NFC South: 2012 Week 15 coverage

Wrap-up: Panthers 31, Chargers 7

December, 16, 2012

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 31-7 victory against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday:

What it means: Two teams without much to play for were meeting. The Panthers (5-9) showed up, and the Chargers packed it in. This bodes really well for coach Ron Rivera keeping his job next season. His team still is playing hard, and it won two games in a row for the first time all season. Owner Jerry Richardson likes Rivera but wants to see the team finish the season with some positive momentum. The Panthers suddenly are playing a lot better, and they have two remaining games against teams with losing records. As long as Carolina plays well in those two games, I see Rivera keeping his job.

The Cam factor: There’s another reason I think Rivera and his coaching staff will stay in place. Second-year quarterback Cam Newton has played well for the past month and a half after starting the season slowly. Newton had another solid game against the Chargers, and that only helps Rivera’s cause. The Panthers have a lot invested in Newton, and keeping continuity on the coaching staff probably would help his development a lot more than starting all over.

Defense continues surge: The Carolina defense was a major problem last year and early this season. But that unit has come on strong in recent weeks. San Diego’s offense might not be what it was in recent years, but the Panthers pretty much shut down quarterback Philip Rivers, and the Chargers had only 164 yards of total offense.

What’s next: The Panthers host the Oakland Raiders next Sunday.

Wrap-up: Saints 41, Buccaneers 0

December, 16, 2012

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 41-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

What it means: The Saints were playing for nothing but pride and the way they went out and dominated says a lot about their character. They improved to 6-8 and they have a chance to finish the season with some positive momentum. The momentum is going in the other direction for the Bucs, who fell to 6-8. It wasn’t that long ago that the Bucs were 6-4 and very much in the playoff race. But they’ve lost four straight and if they keep going like they are, all the progress they seemed to be making early in the season will be wiped out.

Rethinking the future? For most of the season, I’ve been saying the Bucs would be wise to sign quarterback Josh Freeman to a contract extension as soon as possible. Now, I’m starting to think they might be smarter to wait. Freeman threw four interceptions against the Saints and completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the two previous games. I still think Freeman, who is under contract through the end of the 2013 season, can be a franchise quarterback, but the Bucs might want to wait until he shows he can play well consistently.

Next man up: The Saints put safety Malcolm Jenkins on injured reserve Saturday. Isa Abdul-Quddus used the increased playing time to make a positive impression. He picked off a Freeman pass and made five tackles.

Bouncing back: I thought Jabari Greer was the best cornerback in the NFC South the past couple of seasons. But, for a variety of reasons, he didn’t seem to be the same player in the first 13 games. Against the Bucs, Greer stepped up and intercepted two Freeman passes.

What pass rush? The Saints were without injured starting right tackle Zach Strief. They put his backup, Charles Brown, on injured reserve Saturday and had to start former practice-squad player William Robinson. So you would expect that the Bucs should have been able to put some pressure on Drew Brees, right? Wrong. The Bucs recorded one sack and Brees threw for four touchdowns.

What’s next: The Saints play at Dallas next Sunday. If coach Sean Payton doesn’t sign a contract extension with the Saints soon, we’re going to hear a week’s worth of speculation about him possibly landing with the Cowboys. The Bucs host the St. Louis Rams next Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 34, Giants 0

December, 16, 2012

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons34-0 victory against the New York Giants on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: This was much more significant than a run-of-the-mill December victory for a team that already has clinched the NFC South title and a spot in the playoffs. This was a statement game for the 12-2 Falcons. A week after playing a horrible game against Carolina, they bounced back with their best outing of the season. They also did it against the team that bounced them from the playoffs last season, and they did it in a very convincing manner.

What I liked: Everything. Critics have ripped the Falcons for not putting together a complete game and, oftentimes, playing just well enough to win. Well, this one was different. The Falcons were pretty much flawless. They ran and passed the ball well on offense. The defense intercepted Eli Manning twice early in the game and came through with some big stops.

Stat of the day: The shutout marked the first time the Giants have been held scoreless in a regular-season game with Manning as their quarterback.

Busting a myth: There are a lot of people out there who say Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan can’t throw the deep ball. I always have disputed that claim. And Ryan gave me some more evidence to work with. If you haven’t seen his 40-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones, please go watch the replay. It should be on all of the highlight shows.

Super omen? Speaking of Jones, he went for more than 1,000 receiving yards for the season on Sunday. Teammate Roddy White already was past the 1,000-yard mark. They are the first Atlanta duo to post 1,000 receiving yards in the same season since Terance Mathis and Tony Martin in the 1998 season. In case you don't remember, that's the season the Falcons made it to the Super Bowl for the only time in franchise history.

Pro Bowl bound? Very quietly, Atlanta free safety Thomas DeCoud has emerged as a force. He intercepted Manning in the first half. That gives DeCoud six interceptions on the season. The fifth-year player should get strong consideration for a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl team.

What’s next: The Falcons face a bit of a short week. They play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Saturday night.