NFC South: 2012 Week 8 coverage

Wrap-up: Broncos 34, Saints 14

October, 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap-up: Bears 23, Panthers 22

October, 28, 2012

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers’ 23-22 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field:

What it means: Carolina (1-6) has had some painful losses, but this one has to be the most painful so far. That’s because the Panthers finally showed some spunk in the aftermath of the firing of general manager Marty Hurney. They outplayed the Bears for almost the entire day and appeared to have the game won. But a defense that had swarmed Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler most of the day allowed him to lead a late drive that set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal as time expired. Things have been really bad for the Panthers for more than a month, but I think it is now fair to say they’ve entered sky-is-falling territory.

Roller-coaster day: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton finished with 314 passing yards and gained another 37 on the ground. But the stats don’t tell the real story. Newton had been playing well enough to win, but he threw a crucial interception with the Panthers holding a 19-14 lead with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter. Tim Jennings picked off Newton and returned the interception for a touchdown to give the Bears their first lead (20-14) of the day. Newton did lead a drive to set up a field goal that let Carolina reclaim the lead (22-20), but it was only temporary as the defense couldn’t stop Chicago’s last drive. Newton also lost a fumble on a scramble near the goal line in the first half, but receiver Louis Murphy bailed him out by recovering the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. But Newton has become a magnet for criticism and he got hammered by FOX television announcer Daryl Johnston, who said the quarterback did not thank Murphy for saving the play. The scrutiny of Newton is only going to intensify after this one.

Squandered sacks: The maligned Carolina defensive line played its best game of the season. The Panthers sacked Cutler six times and kept him under pressure most of the day. Defensive end Greg Hardy had the best game of his life with three sacks. Defensive end Charles Johnson had two sacks, including one on which he forced a fumbled that set up Carolina’s only touchdown.

Sevens are better than threes: A couple of days ago, we noted that the Panthers were in contention to break the modern NFL record for fewest field goals attempted in a season (12, by the 1999 Cleveland Browns). Carolina had attempted only two field goals entering the game. But the Panthers are off that pace now. Justin Medlock converted five field goals against the Bears. But if just one of those field goals had been a touchdown instead, the Panthers might have come out of this one with a victory.

What’s next: The Panthers play at Washington next Sunday.

Wrap-up: Falcons 30, Eagles 17

October, 28, 2012

Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 30-17 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

What it means: The Falcons remain the NFL’s only unbeaten team (7-0) and sit high atop the NFC South standings. But this was the most significant game the Falcons have played this season. Instead of playing just well enough to win, like they did the past three games, the Falcons dominated on the road on a day when the weather conditions were less than ideal. A lot of people -- myself included -- have been saying that the Falcons, despite their record, haven’t been playing like the best team in the NFL. I saw plenty of positives from the Falcons in their first six games and felt it was only a matter of time before they clicked and put together a complete game. That finally happened, and now it might not be such a stretch to call the Falcons the best team in the NFL.

Back in the MVP race: Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan seemed to be the clear front-runner for MVP in the first few weeks of the season, but had slumped and fallen a bit in the conversation in recent weeks. But this was a big bounce-back game for Ryan, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia. He was nearly flawless and put the Falcons in control by throwing touchdowns on each of the first three possessions.

Cause for concern: Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon got carted off the field with an apparent leg injury in the fourth quarter. The extent of the injury wasn’t known immediately. But if Weatherspoon is going to miss any time, this will be significant. He’s been Atlanta’s best linebacker and perhaps the best defensive player on the team.

Changing of the guard? Michael Turner has been the starting running back for the Falcons since his arrival in 2008, and I don’t anticipate that changing this season. But I do anticipate we’re going to keep seeing more of second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers as a complement to Turner. Rodgers brings an element of speed that Turner never really had and is versatile enough to also help as a pass receiver. Turner still got the bulk of the carries (23) against the Eagles, but finished with only 58 rushing yards. The Falcons continue to gradually give Rodgers, who had 60 yards on eight carries and caught five passes for 20 yards, more touches because he’s more dynamic. I’m pretty sure that trend will continue as the season goes on.

What’s next: The Falcons host Dallas next Sunday night.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 36, Vikings 17

October, 25, 2012

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 36-17 victory against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on Thursday night:

What it means: This was a big step for the Bucs as they continue to build around a lot of young players with a first-year coaching staff. It showed the Bucs can go on the road and beat a team with a winning record. It showed that the Bucs are capable of protecting a lead, something they've had trouble with this year. The Bucs are 3-4 and -- for the moment -- are in sole possession of second place in the NFC South. They’re not going to catch the Atlanta Falcons, but I’ve got a hunch we’re going to see continued improvement from the Bucs in the second half of the season.

Martin’s big night: Early on, a lot of critics were pointing to the fact that rookie running back Doug Martin wasn’t making any big plays. That no longer can be said. Martin had a breakout game. He carried 29 times for 135 yards (including a 41-yard run) and a touchdown. Martin also caught three passes for 79 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown. Remember back on draft night, when coach Greg Schiano repeatedly called Martin an all-purpose back and compared him to Ray Rice? Martin certainly served all purposes against the Vikings. We’ll hold off a bit on getting too carried away with the Rice comparisons, but it’s starting to look like Schiano knew what he was talking about.

Stat of the night: Josh Freeman threw three touchdown passes against the Vikings. He now has thrown three touchdowns in three consecutive games. No other quarterback in franchise history has ever done that. Come to think of it, the Bucs never have had a guy that’s gotten firmly established as a franchise quarterback. A few more games like this and I think it will be safe to assume the Bucs will give Freeman a big contract extension in the offseason and lock him up for the long term.

Age really is just a number: Safety Ronde Barber is 37, but he still is making huge plays. He forced two fumbles against the Vikings by stripping the ball and also put some pressure on Christian Ponder with some blitzes. Barber made it sound like this would be his last season when he re-signed with the Bucs on a one-year deal in the offseason. But I’m starting to think the Bucs would be very interested in bringing Barber back for one more year -- at least.

Bowers makes debut: The Bucs activated defensive end Da'Quan Bowers off the physically unable to perform list a few hours before the game. Bowers, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in May, was used as a situational pass-rusher. But he did record a sack on a play in which Ponder had to fall on a bad snap out of the shotgun formation.

The streak is over: The Bucs had lost nine consecutive road games dating back to last year. That streak is officially over. Coincidentally, the last road game the Bucs won was in Minnesota early last season.

What I liked: The Bucs have continued to get fullback Erik Lorig involved in the passing game. That’s a good thing because it brings diversity to the offense. Lorig got his first career touchdown catch in the first quarter. Lorig now has eight catches for 51 yards so far this season, after having only seven catches for 63 yards in the previous two seasons combined.

What I didn’t like: Left tackle Donald Penn got into an encounter that involved pushing, shoving and jawing with Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen late in the third quarter. Not sure that it’s a great idea to fire up Allen.

What’s next: The Buccaneers play at Oakland on Nov. 4.