NFC South: High Energy Player of the Week

NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 16.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesTampa Bay's Josh Freeman threw five TD passes against Seattle.
With his team needing a win to stay in the playoff hunt, Josh Freeman simply did what he has done many times this season. Freeman put the Buccaneers, who have been decimated by injuries in recent weeks, on his back and carried them to a 38-15 victory against Seattle.

This one wasn’t the usual game where the Bucs stay close all the way and Freeman finds a way to pull it out in the end. The Bucs took firm control of this game in the second quarter when Freeman threw two touchdown passes straight into a strong wind.

But it didn’t stop there. Freeman, who never had thrown more than three touchdown passes in a game, finished with five touchdown passes to tie the franchise’s single-game record.

He also rushed four times for 23 yards and finished with 237 yards passing. Freeman didn’t even have to play the whole game because the Bucs had such a big lead that they decided to rest their starter and bring in backup Josh Johnson late in the game.

NFC South programming notes

December, 28, 2010
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 High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 15.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Stewart
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJonathan Stewart reached season highs in carries and yards in Carolina's win over the Cardinals.
In a lot of ways, running back Jonathan Stewart is the perfect example of what could have been for the Carolina Panthers this season. Like a lot of other talented players on this roster, Stewart hasn’t had the season he wanted or the Panthers envisioned.

Injuries were a big reason why. Stewart has had chronic foot and leg problems pretty much since coming into the NFL, but always was able to play through them. This year, he missed some time and wasn’t all that effective early on. Some of that was due to injury and some was due to Carolina's quarterback problems allowing defenses to focus solely on Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.

But Stewart has gotten healthy in recent weeks and his performance in Sunday’s victory against Arizona was a reminder of how good a running back he is when he’s healthy and things are going right for the rest of the offense. Yes, it came against a horrible team, but Stewart’s play was the major reason why the Panthers were able to end a seven-game losing streak.

Stewart’s 27 carries for 137 yards marked season highs for him in both categories. His running also took the heat off Jimmy Clausen and allowed the rookie quarterback to have one of his more efficient games. More important, Stewart's performance allowed the Panthers to get a win.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 14.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Jenkins
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireMalcolm Jenkins' interception return for a touchdown changed the momentum of Sunday's game.
I just sent a personal thank-you note to New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins for making this award easier to decide than any other week this season.

All the second-year pro did in Sunday's 31-13 victory against St. Louis was continue to show why he's one of the league's emerging stars and show New Orleans fans that the Saints really did know what they were doing in the offseason when they decided to move Jenkins from cornerback to safety to take over for the aging Darren Sharper.

I don't want to say I told you so, but I suggested, much to the chagrin of some New Orleans fans, several times in the offseason that the Saints simply were creating a younger version of Sharper. Turns out that's precisely what they've done.

Against the Rams, Jenkins picked off a Sam Bradford pass and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. He also picked off Bradford in the fourth quarter.

After the game, coach Sean Payton quipped that the ball has a way of finding Jenkins. There's some truth to that. But the reality is Jenkins has a knack for finding the ball, and the world is just starting to realize how good he is.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 13.

Part of it might be his position. But part of it is just the way Brent Grimes plays the game.

The Atlanta cornerback always seems to be around the ball and that was especially true in Sunday’s victory against Tampa Bay. With the Buccaneers driving with a chance to take the lead late in the game, Grimes made sure that didn’t happen.

On the first play after the two-minute warning, Grimes intercepted Josh Freeman at the 19-yard line and returned the ball 33 yards. That allowed the Falcons to run out the clock and improve to 10-2.

Grimes also was credited with seven tackles and six passes defended. He also made a very acrobatic play on what appeared to be an interception earlier in the game. Officials initially said Grimes made the interception. But the call was overturned on a replay challenge.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 12.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan improved his record as starter in the Georgia Dome to 19-1.
For the last year or two, there has been a lot of conversation about whether Atlanta's Matt Ryan is an "elite'' quarterback.

I've never been sure exactly what the qualifications are for that distinction. But I'm pretty sure getting signature wins against very good teams and leading late game-winning drives must fall somewhere on that list.

