NFC South: decisive moment

NFC South Week 16 decisive moment

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

On a night when he was passing the ball a lot like John Stockton at various times, Drew Brees got back to being a quarterback and let the basketball player on his team make the biggest catch of the night.

Brees rifled a 6-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham with 3 minutes, 24 seconds remaining to give the New Orleans Saints a 17-14 victory against the Atlanta Falcons. The pass capped a 90-yard drive in which Brees got back to top form after having a relatively rough start.

With Atlanta bringing all sorts of defensive pressure earlier, Brees resorted to some desperate measures. Like Stockton in his NBA days, Brees threw a behind-the-back pass that resulted in a completion, but not much else, and a shovel pass that ended up being picked off and returned for a touchdown by Atlanta defensive lineman Chauncey Davis.

But when it mattered most, Brees abandoned the basketball tricks and found a basketball player. That was Graham, whom the Saints took a gamble on when they drafted him in the third round this year. Graham spent three years playing college basketball at Miami before switching to football in his final season. He displayed enough athletic ability to get himself drafted.

With backup tight end David Thomas injured, Graham has been getting more playing time and the touchdown catch showed that he already has earned the trust of Brees in key situations.

NFC South programming notes

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
11:30
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ATLANTA -- As the NFC South blog begins the trek home to Tampa, I just wanted to give you a quick heads up on some things that will be going on in what should be a busy day and week around the division.

We’ll have our regular High Energy Player of the Week and Decisive Moment posts this afternoon. Our weekly Power Rankings, usually a Tuesday staple, have been pushed back to Wednesday due to the game in Philadelphia tonight.

It’s going to be a pretty lengthy day because the announcement of the Pro Bowl teams is coming at 7 p.m. ET. We’ll have a wrap-up on the highlights (and lowlights) for the NFC South soon after the announcement.

Although we initially had been told there would be no Friday chat, I’m happy to say that’s changed. I’ve twisted some arms in Bristol and am proud to say the NFC South chat will be held Friday at 1 p.m. ET.

Also, the NFC South blog’s game of the week will be Tampa Bay at New Orleans. We held off on making a decision on that one until we saw what happened in Monday night’s game (the Saints defeated the Falcons 17-14, in case you missed it). I’m in the process of making travel plans for New Orleans right now.

NFC South Week 15 decisive moment

December, 21, 2010
12/21/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

If people could just ignore his spot as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, Atlanta defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson would be a decent player.

But it’s tough for fans and media to forget the lofty expectations that came with Anderson. The current Atlanta coaching staff and front office, however, deserve a lot of credit for quietly adjusting their expectations of Anderson and salvaging something out of his career.

Sometime before or early in the 2009 season, the Falcons came to the conclusion Anderson never was going to be a dominant pass-rusher. That’s when Mike Smith and his staff turned Anderson into a situational player and started shuffling him between defensive end and defensive tackle.

Anderson’s main strength is against the run, but he also has showed the ability to generate a little bit of a pass rush from the inside. On Sunday, for one of the few times in his career, Anderson generated a pass rush from the outside.

With the Falcons leading 17-10, punter Michael Koenen pinned the Seattle Seahawks at their 4-yard line with a 56-yard punt early in the third quarter. On the first play after that, Anderson lined up at left defensive end and beat his blocker. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, rolling to his right, was on a collision course with Anderson, who stripped the ball loose.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux fell on the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and the Falcons were firmly in control of the game, in which they recorded their eighth consecutive victory and improved their record to an NFC-best 12-2.

NFC South Week 13 decisive moment

December, 7, 2010
12/07/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

There are certain general rules in football that always seem to hold true: Defense wins championships. Win the turnover battle and you’ll win. And, when playing the Cincinnati Bengals, just be patient -- they’ll find a way to lose.

Rule No. 3 came in very handy for the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Trailing the Bengals 30-27, the Saints faced a fourth-and-2 deep inside Cincinnati territory. The easy decision would have been to kick the field goal, tie the game and take your chances in overtime.

