NFC South: 2012 Week 17 Wrap-ups

Wrap-up: Panthers 44, Saints 38

December, 30, 2012

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers44-38 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday:

What it means: This was a fitting end to the Saints’ season. A defense that set an NFL record for yards allowed in a season was absolutely horrible. That defense is a huge part of the reason the Saints finished at 7-9. The Panthers also finished with a 7-9 record, but they finished on a high note.

Enough to save a job? The Panthers finished the season by winning their final four games and looking like the team many expected them to be back in the preseason. Will that be enough for the Panthers to keep coach Ron Rivera around for a third season? That now is up to owner Jerry Richardson, who hasn’t had a team with a winning season since 2008. Richardson’s patience is wearing thin, but I think patience might be a good thing in this case. Rivera got the Panthers, to finish strong and I don’t think it’s in the best interest of franchise quarterback Cam Newton to have to adjust to a new coaching staff. And let’s remember, Newton is the franchise in Carolina.

End of the misery? The bounty scandal, the Drew Brees contract negotiations and a losing season made for a very difficult nine months for the Saints and their fans. It’s all over now, and coach Sean Payton is expected to be reinstated from his suspension the day after the Super Bowl. Things should get better, but it’s not going to be easy. Payton’s offensive intellect should be enough to touch up the offense a little bit, but the defense has to improve dramatically for the Saints to have any shot at becoming contenders again.

What’s next: For the Panthers, it’s time to watch and wait to see whether Richardson keeps Rivera. A decision should come very quickly, but Richardson also has to hire a general manager. Once those two situations are resolved, the Panthers likely will have to go through the painful process of unloading some veterans because their salary-cap situation is a mess. The Panthers have $136 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. The Saints are in a similar situation when it comes to the cap. They have about $138 million committed toward the cap. Veterans Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Roman Harper are high on a long list of guys with high cap figures that could be salary-cap casualties. If those three go, Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are going to have to get very creative in how they go about restocking their defense.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 22, Falcons 17

December, 30, 2012

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 22-17 victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: For the Falcons, it means absolutely nothing. They already had clinched everything there was to be clinched for the postseason, so the loss didn’t hurt them. This game was much more significant for the Bucs. They had lost their past five games and appeared to be in a deep funk that had the potential to set the tone for a dismal offseason. A strong showing on the road against the NFC’s best team changes a lot of that. The Bucs finished 7-9 and carry a little positive momentum into the offseason. Overall, you have to consider coach Greg Schiano’s first season a success.

Why bother? I still don’t get the decision by Atlanta coach Mike Smith to play almost all of his starters in a game that didn’t matter. There was nothing to be gained and plenty was risked, and that could end up haunting the Falcons. Cornerback Dunta Robinson left the game with a head injury and didn’t return. Veteran cornerback Asante Samuel also appeared to aggravate a shoulder injury that’s been bothering him for weeks, but he did return. Defensive end John Abraham, who never should have been on the field so long, suffered what appeared to be an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and was carted off the field. The Falcons could have gotten the same outcome -- and no injuries to their starters -- if they had started their backups. If Robinson, Samuel and Abraham aren’t healthy for the playoffs, Smith’s decision to play them is going to draw lots of criticism.

Milestone time: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman became the first player in franchise history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. He also set a franchise record for touchdown passes in a season and became the team’s all-time leader in touchdown passes.

What’s next: For the Falcons, they get a bye in the first-round of the playoffs. They’ll host a game in the second week of the postseason. For the Bucs, the season is over, but there’s a lot of work to do. The first order of business is signing defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller before they can depart as free agents. Then, the Bucs need to start rebuilding a secondary that was historically bad through free agency and the draft. Strong safety Mark Barron probably is the only member of the secondary who is guaranteed to have a job next season. Still, no matter how you look at it, the Bucs are in much better shape than they were at this time a year ago.