If they do, what Ryan did Sunday must have him at least closing in on elite status. In what was perhaps Atlanta's biggest game of the season so far, a showdown with fellow NFC power Green Bay, Ryan outdueled Aaron Rodgers.

With the score tied 17-17 with 56 seconds left, Ryan marched the Falcons down the field, completing four of five passes. He set them up for Matt Bryant to kick the game-winning field goal that allowed the Falcons to become the first NFC team to reach nine wins.

Ryan also continued his winning ways at the Georgia Dome, where he has lost only one game in three seasons -- and that came in 2008. For the day, Ryan completed 24 of 28 passes (85.7 percent) as the Falcons went a franchise-record fourth straight game without a turnover. The team won its fifth consecutive game and won for the ninth time in its past 10 games.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 10.

He began the season slowly, not even getting his first career start until Oct. 10. But Tampa Bay rookie wide receiver Arrelious Benn has come on fast in recent weeks and that became even more obvious Sunday.

Benn caught a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman in the first half of Tampa Bay’s victory against Carolina. It was further proof that the second-round draft pick from Illinois is on his way to success in the NFL.

It marked the second straight week Benn has caught a touchdown pass. He and fourth-round pick Mike Williams are starting to give the Buccaneers a dynamic young tandem at wide receiver.

Throw in veteran tight end Kellen Winslow and it looks like the Bucs have done a nice job of giving Freeman the kind of receiving corps that should make the quarterback very productive.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 8.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsLeGarrette Blount capitalized on the chance Tampa Bay gave him.
When the preseason ended, LeGarrette Blount briefly didn’t have a team to play for. The Tennessee Titans waived the undrafted running back, hoping they could bring him back to the practice squad.

That didn’t happen because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers swooped in and grabbed Blount. Seven games into the season, he has become the main focus of Tampa Bay’s running game.

With veteran Cadillac Williams struggling, the Bucs at first turned gradually to Blount and he showed some promise. That’s why the Bucs handed Blount the whole load in the running game Sunday against Arizona.

Blount entered the game with 21 carries. Against the Cardinals, he got 22. He responded with 120 yards and two touchdowns while showing a good combination of power and speed. He also caught two passes for nine yards as the Bucs remained undefeated on the road.

Big sports day in Tampa Bay

November, 2, 2010
Over the next few hours, you’ll see some of our regular Tuesday features pop up. We’ll have the updated 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 High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 7.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireTampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has led his team to five fourth-quarter comeback victories since the mid-point of last season.
There are stories from back in the 1980s about how legendary Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird would, on occasion, walk into the huddle or locker room and say, “Hop on my back boys. I’ll carry you.’’ It’s tough to imagine quiet and humble Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman saying anything so brash.

But it’s getting to a point where he no longer has to verbalize that kind of thought. When things get tough, the Buccaneers are automatically hopping on Freeman’s back because they now believe the second-year quarterback will find a way to win.

He did it again Sunday, finding running back Cadillac Williams with a 1-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining to give the Bucs an 18-17 victory against St. Louis. Since taking over as the starter near the midpoint of last season, Freeman has led five fourth-quarter comebacks for victories.

He has done it three times this season and the Bucs still have 10 more games to hop on Freeman’s back. They don’t have much consistency in the running game and the defense hasn’t been as good as hoped. But none of that really matters because Freeman is way ahead of the learning curve and he’s carrying the Bucs.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 6.

[+] EnlargeChris Ivory
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireChris Ivory had a breakout game against the Bucs, gaining 158 yards on just 15 carries.
A year ago, Chris Ivory went through an injury-shortened season at Division II Tiffin. On Sunday, he was the feature back for the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.

With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush sidelined, the Saints decided to go with Ivory ahead of veterans Ladell Betts and Julius Jones on Sunday at Tampa Bay. The undrafted rookie responded with the best game of his young career.

The Saints played their best game of the season, defeating the Buccaneers 31-6, and Ivory was a major reason why. Despite dealing with cramps due to the heat and extended playing time, Ivory provided a huge boost for a running game that had struggled early in the season.

