? To be physical.

It's much the same kind of physicality he said was necessary to handle Falcons safety William Moore, a "big, physical linebacker [type of] safety." Green said that when Moore is on the field a receiver or tight end must always be aware of where he is.

See? There's respect here despite all the mid-week trash talk. Players on both teams train together in the offseason, and their coaches have crossed paths several times before. Green also makes Atlanta his home in the offseason, and has been revered in the area since starring at Georgia. An East Point, Georgia, native, Jones also has strong ties to the area.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said it best when describing the relationships on both teams.

"I've got a lot of friendships with a lot of people, but this week we're competing," Lewis said. "We can go back to being friends next week again."

The players might be friendly at the end of Sunday's game, but this early war of words gives them reasons to be anything but during it.

Falcons vs. Bengals preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
8:00
AM ET

Paul Brown Stadium, or "The Jungle" as it's been nicknamed in Cincinnati, has been a place of horrors for opposing offenses in recent seasons.

Since December 2012, when the Cincinnati Bengals started a nine-game regular-season home winning streak, only once has an opposing offense scored 30 or more points. One, the New England Patriots' offense, couldn't even score a touchdown.

So far this very young season, scoring appears to be exactly what the Atlanta Falcons do best. At home against New Orleans last week they scored 37 points in an overtime thriller that was decided when Matt Bryant drove in a game-winning 52-yard field goal. Quarterback Matt Ryan emerged as one of the top offensive players in the NFL's first week, passing for 448 yards and three touchdowns.

When the Bengals and Falcons meet Sunday in Cincinnati, something will have to give. Will the Bengals finally relent and get outscored at home for the first time in a regular-season game in three seasons? Or will the Falcons' offense fail to take off after last week's explosion?

ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure (Atlanta Falcons reporter) and Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) are here to help you preview the matchup:

Harvey: Let's start with you, Vaughn. Ryan’s right arm was the story for the Falcons against New Orleans last weekend. What kind of message do you think his performance sent the league?

McClure: I think the message here is that Ryan is definitely among the league’s elite quarterbacks, when he has time to throw. Last year, he was the most pressured quarterback in the league and didn’t have time to step up in the pocket and go deep. Against the Saints, I think we saw how beneficial it was for Ryan to have a big, strong right guard protecting him in offseason acquisition Jon Asamoah. Ryan didn’t have pressure in his face like he did last year when the Saints came to the Georgia Dome. And Ryan showed off some surprising mobility, that he says he’s always had inside of him, to extend plays. A large part of that was him, but he also had noticeable space to work with due to better protection. Ryan was sacked just once against the Saints. If he continues to stay upright, and his primary weapons in Julio Jones, Roddy White, Devin Hester and Harry Douglas stay healthy, he should put up astronomical numbers this year.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I've had my doubts about Andy Dalton, and then he gets rewarded with a contract extension. What makes you believe he was a worthwhile investment and where does he need to improve the most this season?

Harvey: Two words: Hue Jackson. Not long after the Bengals promoted Jackson to offensive coordinator, and not long after he began telling reporters here what his offensive approach would be, I became sold on the fact it would be wise for the Bengals to invest in Dalton before this season. Why? Because I believe Jackson's scheme and tough-as-nails coaching is going to put Dalton in more favorable positions than he's been in at any point of his career. I'm serious when I say this. We'll see if Jackson's in Cincinnati this time next year. This offense has the potential to be that good. Already we've seen Dalton play relatively clean football. He didn't have a turnover in the preseason against the Chiefs', Jets' and Cardinals' first-team defenses, and he didn't have one against the Ravens last Sunday. He's starting to showcase some of his old college mobility with the read option, and he's giving defenses looks he hadn't previously shown. He also came into the season passing better, following instructions from quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and off-team throwing instructor Tom House. Dalton still has to show his decision-making has improved, and he needs to clean up his read-option play. Otherwise, he's in line for a big year.