But, remember, it’s the Bengals. Sean Payton kept his offense on the field and quarterback Drew Brees began directing guys in motion and barking out snap counts. It should have been obvious to anyone in the stadium or watching on television that the Saints were trying to draw the Bengals offside.

And, of course, the Bengals fell for it. Defensive tackle Pat Sims jumped into the neutral zone and drew a flag. That gave the Saints a first down.

On the very next play, Brees threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston to give the Saints the win.

NFC South Week 12 decisive moment

November, 30, 2010
11/30/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

If the season ended today, what New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins did in the final minutes of the Thanksgiving game at Dallas would have to be considered one of the top plays in the NFC South this year.

No matter how the rest of the season plays out, Jenkins' play is going to end up very near the top. He prevented the Saints from enduring what would have been an embarrassing and disastrous loss and kept their hopes of winning the NFC South and repeating as Super Bowl champions very much alive.

It was a play that coach Sean Payton used the terms "heart'' and "effort'' to describe. No argument on those descriptions, but let's add "smart,'' maybe even "brilliant."

As Jenkins chased down Cowboys receiver Roy Williams in the waning minutes, the second-year safety knew he needed more than a tackle. Simply bringing down Williams after a long reception would have just allowed the Cowboys to run out the clock. Jenkins needed a turnover.

He got it. After taking a bad angle on coverage to help allow Williams to catch a slant pass, Jenkins was left to try to run down the Dallas receiver as he went deep into New Orleans territory. With Williams trying to protect the ball, Jenkins still managed to pop it loose as he caught the receiver at the 11-yard line. The ball fell right into Jenkins' stomach.

Trailing 27-23, the Saints were given new life. Thanks to Jenkins, Drew Brees and the offense came onto the field. They moved the ball quickly downfield and Brees hit Lance Moore with a touchdown pass that gave the Saints a 30-27 victory.

NFC South Week 11 decisive moment

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The St. Louis Rams and rookie quarterback Sam Bradford were driving late in Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Bradford, who already had thrown two touchdown passes, had been on a hot streak.

He had not thrown an interception in his previous 169 pass attempts. But that streak ended when Atlanta safety William Moore intercepted Bradford's shovel pass at the Falcons’ 2-yard line with 3:34 left in the game. It was Moore’s fourth interception of the season and his first since Week 6.

That ended a St. Louis comeback attempt and Atlanta’s offense iced the game when Michael Turner broke off a 39-yard touchdown run with 1:52 left to put the Falcons ahead 34-17 as they improved to 8-2.

NFC South Week 10 decisive moment

November, 16, 2010
11/16/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

For the last year or two, there's been a lot of debate about whether Atlanta's Matt Ryan is an “elite'' quarterback.

I'm not sure what the exact qualifications are for that term, but there's a chance history might point back at Thursday night as the moment Ryan officially joined the club.

With 65 seconds remaining in the game, the Ravens took the lead for the first time. That didn't seem to bother Ryan a bit. He took his team straight down the field.

He had the Falcons very close to where they needed to be for a game-winning field goal, but they didn't have to settle for a field goal. With the ball at Baltimore's 33-yard line, Ryan first looked for tight end Tony Gonzalez. When he saw Gonzalez was covered, Ryan turned to secondary receiver Roddy White.

Although there was some contact with defensive back Josh Wilson, no penalty was called and White was wide open. Ryan hit him with a touchdown pass with 20 seconds left.

That made the 7-2 Falcons the first NFC team to get to seven wins.

NFC South Week 9 decisive moment

November, 9, 2010
11/09/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

If you really want to know how far the Atlanta defense has come, look no further than defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson. Once considered a draft bust because he never developed into a pass-rushing defensive end, Anderson helped make one of the biggest plays of Atlanta’s season in Sunday’s 27-21 victory against Tampa Bay.

