NFC South: 2013 Week 14 Upon Further Review NFC

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 14

December, 9, 2013
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A review of four key issues from the Atlanta Falcons’ 22-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field:

For starters: Rookie cornerback Robert Alford knew early last week he would start at left cornerback in place of Asante Samuel. The coaching staff remained coy about the decision, although defensive coordinator Mike Nolan implied it was Alford’s time to surpass Samuel. In fact, Samuel didn’t even play, as Alford took all the reps. "I think it’s a big jump for me," Alford said. "I feel good about it. I played good [Sunday]. There were a couple of plays that I can improve on. I’m going to go and watch film and get better each day." Alford played all 71 snaps on Sunday.

Youth movement: Speaking of the young players playing, another rookie defensive back got more reps at the expense of a veteran. When safety Thomas DeCoud left the game with a head injury, Zeke Motta saw his most extensive playing time of the season in his place. Motta had a few hiccups, including slipping in coverage on an 18-yard pass play from Matt Flynn to Jordy Nelson. But Motta showed he could be a sure tackler and finished with six tackles. Also, rookie right tackle Ryan Schraeder finished the game ahead of Jeremy Trueblood, who started. "I think the guys have worked hard, and they deserve the opportunity to go out there and play," coach Mike Smith said of the rookies. "And they need to play in games where there’s something on the line. You want to see how they respond to it. Our No. 1 mission is to win the football game. No doubt about that. But we felt like those young guys had the opportunity to go out and participate in a game for the entire game or most of the game. And that’s what we were looking at [Sunday]." Motta played 55 of 71 snaps on defense, and Schraeder played 42 of 59 offensive snaps.

Running on empty: There was much lobbying all last week for Antone Smith to get more touches at running back based on his explosiveness on every carry. Well, Smith never got going on Sunday after apparently tweaking his knee on special teams. Smith told he was scheduled to undergo an MRI for what was thought to be a patella injury. The Falcons actually ran the ball pretty effectively behind Steven Jackson, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry while gaining 71 yards on 15 carries, including a long run of 22 yards. Jackson left at one point with an undisclosed injury but was able to finish the ballgame. It will be worth monitoring the injury report this week to see where both Jackson and Smith stand in preparation for the Washington Redskins.

Tackling machine: Although rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow's most memorable play from Sunday was his kick assist on Sean Weatherspoon’s 71-yard interception return for a touchdown, Worrilow again put up impressive individual numbers. He finished with 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and one pass defense. It marked the sixth straight game Worrilow had reached double figures in tackles. And he’d be the first to say he missed a couple he should have had. Maybe Worrilow should get some rookie of the year votes.

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 14

December, 9, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints' 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Back to the road: The Saints (10-3) were awesome Sunday night. And even more impressive than the performance itself was the resilience they showed by bouncing back on a short week, just six nights after a blowout loss at Seattle.

But the Saints know full well that this week’s narrative won’t be about celebrating their greatness. It will be about questioning their ability to take this same show on the road. They’ve got to play at the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, followed by a trip to Carolina in Week 16.

The Saints clearly haven’t been the same team away from the Superdome this season. They’re 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road, where they’ve been outscored 135-113. The St. Louis game should be manageable, since it’s in a dome and the Rams are a 5-8 team. But quarterback Drew Brees was one of many players who cautioned that the Saints can’t afford a letdown.

“They’re a very tough team in that dome, too,” Brees said. “The times that we’ve had to travel there, ’09 we barely squeaked out of there with a win, and they were a winless team at the time, and ’11 they beat the brakes off of us. ... So we’re gonna need our best week of preparation and our best performance. We want to keep this thing rollin’.”

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette
AP Photo/Dave MartinJunior Galette sparked the New Orleans defense with three sacks on Sunday night.
All-time great: Brees was awesome Sunday, too, on a night when he made history. Brees, who threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns, became the first quarterback in NFL history with eight consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. He also became the fifth quarterback to reach 50,000 career yards (joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway).

“We were kidding him that a lot of places, if the quarterback hits 50,000 yards, they would have fireworks, stop the game. And we just kind of had a little nod and an ‘atta boy,’” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But that is a pretty unique feat when you look at the history of our league. ... To be in that class of [five] people now really hits on his consistency, his durability, his availability, along with his skill set.”

Run game passed over: Once again, the Saints relied heavily on their passing game (45 dropbacks versus 14 called runs). But Payton and Brees both said that was the plan going in -- and it was hard to fault that plan when the Saints had so much success. Payton said the Saints saw more man coverage than expected -- and he said he thought Carolina got away with some pass interference that wasn’t called. But the Saints were still able to get their receivers involved more than usual. Marques Colston was especially outstanding with nine catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns (more on him later today).

The more-dominant D: The Panthers’ defense was more hyped going into this game. But the Saints’ defense was the dominant one, allowing just 239 yards and 13 points. Outside linebacker Junior Galette (three sacks) and end Cameron Jordan (two sacks) were especially dynamic. And the Saints started to steamroll the Panthers once they were playing with a big lead. But their two biggest moments came early when they forced Carolina to settle for field goals on its first two drives (a sack by Galette, a tackle for loss by safety Malcolm Jenkins and blitz pressure near the end zone were the three biggest plays).

Upon Further Review: Panthers Week 14

December, 9, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- An examination of four hot issues from the Carolina Panthers' 31-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

Playoff picture: The Panthers may not have looked like a playoff team as their eight-game winning streak came to a crashing halt Sunday night, but they still control their playoff destiny. They remain the fifth seed in the NFC, tied with San Francisco at 9-4 but owning the tiebreaker because of a 10-9 victory over the 49ers. Arizona is the biggest threat to knock the Panthers out of a wild-card spot. The Cardinals are 8-5 and own the tiebreaker edge because of a 22-6 victory against Carolina in October. The Eagles also are right there at 8-5. So the Panthers need to win at least two of their last three games, and maybe all three. They also could clinch next Sunday, but a lot would have to happen that likely won't.

Stewart's knee: What originally was diagnosed as a knee contusion could be worse for running back Jonathan Stewart. He will undergo an MRI on Monday. Fortunately for the Panthers, if it is serious they still have a solid backfield with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. They carried the load the first eight weeks when Stewart was on the physically unable to perform list recovering from offseason ankle surgery. In some ways they may be better off. Williams seems to perform better when he gets more carries. He had 52 yards on 13 carries against the Saints.

Legion of Gloom: For whatever reason, the Panthers weren't nearly as physical with receivers coming off the line as they game planned to be. They were soft, particularly in the middle of the field where Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham caught two touchdowns each. It's a problem that has crept up from time to time during the season, but never as consistently as it did on this night. It must be addressed immediately for the Panthers to have a chance at making the playoffs and advancing. They can't be the Legion of Gloom as they were dubbed earlier this year.

Red zone blues: This game really was lost in the first quarter when the Panthers dominated the clock but came away with two field goals for a 6-0 lead. Had Carolina scored a touchdown on one of the two trips inside the New Orleans 20, this might have been a different game. Statistically, that's what should have happened. Carolina had an 86.8 scoring percentage inside the red zone with 24 touchdowns to nine field goals before Sunday. A 10-0 or 14-0 lead might have completely changed the way the rest of this one unfolded. That New Orleans converted four of five trips inside the 20 against the league's best red zone defense also defied the odds.