Atlanta’s offense has gotten most of the headlines the past couple of seasons. Having a combination like Ryan, Jones, White and Tony Gonzalez will do that. What does the Falcons’ defense have to do in this game to prove that last week's 34 points allowed was an aberration, and that it can have an impact, too?

McClure: The Falcons won’t boast a top-10 defense this season, probably not even a top-15 defense. But they don’t have to if the offense continues to put points on the board. What the defense needs to do is come up with timely turnovers, as it did with William Moore's forced fumble in overtime of the opener, which set up Bryant’s game-winning field goal. The defense needs to be much better on third down, and a big part of that will be avoiding penalties in third-down situations. The Falcons also have to surrender fewer explosive plays, which really was a regular occurrence last year. There’s a tremendous concern about the lack of pressure up front, particularly after no sacks were recorded against the Saints. But they were up against Drew Brees, arguably the best in the business with his footwork and getting the ball out quickly. If the Falcons can just generate adequate pressure despite not having an elite pass-rusher, life will be much easier.

I know a couple of key players on defense exited the last game early. Is Geno Atkins ready to go and is Vontaze Burfict going to be cleared off a concussion? How will it change the dynamic of the defense if Burfict's not ready?

Harvey: As I'm typing this, there appears to be a greater deal of uncertainty over Atkins than we originally thought. After reporters saw Atkins get carted into the locker room after Sunday’s game, head coach Marvin Lewis said he believed the defensive tackle was just dehydrated. Lo and behold, Atkins didn’t practice Wednesday and was listed as having a “feet” injury. It’s possible Devon Still’s activation this week had something to do with Atkins possibly being unable to go this week. As for Burfict, it depends in part on whether he's able to practice Friday. But even then, that's not necessarily the best barometer of showing whether he'll play Sunday. Offensive tackle Andre Smith took two weeks at the end of the preseason to pass the concussion protocol and be allowed to practice. He didn't play in a single preseason game, though, per doctor's orders. If Burfict isn't able to play, you'll see a lot of Vincent Rey. The backup can play any linebacker position and became a fan favorite last year after performing well in relief of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Without Burfict, the Bengals may have to adjust their pass rush and send pressure from other areas of the secondary. Last week, safety Reggie Nelson blitzed a lot after Burfict's departure.

Steven Jackson had a decent showing last week with his 12 carries for 52 yards. How confident are people around the team in him after last year’s injury struggles and comparative lack of production?

McClure: Some folks are going to lobby for other players such as Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman to take carries away from Jackson. Of course, Jackson is the aging veteran at 31. But what people sometimes underestimate is the value he brings as a punishing tone-setter at the start of games. And if playing a four-back committee works as well as it did in the opener, Jackson will simply be fresher to pick up the tough yards in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He doesn’t need to gain 100 yards per game. That’s the old Jackson. But picking up a handful of first downs, breaking off a long run here and there and helping the Falcons achieve their 75 percent conversion target in short-yardage situations means Jackson’s doing his job. He just needs to stay healthy and hope hamstring issues don’t resurface.

I fully expect the Falcons to give added defensive attention to A.J. Green. If that occurs, which player do you expect to take advantage the most in one-on-one situations?

Harvey: I probably would have said tight end Tyler Eifert. But with Eifert now out with an elbow injury, I'm going to go with a combination of Mohamed Sanu and running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Sanu is the Bengals' No. 2 receiver right now with Marvin Jones still out with a foot injury, and he has been impressive since training camp. He's a player who can take advantage of mismatches, and one who can be used in a variety of ways. Not only will he catch passes but he'll run the ball some, too. He might even pass the ball if the situation presents itself. He has a pretty spiral when he throws. Along with Sanu, Bernard and Hill could be key in the screen and short-yardage passing game. Last week Bernard had the most targets of any Bengals pass-catcher with 10.

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears' first-team offense scored points despite limited opportunities, but the No. 1 defense gave up a pair of field goals and a touchdown in three consecutive Jacksonville Jaguars possessions, forcing the home team to rally late to best the Jaguars 20-19 on Senorise Perry's 5-yard run with 51 seconds left to play.

