NFC South: Lambeau Field

Stock Watch: NFC South

October, 2, 2012
10/02/12
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FALLING

Tyson Clabo, right tackle, Falcons. He was the guy that was matched up with Carolina’s Charles Johnson most of the day. Even though the Falcons gave Clabo a lot of help by lining up offensive lineman Mike Johnson as a tight end, Charles Johnson still was able to beat the blocks and record 3.5 sacks. The entire offensive line had a rough time most of the day, allowing quarterback Matt Ryan to be sacked seven times. However, it should be noted that Ryan did get the time he needed to throw on the game-winning drive.

Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator, Panthers. Injuries were a convenient excuse last year. But the Panthers are healthy this year and they’ve made some additions. Still this defense is playing badly. When you have an opponent at its 1-yard line with 59 seconds, I don’t care how good the opponent is, you should be able to make one play to end the game because one play is all it would have taken. If this season keeps getting uglier, there's going to have to be a scapegoat and it probably is too early for that to be head coach Ron Rivera.

Aaron Kromer, interim coach, Saints. There’s no doubt Kromer has been thrown into one of the toughest spots ever and you have to give him credit for getting a good effort from the Saints at Lambeau Field. But Kromer’s “we’re getting better’’ message is wearing thin. The Saints are 0-4. Only two more games before Joe Vitt takes over as the acting head coach and Kromer can go back to coaching an offensive line that hasn’t been very good while he’s been coaching the entire team.

RISING

Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson, wide receivers, Buccaneers. Jackson and Williams each had at least 100 receiving yards in Sunday’s loss to Washington. That’s a good sign. Williams and Jackson are building some chemistry with quarterback Josh Freeman, and the Bucs could be on their way to having some consistency in the passing game.

Roddy White, wide receiver, Falcons. A lot of people thought this would be the year Julio Jones would surpass White as the No. 1 wide receiver. It hasn’t worked that way. Jones has been good and has drawn a lot of coverage. But White’s been dominant and Sunday was one of the best games of his career. He had eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns and his late 59-yard grab was one of the best catches you’ll ever see.

Vance Walker, defensive tackle, Falcons. You don’t hear a lot about this veteran backup. But Walker plays an important role in Atlanta’s rotation and he came up big in Sunday’s victory. He had a sack, three tackles and a forced fumble.

Wrap-up: Packers 28, Saints 27

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints28-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field:

What it means: The Saints played their best game of the season, but still fell to 0-4. I won’t categorically say the season is over, but it’s close to that. It’s going to take an awfully big miracle for the Saints to bounce back and make the playoffs.

The win that wasn’t: The Saints actually had this game won -- momentarily. With just under three minutes left, Garrett Hartley converted a 43-yard field goal that would have given the Saints a 30-28 lead. But the field goal was erased by a holding call. That set up a 53-yard attempt that would have tied for the longest of Hartley’s career. He never got to attempt that kick because the Packers jumped offside. That moved the field goal attempt to 48 yards. Hartley’s kick was wide left. The Packers got the ball back and ran out the clock.

Can’t blame Brees: There’s a school of thought out there that quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t stepped up enough in a season in which the Saints are without suspended coach Sean Payton. I’m not sure how much more Brees possibly could have done against the Packers. He completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns without being intercepted.

Tying the record: Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 47th consecutive game. That ties him with Johnny Unitas for the longest such streak in NFL history. Brees will get a chance to break that against the team that drafted him and later dumped him.

Colston shows up: Wide receiver Marques Colston had been very quiet in the first three games. He wasn’t quiet against the Packers. Colston had nine catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

What’s next: The Saints will host San Diego at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next Sunday night.

Final Word: NFC South

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Throwbacks bring good luck: Team marketing departments love throwback uniforms because they create more merchandise to sell. Some coaches also love the throwback uniforms because they believe they bring good luck, and coaches are a superstitious group. Count Atlanta’s Mike Smith among them. The Falcons will wear their throwback uniforms Sunday against Carolina. The Falcons started wearing throwback uniforms (red helmets, black jerseys and white pants) in 2009 and are 5-1 in those outfits. They’re scheduled to wear them again in a game Nov. 29 against New Orleans at the Georgia Dome.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta Falcons
AP Photo/Gregory BullWith a win over Carolina on Sunday, Atlanta would tie their franchise record for the best start to a season.
Looking at history: The Falcons can tie the franchise record for best start in team history with a win against Carolina. The 1986 and 2004 teams each started 4-0, but each lost its fifth game. If the Falcons win against the Panthers, they’ll have a chance to set a team record when they play at Washington in Week 5.