He carried 15 times for 158 yards, highlighted by a 33-yard run. Ivory also caught one pass for 17 yards. Ivory’s performance helped the Saints get to 4-2 and put them in a tie with the Atlanta Falcons at the top of the NFC South standings.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 5.

Since the moment the Atlanta Falcons drafted defensive end Kroy Biermann in 2008, they have referred to him as a high-motor guy.

[+] EnlargeKroy Briermann
AP Photo/David RichardKroy Biermann's diving interception and touchdown run sealed Atlanta's win on Sunday.
That phrase gets thrown around a lot in the NFL, but I think you can look at the play Biermann made in Sunday’s victory against Cleveland to see the very definition of a high-motor guy. In his first year as a full-time starter, Biermann got a nice rush on Cleveland quarterback Jake Delhomme, but suddenly turned from pass-rusher to pass defender in a play that was no less spectacular or athletic than the one Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers made in Carolina.

Biermann swatted Delhomme’s pass, then chased it down and made a diving interception. Astutely realizing that nobody had touched him, Biermann got to his feet and ran 31 yards, dragging a Cleveland player the final few yards before falling into the end zone.

Biermann’s play came with a little more than four minutes remaining, gave the Falcons a 20-10 lead that sealed their fourth consecutive victory.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 4.

[+] EnlargeCarney
Chuck Cook/US PresswireJohn Carney made it look easy on Sunday, connecting on all three of his field goal attempts.
A little over a week ago, 46-year-old John Carney was sitting on his couch in San Diego and watching football on television.

On Sunday, he made all three field goal attempts, including a last-second, game-winning kick for the New Orleans Saints. The game marked the third, and most unlikely, stint with the Saints for Carney. Retirement seemed like a real possibility after Carney didn’t get any offers to sign in the offseason and the preseason didn’t create any new openings.

But Carney continued working out on his own and waiting for the phone to ring. It did after Garrett Hartley missed a short overtime kick in a Week 3 loss to Atlanta. Carney was a logical choice because of his ties to the Saints and the fact that he and Hartley have worked together in the past.

The Saints still are hoping Hartley can work out his accuracy issues and are keeping him on the roster. Carney may only be a short-term solution as well as a mentor for Hartley.

But, at least for one week, Carney was able to come in and give the Saints a spark -- and a victory.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 3.

He is 34 years old, but you never would guess that if you saw what Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez did Sunday against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.

Gonzalez caught eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown as the Falcons defeated the Saints, 27-24, in overtime. A week after the Falcons held “Tony Gonzalez Day’’ to honor Gonzalez for becoming the first tight end to make 1,000 catches, he showed he has a lot more catches in him.

Drawing coverage from linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks, Gonzalez got open consistently as the Falcons recorded one of their more significant wins in recent years by beating the defending Super Bowl champions.

Seven of his catches resulted in first downs and Gonzalez also drew a key pass interference penalty by safety Roman Harper that gave the Falcons 25 yards.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

When training camp started, it didn’t look like Micheal Spurlock even had a chance to make the roster with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeMichael Spurlock
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIMicheal Spurlock's fourth-quarter touchdown catch put the Bucs in the lead to stay.
Rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn were high draft picks and Sammie Stroughter had carved a spot for himself with a strong rookie season last year. The Bucs also had traded for Reggie Brown and had veterans Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall. A former college quarterback, Spurlock had bounced around the league as a receiver and return man and hadn’t made a reception since he was a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals in 2006.

But Spurlock kept making play after play in the preseason. When the roster dust settled, Brown and Clayton were gone and Spurlock was ahead of Stovall on the depth chart. Still, the conventional wisdom heading into the season was the Spurlock would not be much of a factor.

So much for conventional wisdom. All Spurlock did Sunday was make the biggest play of the day for the Buccaneers. Actually, he had two big plays. The first was a crucial third-down catch that gave the Bucs a first down.

The bigger one came late in the game when Spurlock caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to put the Bucs ahead to stay in a 17-14 victory after they had trailed 14-3.