Here are some other thoughts on Chicago's second preseason game:

Chicago's first-team offense played just two series as Jacksonville dominated time of possession in the first quarter (12:30 to 2:30), but Jay Cutler put together another sharp showing, hitting seven of nine passes for 75 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 138.4.

Credit the offensive line for Cutler's performance. With starting right tackle Jordan Mills out, Michael Ola filled in on an offensive line that routinely gave Cutler plenty of time to drop back, read and fire to the open man.

"The offensive line is playing at a really high level," Cutler said. "We want to get the running game [going] a little bit better than we did early on. We went three-and-out. Then, we kind of had to wait around a long time. We came back, converted some third downs. The offensive line gave me a lot of time."

The battle for the No. 2 job at quarterback between Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer might go to the wire. The Bears gave Clausen an extended look, yet he didn't capitalize on the extra snaps. Clausen completed 11 of 15 for 94 yards and an interception with no touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 61.5 after lighting up the Philadelphia Eagles for a rating of 134.6 in the opener with a pair of touchdowns.

The No. 1 defense stumbled to a slow start, but Jacksonville's dominant time of possession in the first quarter played a role. The defense forced the Jaguars to settle for back-to-back field goals on their first two possessions. After Josh Scobee's second field goal of the opening quarter, Eric Weems fumbled the ensuing kick when he was stripped by Will Blackmon. Jacksonville took over at the Chicago 23 and scored in seven plays on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne to Marqise Lee.

Henne and rookie Blake Bortles completed 19 of 27 for 237 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray continued to take repetitions with the first-team defense.

Jon Bostic played poorly in the opener but redeemed himself somewhat against the Jaguars. On a third-and-1 from the Chicago 27, Bostic filled hard on a Toby Gerhart run around left end and took out the offensive tackle to drop the running back for a 4-yard loss. The play forced Jacksonville to settle for a 49-yard field goal.

The Bears want to remain patient with Shea McClellin as he transitions to linebacker, but his play against the Jaguars seemed just about on par with his shoddy showing last week. McClellin did stuff the run once early on but continues to struggle at shedding blocks and making tackles in space.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Devonta Freeman almost couldn't believe his ears.

The wide smile on the rookie's face showed how much he appreciated coach Mike Smith referring to him as an every-down back rather than just a change-of-pace back. Such is why the Falcons believe the fourth-round draft pick from Florida State could be the go-to back of the future, as long as he blocks well.

Catching the ball out of the backfield won't be an issue. Freeman showed that ability as he hauled in pass after pass during Saturday's session.

"I've got tremendous hands, but I feel like I need to work on blocking, running, my reads, being patient,'' Freeman said. "I feel like it's everything I need to work on. But the passing, I know I can catch very well. But I want to work on it."

Here are 10 others observations from the second day of rookie minicamp:

1) Prince Shembo, the outside linebacker from Notre Dame and the team's second fourth-round pick, showed tremendous explosiveness throughout the day. Smith talked about Shembo having the ability to play defensive end, outside linebacker, and inside linebacker in a multiple defense.

2) It appeared as if second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman, the defensive end from Minnesota, knocked down a pass during one drill. The Falcons hope Hageman makes a habit of batting down balls at the line of scrimmage.

3) Seventh-round pick Tyler Starr, the outside linebacker from South Dakota, showed some speed on his rush during full-team drills.

4) Undrafted quarterback Jeff Mathews again threw some nice balls, but his receivers had a lot of drops throughout the day. Mathews did overthrow a couple.

5) Receiver Julian Jones almost lost an eyeball after making a catch over the middle. A defender scraped him across the face.

6) Cornerback Ricardo Allen, the fifth-round pick from Purdue, was very conscious about working on his backpedal and footwork in between drills.