It came with the Buccaneers making a late-game drive and they could have tied the game with a touchdown and won it with an extra point. Facing a fourth and 1 at the Atlanta 2-yard line, the Bucs gave the ball to running back LeGarrette Blount, who has shown a lot of power in his young career.

But the Falcons, who haven’t always been known for having a hard-nosed defense, didn’t give an inch. That’s largely because Anderson, who has been getting a lot of playing time as a defensive tackle, got good penetration. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas came up behind him and closed a potential hole for Blount.

The work of Nicholas and Anderson allowed safety Thomas DeCoud to come up and tackle Blount for no gain. The ball went over to the Falcons and they ran out the clock.

NFC South Week 8 decisive moment

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Early in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game in the Superdome, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were about to take control. In fact, officials said Antwaan Randle El had caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger.

But New Orleans coach Sean Payton challenged the call and replays showed cornerback Leigh Torrence, playing because of a slew of injuries in the defensive backfield, had brought Randle El down before the goal line.

The Steelers were given possession just inches from the end zone. The Saints, who previously weren’t known as a shutdown defense, made a goal-line stand. The Steelers ran three plays, but couldn’t get into the end zone as Sedrick Ellis, Jeff Charleston, Scott Shanle and Roman Harper each made plays to stop the three runs.

The Steelers were forced to kick a field goal and didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, when the Saints already had the lead.

Big sports day in Tampa Bay

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
11:53
AM ET
Over the next few hours, you’ll see some of our regular Tuesday features pop up. We’ll have the updated ESPN.com Power Rankings, High Energy Player of the Week and Decisive Moment of the Week.

I’ve already future posted those items and I’ll be monitoring any other news via cell phone and computer from temporary NFC South Blog Headquarters this afternoon. I’ll be setting up shop at Saint Leo University, my alma mater, which will be hosting a luncheon and ceremony to unveil what will be contained in the display “Tom McEwen: A Tampa Bay Treasure.’’

I wrote about this several weeks ago and, for those who don’t recall, McEwen is the legendary former sports editor of The Tampa Tribune and played a big role in getting the Buccaneers, Lightning and Rays to town as expansion teams and also helped clear the way for the University of South Florida to start a football program.

Saint Leo will be the permanent home to a collection of McEwen’s work and memorabilia that will chronicle the history of sports in the Tampa Bay area. The luncheon is private and the permanent display case is still under construction. I’ll let you know when it’s ready and open to the public, which should be sometime in the next 60 days or so.

But much of the Tampa Bay sports world will be gathering at Saint Leo to honor Tom this afternoon. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio will serve as master of ceremonies and the guest speakers will include Pro Football Hall of Fame member Lee Roy Selmon, veteran Tampa Tribune writer Joey Johnston and a certain NFC South blogger.

The Bucs, Lightning and Rays each will be sending representatives and there will be a large collection of media members who started their careers working for McEwen. In fact, if you’re in the Tampa Bay area, you’ll be able to hear from a lot of the guests.

“The Fabulous Sports Babe’’ will be broadcasting live from right outside the luncheon room on ESPN Tampa Bay (1040 AM) from noon to 3 p.m. I’ll join her for a few minutes at some point. A bunch of media friends also have committed to chat for a bit and you might even hear from some representatives from the Tampa Bay professional sports teams.

NFC South Week 6 decisive moment

October, 19, 2010
10/19/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Early in the second quarter of Sunday’s game, the New Orleans Saints finally started to look like the team that won the Super Bowl last season. The big play, which had been noticeably absent from the offense most of the season, made a sudden return.

It came as Robert Meachem ran a deep sideline route to get between cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Cody Grimm. Although the Buccaneers have been saying Talib is one of the top cornerbacks in the league, Meachem got behind him and the rookie Grimm was late in rotating over to provide help.

That allowed Drew Brees room to find Meachem with a 42-yard touchdown pass. It came only a few minutes after Brees and Lance Moore connected on a 41-yard touchdown pass. Meachem’s touchdown put the Saints up 14-0 on their way to a 31-6 victory.

