NFC South: 2013 Week 11 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

November, 18, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots:

What it means: That the Panthers (7-3) are a legitimate threat this season not only to make the playoffs, but contend for the NFC title. They have knocked off one of the top teams in the NFC (San Francisco) and AFC (New England) in back-to-back weeks. They have won six straight games and seven of their past eight to stay within one game of NFC South-leading New Orleans. Nobody can say they've piled up wins against patsy teams now.

Stock watch: Quarterback Cam Newton made one of his most impressive runs of the season in the third quarter. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he eluded six defenders and covered 75.8 yards on the ground for a 14-yard gain to keep Carolina's second touchdown drive alive. Newton kept Carolina in this one with his legs. He won it with his arm, completing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left to cap a drive for the biggest win of his career.

Key injury: The Panthers lost their sack leader, Charles Johnson, to a knee injury on the first series of the second half. New England went straight down the field and pulled even at 10-10 on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Johnson's absence was obvious.

Smith vs. Talib: This battle was worth the price of admission. New England shutdown corner Aqib Talib versus Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith was like two heavyweights. Smith got the better of the battle, particularly in the mind-games category. Talib was flagged for a personal-foul penalty after a play to keep Carolina's first touchdown drive alive and for a hold that kept a field-goal drive alive. Smith beat him for a 16-yard catch to set up Carolina's second touchdown.

Missed tackles: No exact count, but the sure-tackling Panthers missed more tackles than normal to turn short plays into big ones.

What's next? The Panthers travel to Miami to face the Dolphins. They are 0-4 against Miami, losing 24-17 in their last meeting, in 2009.

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

November, 17, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, which moved the Saints to 8-2 on the season.

What it means: It wasn't always pretty, but it was a huge win for the Saints. They rallied from a six-point deficit in the final minutes to finally get past a team that has caused them fits for three straight years. And it was a confidence-booster for a New Orleans team that is going to have to gut out some more wins like this down the stretch, with physical opponents such as the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers (twice) remaining on the schedule.

The Saints made things a lot harder on themselves with three inexcusable turnovers early. But every unit contributed in the rally, including embattled kicker Garrett Hartley, who nailed two clutch field goals in the final minutes. Quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints' defense were just as clutch.

Stock watch: What a turnaround for Hartley. He had missed four of his past six field goal attempts coming into the game, and the Saints even tried out a group of kickers during the week to update their “emergency list.” But true to Hartley’s history, he was clutch when it mattered most. He was 3-for-3 on the night, including a 42-yarder with 2:06 remaining and a 31-yarder as time expired.

Creative, effective "D": The Saints’ defense certainly did its part in the victory, holding San Francisco to a total of 196 yards and 81 rushing yards, with three sacks and a three-and-out in the final minutes. The Saints knew they had to stop the run -- and this time they did. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was as creative as ever, starting in a 3-5 formation, among several other quirks.

Up next: For the second year in a row, the Saints have to follow up a physical battle with the 49ers by playing four days later on a Thursday night at Atlanta. The good news this year is the Falcons are having a horrible season (now 2-8 and on a four-game losing streak). Still, the Saints can’t afford to play as sloppy as they did in last year’s Thursday night dud.

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

November, 17, 2013

TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 41-28 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: Considering Tampa Bay was winless prior to Monday night's win over the distracted Miami Dolphins, getting blown out by the Buccaneers shows just how far the 2-8 Falcons have fallen coming off last year's 13-3 campaign. It's one thing to be physically dominated by one of the league's best teams, like what happened against the Seattle Seahawks a week ago. But getting demolished by a team led by a rookie quarterback (Mike Glennon) and a fourth-string running back (Bobby Rainey) is inexcusable. The Falcons left their fans to wonder if they can even win another game this season, with the Saints, Packers, 49ers and Panthers still remaining on the schedule. Here's what makes Sunday's loss even worse: Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas and Sean Weatherspoon were all in the lineup despite dealing with injuries.

Stock watch: Matt Ryan's stock continues to plummet after another multi-interception outing. He had two against the Buccaneers, giving him nine in the past four games. One was a pick-six to Bucs linebacker Mason Foster as Ryan's arm was hit while he was throwing. You can blame a lot of Ryan's woes on poor pass protection, but he admitted his footwork hasn't been flawless by any means. Ryan is sure to be hard on himself this offseason while dissecting why things went wrong. It would help to get him better protection in the process. If things weren't bad enough for Ryan, he had to return to the game late in the fourth quarter after backup Dominique Davis got injured.

Explosive implosion: Once again, the Falcons' defense failed to cut down on allowing explosive plays. They gave up three more 40-plus-yard plays, including a 43-yard touchdown run by Rainey. Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson had catches of 53 and 47 yards. The Falcons have now surrendered 17 plays of 40-plus yards this season. And the Falcons' coaches consider an explosive play a 20-yard pass or a 10-yard run. Ouch.

Iron man: Gonzalez was questionable coming into Sunday's game after injuring a toe on his left foot during a loss to the Seahawks. Although Gonzalez practiced just one day leading into the game, coach Mike Smith said not to rule Gonzalez out. Well, Gonzalez started and caught a pass in his 205th consecutive game. Whereas some veterans might have milked such an injury, there seemed to be no doubt Gonzalez would play no matter how much pain he experienced throughout the week. It certainly had to be painful for Gonzalez to be on the short end of Sunday's lopsided loss.

What's next: The Falcons have a quick turnaround with Thursday night's matchup against bitter NFC South rival New Orleans. The Saints continue to play for playoff position while the Falcons have to play for pride. During the first matchup in Week 1, the Falcons had a chance to pull off a momentum-building road win but couldn't score in a goal-to-go situation in the final seconds as Ryan's tipped pass got intercepted. Pulling off an unexpected win over the Saints this time around could help in building the Falcons' confidence going into next season, because this year is all but over.

Rapid Reaction: Tampa Bay

November, 17, 2013

TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 41-28 victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

What it means: The Bucs are on a winning streak. Yeah, it’s only two games, but that’s pretty substantial for a team that lost its first eight games. The Bucs were loose and relaxed in how they coached and played and that led to their best performance of the season. There had been plenty of times when the Bucs squandered leads earlier in the season. But this time, they firmly put the game out of reach. Coach Greg Schiano remains on the hot seat, but he has a shot to keep his job if the Bucs continue to play like this the rest of the season.

A star is born: With season-ending injuries to Doug Martin and Mike James, the Bucs gave running back Bobby Rainey an opportunity, and he made the most of it. Rainey, who finished with 163 rushing yards, ran for two touchdowns in the first half and caught a touchdown pass in the second half.

A star gets brighter: Gerald McCoy went to the Pro Bowl last season, so it’s not accurate to call him a surprise. But McCoy, who came into the game with three sacks on the season, had the best game of his career. McCoy had three sacks and swatted down a pass.

Stock watch: The deep passing game is on the rise. Schiano had been saying for several weeks that the Bucs had to have more success taking shots down the field. They did against Atlanta. Quarterback Mike Glennon and receiver Vincent Jackson hooked up on a 47-yard pass in the first half and a 53-yard pass in the second half.

Injury update: Middle linebacker Mason Foster intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in the first half. But Foster suffered a concussion sometime in the first half and did not play in the second half.

What’s next: The Buccaneers play at Detroit next Sunday.