7) Freeman showed some speed in outracing Allen and fellow cornerback L.J. Jones to the end zone on one play. Jones is a tryout player from Fresno State.

8) Shembo, Starr, and undrafted signee Jacques Smith from Tennessee -- all outside linebackers -- were the last ones off the field as they stayed to get in some extra work. Don't be surprised if all three are contributors this coming season.

9) Speaking of Shembo, he was forced to do some up-downs midway through practice, although it was unclear what the punishment was for. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox also had defensive lineman Ryan Isaac doing the same at the end of practice. Isaac is a tryout player from Purdue.

10) In news unrelated to the rookies, Smith didn't seem too concerned about the status of receiver Julio Jones (foot surgery) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee sprain) coming off injuries as Smith again emphasized taking it slow with those players this offseason. In other words, don't expect to see Jones or Weatherspoon do much activity until training camp.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

May, 1, 2014
May 1
10:01
AM ET

The NFC South might have had the most dramatic offseason of any division in the NFL.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers loaded up on enticing newcomers, starting with a new coach in Lovie Smith, a new quarterback in Josh McCown and a new pass-rusher in Michael Johnson, leading many analysts to believe they had the best offseason of any team in the league.

Meanwhile, the defending-champion Carolina Panthers lost several core players, including the face of their franchise, Steve Smith, leading many analysts to believe they had one of the worst.

And the New Orleans Saints did a little of both, parting ways with several longtime veterans while making a big splash with the addition of safety Jairus Byrd.

Throw in the Atlanta Falcons, who get star receiver Julio Jones back from injury and just plain get to start over with a clean slate and you can see why all four teams feel as if they have legitimate shots to make a playoff run in 2014.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton in Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division shakeup among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Has any team made moves that could alter the balance of power in the NFC South?



Vaughn McClure: The Buccaneers made a significant move by hiring Lovie Smith as their coach. After seeing the Bucs demolish the Falcons at home last season, it was easy to tell they were a talented team that just needed better leadership. Smith is a proven winner who took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl behind a suffocating defense. One could argue Smith has even better defensive parts to work with in Tampa than in Chicago. If he can assemble a solid offensive attack behind coordinator Jeff Tedford, Smith could have his team in contention for the NFC South title immediately.

David Newton: Tampa Bay made the most significant moves, from cutting Darrelle Revis to signing defensive end Michael Johnson, tackle Anthony Collins, quarterback Josh McCown and cornerback Alterraun Verner. The Bucs needed to make changes with a new head coach inheriting a team with a 4-12 record. I'm not ready to say that has altered the balance of power in the NFC South, though. I'm still not sold on McCown and what the Bucs will be offensively. If the balance of power shifts, I believe it will go to Atlanta. The Falcons should improve defensively with the addition of nose tackle Paul Soliai. With a healthy Julio Jones back at wide receiver and a revamped offensive line, they should return to the team that averaged 11.2 wins a season from 2008 to 2012.

Mike Triplett: All of them have, to some degree. But the teams that stood out most were the Buccaneers (for better) and the Panthers (for worse). I loved a lot of the moves Tampa Bay made, starting with a solid coach and quarterback. The Bucs already had a very good defense and run game. I could easily see an eight-win season. There won't be any easy wins in this division. The Saints should be the favorites to overtake Carolina now that their defense is even more stacked with Jairus Byrd. But both teams have new question marks after letting a lot of veterans go. The Panthers, especially, seemed to lose several guys who were key players last season.

Pat Yasinskas: Tampa Bay has been the division's most active team this offseason, and I think that will make the Bucs a lot better than they were a year ago. The Bucs have the ingredients to have an excellent defense, and that should keep them competitive. If the offense can be at least average, this team has a shot at being a playoff contender.


Second Down


Which newcomer to the NFC South will have the biggest impact?



