NFC South: 2011 Week 12 coverage

Rapid Reaction: Saints 49, Giants 24

November, 29, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 49-24 win against the New York Giants on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

What it means: The Saints are 8-3 and still alone at the top of the NFC South. They also have the city of New Orleans rocking as the season comes down to crunch time. When teams have to come into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for prime-time games late in the season, the Saints have a huge home-field edge. They’ve got the Lions coming in for a prime-time game Sunday, and the Falcons come to New Orleans the night after Christmas. If the Saints win the NFC South and get the No. 3 seed, they’re pretty much guaranteed a trip to the NFC Championship Game, which could be a return trip to Lambeau Field, where the Saints started the season with a close loss to the Packers. But, hey, I'm thinking anything is possible for the Saints right now. This season is starting to remind me a lot more of 2009 than 2010.

The streak is over: The Saints had lost the coin toss in each of their first 10 games. That ended Monday night as they won the toss and elected to receive.

What I liked: Everything on offense. The Saints have so many weapons, and coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees use them all so well, it’s almost unfair for a defense to have to put only 11 players on the field. It might have been a little hard to notice because of Brees' ridiculous passing numbers, but the Saints also ran the ball pretty well.

The confidence factor: I wasn't crazy about it at the time when Payton went with a fake field goal on the first drive. It didn't work. But he basically was saying, "I don't care if we score here or not. This offense is going to put up so many points that it won't matter if we get seven, three or zero points here." He was right.

What I didn’t like: New Orleans’ defense gave up way too many yards. Then again, it didn’t really matter because there was no way a depleted New York defense was going to stop Brees and the New Orleans offense. But New Orleans still needs some improvement on defense, or that might come back to bite the Saints in the postseason.

Unsung hero: Linebacker Will Herring was hurt much of the early part of the season, and we haven’t seen much of him since he’s been healthy. But Herring showed up big, intercepting Eli Manning in the first quarter.

What’s next: The Saints host the Detroit Lions on Sunday night.

Wrap-up: Titans 23, Buccaneers 17

November, 27, 2011

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 23-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at LP Field.

What it means: The Bucs now are on a five-game losing streak. But this one was particularly painful because Tampa Bay had a shot to win. The Bucs were driving at the end, but that fell apart when quarterback Josh Freeman was stopped on a keeper on fourth down. The Bucs are now 4-7 and have one more loss than they did all last season. Time to face reality. A team that supposedly was on the rise coming into this season has clearly taken a step back and will not make the playoffs. The seat continues to get hotter for coach Raheem Morris.

Johnson runs over defense: Tennessee running back Chris Johnson has been in a slump all season. Well, he found a surefire way to break that slump. Maybe he just needs to play against the Bucs every week. Johnson ran for a season-high 190 yards. Yeah, I know the Bucs lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a season-ending injury and that didn’t help the defense. But even before McCoy got hurt, the Bucs were struggling to stop the run.

Talib’s time: We saw evidence Sunday why the Bucs are willing to put up with cornerback Aqib Talib and his assortment of off-field troubles. In the third quarter, Talib forced a fumble and intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. The guy can cause headaches for ownership, the front office and the coaching staff, but Talib can play.

Mixed bag for Blount: Running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for 103 yards and actually made a contribution in the passing game, catching three passes for 56 yards. But Blount lost two fumbles. In fact, fumbles were a big problem for the Bucs. Receiver Mike Williams and Freeman each lost a fumble as well.

What’s next: The Bucs host the Carolina Panthers next Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Wrap-up: Falcons 24, Vikings 14

November, 27, 2011

Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons24-14 victory against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Falcons continue to be a hard team to figure out. They came out and started fast. They looked like they were going to have a very easy time with the Vikings. But Atlanta let Minnesota back in the game in the third quarter and that made things more interesting than they should have been. That’s kind of been the story of Atlanta’s entire season. The Falcons have been maddeningly inconsistent and nothing has come easy for them. But the bottom line is the Falcons are 7-4. They’ve pulled even with the Saints, who play Monday night, and they’re very much a factor in the NFC South race.

Roddy’s on a roll: After starting the season very slowly, receiver Roddy White has come on strong in the past two games. White had his second straight 100-yard receiving game and caught a touchdown pass. Fellow receiver Julio Jones also returned from a hamstring injury. Jones didn’t show up big on the stat sheet, but his presence helped White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez have big games. That’s a big part of the reason the Falcons traded up in the draft to get Jones.

What I didn’t like: I don’t think it was by design, but middle linebacker Curtis Lofton wound up in deep coverage on Percy Harvin on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter. Lofton is a solid linebacker, but he shouldn’t ever be put in a situation where he has to cover a speed receiver downfield.

Defense rising: I’ve said several times throughout the season that the NFC South race will come down to defense. I realize the Vikings were playing without Adrian Peterson and were starting rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. But the Atlanta defense shut the Vikings down. Minnesota had only two first downs in the first half. It took some time to get it together, but Atlanta’s defense has played well in recent weeks and seems to be improving. If that continues, it could help the Falcons tremendously down the stretch.

What’s next: The Falcons travel to Houston to play the Texans next Sunday at Reliant Stadium.

Wrap-up: Panthers 27, Colts 19

November, 27, 2011

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers’ 27-19 victory against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Lucas Oil Field.

What it means: You can diminish this win by saying it came against the worst team in the NFL. But any win is important for Carolina these days. This was the first win for the Panthers in more than a month. That’s significant, because the Panthers need to build some positive momentum the rest of the season to show that coach Ron Rivera and his young team are making progress. At 3-9, the Panthers need to use the rest of this season to build for next year. This was a start.

Note to Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski: See what happens when you use DeAngelo Williams? He had a 25-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and a short touchdown run in the fourth. The Panthers certainly have done a nice job of improving their passing offense. But Chudzinski and Rivera need to remember they’ve got two very good running backs in Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Aside from receiver Steve Smith, Williams is the most explosive player on the offense. The Panthers need to remember that and keep Williams involved.

What I liked: The Panthers got second-year receiver Brandon LaFell more involved in the offense. That’s great. LaFell has had a pretty quiet career to this point. But he has some talent, and his size theoretically should make him a nice complement to Steve Smith.

What else I liked: Carolina’s defense played one of its better games of the season. Yeah, it came against an Indianapolis offense that’s not very good without Peyton Manning. But the Panthers have played so badly on defense most of the season that any sign of improvement is encouraging.

What’s next: The Panthers travel to Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium next Sunday.