Chasing the record: There’s a bright spot as the 0-3 New Orleans Saints travel to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers. If Drew Brees throws a touchdown pass, he’ll tie the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. The record is 47 by Johnny Unitas from 1956 through 1960. If Brees ties the record Sunday, he’ll have a chance to break it the following week at home against San Diego. You might recall that the Chargers are the team that unceremoniously let Brees go after the 2005 season, and he still carries a chip on his shoulder about that.

Contact coming slowly: We all know that the defense has been a big problem for the Saints. One of the biggest problems is that the Saints haven’t been able to stop runners in the backfield. The Saints have allowed a league-high 477 yards before making first contact with the ball carrier, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Opposing runners are averaging 3.7 yards before a New Orleans defender even touches them.

Run defense much improved: Despite their 1-2 start, the Buccaneers have made some significant improvements. One of them has been the run defense. Tampa Bay is allowing a league-best 2.3 yards per rushing attempt, and that comes after a season in which the Bucs allowed a league worst 156.1 rushing yards per game. The Bucs also are leading the NFL by allowing just 0.95 yards before first contact. Last year, the Bucs allowed 3.04 yards before contact, which ranked No. 31.

Southern exposure for Week 4

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
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Time to turn to the506.com for our weekly look at which NFC South games will be shown in which television markets.

Let’s start with the 1 p.m. ET game between the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. The FOX game with Dick Stockton and John Lynch will air through just about the entire Southeast, except for most of Florida. That’s pretty solid regional exposure, but the game will be overshadowed on a national basis by the contest between the 49ers and New York Jets, which will be shown throughout the entire Northeast and most of the West Coast.

Now, let’s turn to the late-afternoon games with two NFC South teams playing at the same time. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints travel to Lambeau Field to face the Packers.

Which game is getting better play?

You probably guessed it already. The FOX broadcast with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman of the Packers and Saints will be shown throughout the vast majority of the country, including Tampa Bay because the Bucs’ game won’t air locally because it didn’t sell out.

The FOX broadcast (featuring Chris Myers and Tim Ryan) of the game between the Redskins and Bucs will be shown in Washington, D.C. and surrounding markets, two very small pockets of Florida and what appears to be a very unlucky portion of central Texas.

NFC South evening update

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
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Let’s take a Thursday evening look at the top headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Arthur Blank was one of several owners that were instrumental in getting a deal finalized between the NFL and officials. Blank admitted the ending of Monday night’s game between Green Bay and Seattle helped create a sense of urgency. But Blank said the prospect of sending replacement officials into Lambeau Field on Sunday wasn’t why the deal got done. Although Green Bay fans might not have been happy with the result in Seattle, Blank said Lambeau crowds are very polite and there wasn’t concern about the safety of replacement officials.

Defensive end John Abraham attributed being charged with obstructing law-enforcement officials on Monday was due to “bad timing." When pressed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for his side of what happened, Abraham stayed clear of going into any detail. Abraham obviously still has to deal with legal implications. But his arrest came a week after running back Michael Turner was charged with DUI. The Falcons are very conscious of their public image and recent events can’t be sitting well in some important places. Coach Mike Smith is a genuinely nice man, but he’s also not afraid to be stern. I think it’s safe to say the Falcons have been told there better not be any more trouble.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Charlotte Observer explains the logic behind Kevin Siers’ cartoon on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. The newspaper said Siers was just poking fun at the absurd – Newton celebrating a touchdown when the Panthers were losing badly. In other words, Siers simply was doing his job. It might be a difficult concept for fans to grasp, but the media has to look at things from both sides.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason is dealing with knee and shoulder injuries. Coach Ron Rivera said, if Beason can’t play Sunday at Atlanta, the Panthers will not move rookie Luke Kuechly into the middle, a position he played in college. That’s probably a wise move because Kuechly clearly is still adjusting to NFL life as an outside linebacker. Moving him now probably would lead to some mistakes. If Beason can’t go, the Panthers will start Jason Phillips in the middle.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Linebackers David Hawthorne and Jonathan Casillas missed another day of practice with injuries. It’s looking more and more like Will Herring will be starting against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

Running back Chris Ivory, who has been inactive in the first three games, said he’s received no feedback about how to get some playing time. The Saints appear content to go with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram as their top three running backs. Makes you wonder why the Saints, who certainly could use some help on defense, decided to keep Ivory and rookie Travaris Cadet, who has been active for one game but doesn’t have a carry, on the roster.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

More and more, I think Tampa Bay’s decision to unload tight end Kellen Winslow in the offseason was a smart move. The Bucs traded him to Seattle and the Seahawks ended up cutting him. Winslow recently signed with New England and, on Thursday, asked to be released. Winslow’s always been a free spirit and recent events have shown that hasn’t changed. Coach Greg Schiano doesn’t seem to like free spirits. It’s better the Bucs got rid of Winslow early in Schiano’s first offseason program. If they had kept Winslow around longer, it’s likely things would have ended badly.