McClure: The jury is still out because the Falcons and Bucs each have top-10 draft picks and could move up. If the Falcons secure a pass-rusher such as Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack, either player could change the complexion of the defense. And if the Bucs land a receiver such as Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans to join Vincent Jackson, defensive backfields around the division could be in serious trouble. For now, I'll say safety Jairus Byrd from the Saints. A guy making $9 million a year had better make a strong impact. Byrd is a playmaker who showed a knack for intercepting the ball in 2009 as a rookie in Buffalo. He had a pretty good teacher over the years in Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Gill Byrd, his father.

Newton: Lovie Smith. Greg Schiano never seemed to have the respect in the locker room that it takes to win. Smith should have that immediately, based on his success at Chicago that resulted in three NFC North titles and one NFC championship. But before anybody crowns the Bucs as NFC South champions, remember it took Smith a year to turn things around in Chicago. His first team was 5-11. He's facing many of the same issues in Tampa that he did with the Bears in rebuilding the offense. In his favor is the nucleus for a strong defense that should keep the team in most games. My newcomer pick might change if Atlanta can find a way to move up and get Jadeveon Clowney in the draft. I just don't see the Texans passing on him with the first pick.

Triplett: Josh McCown. I don't think he'll be the best player of all the newcomers in the division. And I doubt he'll even be as good as he was last year for the Bears. But the quarterback position is so vital -- and it was the one element the Buccaneers were really missing. McCown should provide some stability there. And, as I said, their defense and run game are both excellent. This is suddenly a well-rounded and dangerous team. If Julio Jones counted, I would have picked him instead. His return from injury will be huge for the Falcons.

Yasinskas: I'm not going with a player. I'm going with a coach: Lovie Smith. I view Smith's arrival as the best thing to happen to Tampa Bay in a very long time. Smith is exactly what this franchise needs -- a coach who stays on an even keel and knows how to win. After the Greg Schiano era, Smith should provide a lot of fresh air for the Bucs.


Third Down


Which departing NFC South player leaves the biggest void?



McClure: Wide receiver Steve Smith, although the Panthers and Cam Newton are sure to feel the loss of tackle Jordan Gross, as well. Smith isn't the same player he used to be, but he's such a tough competitor. Although he's only 5-foot-9, he always does an outstanding job of securing the ball at its highest point. He has seven 1,000-yard seasons to his credit, and two of those came in the past three seasons with Carolina. I remember how Smith used to give Charles Tillman and the Bears fits whenever Chicago matched up with Carolina. The Panthers will realize how much they miss him when they face Smith and the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season.

Newton: Jordan Gross, because his retirement in essence forces the Panthers to start over with new players at two positions if the team winds up moving right tackle Byron Bell to the left side. I'm not sold on Bell, which is why I believe Carolina will take a tackle with the 28th pick of the draft. But for a team that depends on a power running game, having solid tackles is a must. Replacing Smith's 64 catches won't be nearly as hard. He hasn't been a No. 1 receiver for a few years. If I had to pick a player other than Gross, it would be Tony Gonzalez. Replacing a tight end who caught 83 passes and eight touchdowns -- in his 17th season -- is a tall task. You easily could make the argument he'll leave the biggest void.

Triplett: Steve Smith because of everything he has meant to the Panthers. It feels as if they lost part of their identity -- and I don't see an obvious replacement plan in place. Carolina was already thin at receiver before it let him go. I also think the Panthers will miss Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn in their secondary quite a bit. I thought both of those guys were a big part of their defensive surge last year. Darrelle Revis and Darren Sproles are obviously worth noting, but Tampa Bay and New Orleans have good fallback options.

Yasinskas: It would be easy to point to some big names such as Tony Gonzalez, Steve Smith or Darrelle Revis. But I'm going with former Carolina player Jordan Gross. I think his retirement will have a huge impact on the Panthers. For years, Gross was a solid left tackle. Without him, the Panthers are going to have to scramble for a replacement.


Fourth Down

Which NFC South non-quarterback would you pick to start your own team?