The Saints, who had struggled in recent weeks, had an easy time after Meachem’s touchdown. It was evidence that they still are capable of a big play at any moment and it just might be a sign that the Saints are back on track.

NFC South Week 5 decisive moment

October, 12, 2010
10/12/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

There’s an old saying in the NFL that big-time players make big-time plays. If that’s the case, the baby Buccaneers are growing up fast and big-time players have been sprouting up quickly in a 3-1 start.

No one has grown faster than quarterback Josh Freeman, who wasn’t even playing at this time a year ago. It still is very early in his career, but Freeman is showing he might be capable of doing what no other quarterback in franchise history ever has done. This guy goes out and wins games.

That has never happened in Tampa Bay before. Through different coaching and front-office regimes, the Bucs always seemed to ask their quarterbacks to not lose games. From Doug Williams to Trent Dilfer to Brad Johnson to Jeff Garcia, nobody ever went out and truly won games. The quarterbacks always were asked to try to be careful while the defense did the winning.

But the Bucs are letting Freeman be a gunslinger and it’s working. The latest example came Sunday in Cincinnati. With one fourth-quarter touchdown pass already under his belt to tie the score, Freeman got a huge break when safety Sabby Piscitelli picked off Carson Palmer.

Freeman charged onto the field and threw a rocket to the sideline where Micheal Spurlock also grew up before our eyes. Spurlock made a tippy-toe catch that prompted a replay to see if he actually made the catch inbounds. He did.

That set up Connor Barth’s game-winning field goal.

NFC South Week 4 decisive moment

October, 5, 2010
10/05/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

I wrote last week about how Atlanta's Roddy White has become one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. I neglected to tell you White also has become one of the best all-around players in the NFL, so he went out and showed us Sunday.

In a play that showcased his athletic ability, instincts and intelligence, White basically won Sunday’s game against San Francisco. With the 49ers leading 14-13 late in the fourth quarter, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was intercepted by cornerback Nate Clements, a play that seemingly sealed the game for the 49ers.

But White took off after Clements down the sideline, caught him from behind and punched the ball loose for a fumble. Guard Harvey Dahl recovered and that gave the Falcons another chance. This time, the Falcons didn’t give anything away.

They moved the ball within field goal range and Matt Bryant made the winning 43-yard kick with two seconds left.

NFC South Week 3 decisive moment

September, 28, 2010
9/28/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

If the Atlanta Falcons overtake the defending Super Bowl champions in the NFC South this year, it will be easy to look back to find the moment where things began to change for the Falcons and Saints.

It came with 11:42 remaining in the second quarter Sunday, the Saints leading 14-7 and driving down the field. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who almost never makes a mistake, made a big one. Trying to escape heavy pressure from Atlanta’s pass rush, Brees attempted to throw an underhanded pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham.

Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud jumped in for the interception, and what followed could turn out to be the most decisive moment in Atlanta’s season. The Falcons began a 19-play, 72-yard drive that lasted 10 minutes and 39 seconds. It ended with Michael Turner plunging into the end zone to tie the score just before halftime and it took away any momentum the Saints had built.

NFC South Week 2 decisive moment

September, 21, 2010
9/21/10
1:00
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With eight minutes and 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were tied 7-7 Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. For just a second, it looked like Tampa Bay’s chances of starting 2-0 were in trouble, and it looked like the Panthers might have found a pass rush for the first time in the post Julius Peppers era.

For just a second.

Facing a third-and-17 from his 25-yard line, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman made the decisive play of the week in the NFC South and probably the most impressive play of his career so far. By all rights, Freeman should have been sacked -- twice.

But the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman shed individual tackle attempts by Charles Johnson and Eric Norwood and continued rolling to his right. When he finally was free, he squared his shoulders and threw a frozen rope down the sideline to tight end Kellen Winslow, who was well covered. But Freeman put the ball in the one spot where Winslow could get it and the tight end did.

On the next play, Freeman threw a touchdown pass and the Buccaneers took the lead for good.

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