Martin Fennelly writes that the Bucs need to free up quarterback Josh Freeman. I couldn’t agree more. This kid has talent and he’s finally got a supporting cast. Let him spread his wings and fly. If that doesn’t happen, Tampa Bay’s offense never is going to take off.

NFC South evening update

September, 26, 2012
9/26/12
6:43
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Let's take a look at the day's biggest headlines from around the NFC South:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said he wants to have more of a 1-2 punch with running backs Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount. As we pointed out Tuesday, Martin has been on the field for 140 of Tampa Bay’s 177 offensive plays, while Blount, the starter most of the last two seasons, has participated in only 12 plays. Martin’s not about to lose the starting job, but it does make sense to get Blount more involved. He’s a big, physical back and rotating him in from time to time could cause some matchup issues for defenses.

With defensive end Adrian Clayborn lost with a season-ending injury, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim said he embraces a chance at a starting role. He should. This was a guy that was a third-round pick by Philadelphia in 2010 and now is his chance to prove he wasn’t a bust.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

This news doesn’t bode well for the Saints as they prepare to head to Lambeau Field. Their defense is banged up. Linebackers David Hawthorne and Jonathan Casillas and defensive end Turk McBride were held out of practice due to injuries on Wednesday.

The Saints have talked a fair amount about how it’s going to take time to master coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive system. Gerry V asks if it’s really necessary to make a defense so complicated. I’m not so sure Spagnuolo’s defense really is that complicated. I think the bigger problem is that the Saints don’t have the type of personnel in the front four to really make this defensive scheme work. That’s something that should have been addressed in the offseason.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

There’s been a lot of hoopla about wide receiver Steve Smith saying he “lit into’’ Cam Newton when the quarterback was sulking on the sideline near the end of last week’s loss to the New York Giants. On Wednesday, Newton said he has no problem with Smith and looks upon the receiver as a “big brother." That’s a good thing. Newton could use a little guidance right now. Say what you want about Smith, but the man wants to win and he wants Newton to help accomplish that.

Smith, on the other hand, says he regrets telling the media about the incident. I don’t see anything wrong with what Smith making it public. But, then again, I’m part of the media, so I’m all for open-door policies.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Zeke Trezevant explains what sparked tight end Tony Gonzalez’s big day in San Diego. It’s pretty simple. The Falcons were using their safeties on receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones much of the game. That left linebackers trying to cover Gonzalez and that’s a mismatch.

Mike Sando has Matt Ryan at the top of his MVP Watch. Can’t argue with that. It’s only three weeks into the season, but I don’t see anyone else in the league that’s started off as well as Ryan.

NFL Power Rankings: Falcons No. 2

September, 25, 2012
9/25/12
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The latest edition of the ESPN.com Power Rankings is out and the Atlanta Falcons have moved up to No. 2.

The Falcons are behind only the Houston Texans, who were the almost unanimous choice at No. 1. Only AFC North colleague Jamison Hensley, a very smart man, put the Falcons at No. 1. Atlanta was No. 3 last week, but No. 1 San Francisco lost, clearing the way for the Falcons and Texans to move up.

Baltimore and San Francisco, each with one loss, are third and fourth. Like Houston and Atlanta, Arizona also is undefeated, but it looks as if voters aren’t certain on the Cardinals yet and have them ranked No. 5.

There’s a long drop from the Falcons to the rest of the NFC South teams. Next in line are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 20. I guess close counts for something because the 1-2 Bucs actually climbed a spot after Sunday’s loss to Dallas.

The Carolina Panthers are No. 23. They were No. 19 last week, but tumbled after an embarrassing loss to the New York Giants on Thursday night. I would have dropped them even a couple more spots after that fiasco.

Finally, the winless New Orleans Saints are No. 28, down four spots from last week. This is my fifth season covering the NFC South and I can’t remember the Saints ever having such a low ranking. Sad part is, it might be even lower next week, after Sunday’s trip to Lambeau Field, where I’m sure the Packers will be looking to work out some frustration after Monday night’s controversial loss to Seattle.