McClure: Tough question, but I would have to go with Greg Hardy. Teams without a consistent pass rush can appreciate what Hardy brings to the table. He has 26 sacks over the past two seasons and seems impossible to stop at times, particularly when Charles Johnson is getting it done at the other defensive end spot. That's why the Panthers led the league with 60 sacks last season. Carolina rode a strong defense to the NFC South title, then kept Hardy in the fold by slapping the franchise tag on him. He'll get his big payday because he brings plenty of value to the team. For a non-quarterback, he would be a pretty solid cornerstone.

Newton: Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Hands down. Put him in the middle of any defense and that unit is going to be much improved. He's not only the best defensive tackle in the division, he's the best in pro football. He's stout against the run and can pressure the quarterback (9.5 sacks last season). He'll require double-teams, which will free up the ends. The only other player I considered here was Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He really is, as advertised, a tackling machine. His 24-tackle performance against New Orleans last season was amazing. Like McCoy, he's going to make any defense much improved. McCoy got the vote from me here only because it's harder to find a tackle with that kind of game-changing ability.

Triplett: This was, by far, the most difficult question for me to answer. The first two names that came to mind were Jimmy Graham and Julio Jones. I think both of them rank among the top 10 playmakers in the NFL. But, man, this division is absolutely stacked with defensive talent, from linemen such as Greg Hardy, Cameron Jordan and Gerald McCoy to linebackers such as Lavonte David, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to defensive backs such as Alterraun Verner, Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis. … OK, I'm hemming and hawing now. I'll go with Jones because I figure he'd earn the biggest contract on the open market. But Graham's an awfully nice fit for what the Saints like to do.

Yasinskas: I'm going to go with a guy who hasn't even started to get his due. That's Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He began his career with two injury-plagued seasons, but has followed that up with two stellar seasons. McCoy should only continue to get better because his position is so crucial in the Bucs' new defensive scheme. McCoy might be on the verge of being the league's best defensive tackle.


Ahmad Brooks did just about everything the NFL can expect from a modern pass-rusher Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. On one of the game's most important plays, Brooks approached Drew Brees with the combination of ferocity and caution that should have allowed him to navigate the league's extensive rules to protect quarterbacks.

Brooks, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker, blew past New Orleans Saints right tackle Zach Strief and aligned his head behind Brees. To initiate contact, Brooks slammed his right shoulder into Brees' right shoulder, and to wrap up, he extended his right arm across Brees' chest.

Brees' upper body snapped back, including his head in a whip-like fashion. In the process, Brooks' arm slid slightly in the direction of Brees' neck.

The ruling from referee Tony Corrente: Personal foul against Brooks, whose slight slip of the arm had violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) -- which was amended last spring to specify that a penalty for a hit to the neck of a passer could be called even if the initial contact began below it. The penalty reversed a turnover and gave the Saints 15 yards on the way to a game-tying field goal. Brooks had hit neither Brees' head nor his knees, but he and the 49ers still feel victim to a technicality within the NFL rule labyrinth.

Did the play signify a turning point in the league's efforts to protect quarterbacks? Has it gone too far with its rules in the pocket? Is it unfairly penalizing hits like Brooks' when most quarterback injuries this season have resulted from scrambles or designed runs?

Speaking to reporters later, Brooks said he "basically bear-hugged" Brees and added: "That's just how football is played."

The NFL confirmed that sentiment, fining Brooks $15,575 for the play.

Brees, meanwhile, implied the penalty was justified because it was violent and left him with a bloody mouth.

"I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all," Brees told reporters. "I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that … and again in real-time … You can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the [arm is].' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"

Brees' reaction enraged earlier generations of NFL players, who saw nothing but a standard football play. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said on ESPN Radio that the penalty was an example of how "the NFL product sucks" and suggested that "roughhousing" is now illegal in the NFL.

Dilfer called Brees a "dear friend" but added: "You're not preventing Drew Brees from getting a concussion by making that call. You're preventing him from getting a bloody lip.

"I was insulted when he came into the presser and said, 'I expected to get the flag thrown.' I can't tell you how many retired quarterbacks texted me … We played a game where we had to stay in the pocket and get hit in the face. We're not saying we're as good as Drew Brees. We're not saying he's soft. We're not saying the guys he is playing with are soft. But part of the badge of honor of playing quarterback in the NFL was standing in there and taking shots in the face and throwing a 20-yard dig route. That's what separated you from the other guys. Now that's just not part of the game."

Has the NFL gone too far? Has it substantively changed the game even as quarterbacks find new ways to get injured? ESPN's NFL Nation asked quarterbacks and defensive players to address the topic.

lastname
"I think the most important thing is that the league is protecting all players and making sure of the players' safety. The quarterbacks are in one of the most vulnerable positions and whatnot so they definitely deserve that. And that's what it really comes down to, player safety."

-- Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, as told to ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein


lastname
"It makes it extremely difficult for pass-rushers and I think safeties. Especially I'd say guys going after the quarterback, because there's so many compromising positions that guys are in. You know, you're battling a guy, and all of a sudden the quarterback's there. And a lot of times, they're swiping at the ball and they catch a part of your head. I mean, there's things like that that are, 'OK, that's just a glancing thing. That was unintentional. No big deal.' I think it's the 'lead with the head' or 'explode up through your head/chin area' [that they're trying to prevent]. And again, I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all. I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that, and again it's in real time. You can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the ...' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"

-- New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees, as told to ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett


lastname
"Quarterbacks are the bread and butter of the league. I guess you have protect your investment. It's definitely not easy, but I guess you have to play within the rules. As a pass-rusher, I saw nothing wrong with [Brooks' hit on Brees], but there was a flag and whatever else came along with that, it did. It's tough, but we to play within the confines of the rules."

-- Indianapolis Colts LB Robert Mathis, as told to ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells


lastname
"No. I mean, I'm the wrong guy to ask, but no. They're trying to protect all the players, I think. No one wants to see injuries, no matter what position you play. But no team wants to see its quarterback get hurt. That's the way it goes. I'm sure San Francisco doesn't want to see their quarterback get hit either. Most defenses won't like it, but I'm sure every coach, every GM and every owner will appreciate what they're doing to protect quarterbacks."

-- New York Giants QB Eli Manning, as told to ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano


lastname
"I feel there's a strike zone running from the shoulders to the knees for a quarterback. If you go down to the knees of a quarterback, you're going to get called. You go up to the head, you're going to get called. It's tough. You're playing full speed and at the last second we're trying to avoid a tackle and duck and move. Sometimes, things happen."

-- Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith, as told to ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher


lastname
"Yup. They are. They definitely are doing way too much, going way overboard to protect quarterbacks, and it's crazy, because we can't play the way we want to play. There's nothing you can do. You can change the way you play, but they're just going to make another rule."



-- New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul, as told to ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano


Wake
"Yes. I think if you look at the play, I didn't see any helmet-to-helmet [contact]. I'm not an expert on the rulebook. But from looking at the rulebook, you're not supposed to hit the quarterback with your helmet or lunge or torpedo. But I didn't see any of that happen on that play. And of course as a defensive person, they do overdo it when it comes to quarterbacks. They're playing football just like we are. I always think about it: When am I defenseless? I don't think I'm ever defenseless on the field. But you can't hit [quarterbacks] too low, you can't hit him too high, you can't hit him too hard, don't slam him too hard, don't touch his helmet, don't hit his arm. Play football."

-- Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake as told to ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker

Reviewing NFC South free agents

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
10:42
AM ET
We’ve shown you the lists of potential NFC South free agents before. But let’s do it again because there have been some minor moves and the free-agency period is getting ready to start Tuesday.

Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:

Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

NFL playoff schedule

December, 30, 2012
12/30/12
10:15
PM ET
Here is a link to the NFL playoff schedule as Week 17 comes to an end. Game times will be updated as they become available.
Tags:

NFL

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC SOUTH SCOREBOARD