Wrap-up: Chiefs 27, Saints 24 (OT)

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 27-24 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday:

What it means: Last week, I said it was time for the Saints to panic. My point was that they needed to do something dramatic before this season got out of control. They might be at that point now. They controlled things for most of the day in a game in their own stadium and they still ended up losing. The Saints are 0-3 and in sole possession of last place in the NFC South. The Saints have dug themselves a big hole and it’s not going to be easy to climb out of. The last time the Saints started 0-3 was 2007, when they lost their first four games and failed to make the playoffs. It probably remains a little too early to say the Saints' season is over, but look at the next opponent on the schedule (at the bottom of this item) and it's tough to imagine New Orleans suddenly turning things around.

Defensive woes continue: Kansas City wasn’t supposed to be an offensive powerhouse and, early on, it looked like a New Orleans defense that struggled in its first two games was going to be all right. But the defense collapsed, particularly the run defense. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles carried 33 times for 233 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run. Matt Cassel threw for 248 yards. The Saints could have survived that if their run defense had just kept Charles in check. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's been taking a lot of heat from fans. What happened Sunday isn't going to stop that.

What happened to the offensive line? I’m not going to put the blame for the collapse of the offensive line solely on the loss of guard Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay in free agency. I certainly think the loss of Nicks was a factor. But I think some other members of the offensive line are underachieving. The Chiefs aren’t a team known for generating much of a pass rush. They came up with a strong pass rush against Drew Brees and even scored a safety late in regulation by sacking Brees in the end zone. Brees has had to face too much pressure so far this season. He banged up his ankle last week and there were times on Sunday when Brees seemed to be limping a bit after taking big hits from the Chiefs. If Brees suffers any sort of injury, whatever is left of the Saints’ season is over.

What’s next: The Saints travel to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers next Sunday.
It looks like there’s at least a chance the New Orleans Saints could be playing in the season’s first game for the third straight year.

As the defending champion Super Bowl champion, the New York Giants will host the Thursday night opener at MetLife Stadium. That game will be played Sept. 6.

I’m just looking at the eight teams the Giants are scheduled to host in 2012 and the Saints look like one of the three leading candidates, along with Green Bay and Pittsburgh. The league doesn’t usually schedule division opponents in the opener.

You also can probably scratch the Buccaneers and Browns from the list since they’re not marquee teams. Green Bay and Pittsburgh each have national followings and the Giants and Packers could be paired in a rematch of the playoff game in which New York went into Lambeau Field and defeated the Packers.

But don’t count out the Saints. They also draw strong television ratings and they played the Thursday night opening game at Green Bay in 2011 and hosted it against Minnesota in 2010.

Saints put too much on Drew Brees

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
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Drew BreesThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesDrew Brees attempted 63 passes Saturday, 14 more than in any regular-season game this season.
Drew Brees is capable of many great things. But you can’t go to the miracle well 63 times in a game and expect it to produce every time.

That was proved Saturday as Brees and the New Orleans Saints lost 36-32 in a divisional playoff game to the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.

History will tell us this was one of the best games in playoff annals, coming as it did with four lead changes in the final 5 minutes and San Francisco’s winning touchdown with 9 seconds remaining. History will be right, because this game was exciting all the way around.

But the surrounding hysteria might get in the way of history, so let’s go ahead and go on the record with one very important item that cannot be overlooked: You can’t go deep into the postseason with Brees and Brees alone.

That’s what the Saints tried to do, and it came painfully close to working. They had Brees attempt 63 passes. He completed 40 of them, and it looked like he had the miracle the Saints needed when he hit tight end Jimmy Graham with a 66-yard touchdown pass with 1:37 left.

But football -- particularly when it’s in the postseason and on the road -- is about much more than a quarterback, even if he’s surrounded with Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston.

You must have defense, special teams and a running game. The Saints had none of those things against the 49ers, and that’s why they lost.

They simply asked too much from Brees, and they should have known better.

Just go back and look at New Orleans’ three losses during the regular season. There’s a little lesson here.

In the opener at Lambeau Field, Brees attempted 49 passes -- a number that would end up as his regular-season high. He lost a shootout to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, and there’s no shame in that. But look closely at the Saints' other two losses, because they came against inferior opponents. In an Oct. 16 defeat to Tampa Bay, the last game the Buccaneers won, Brees attempted 45 passes.

Oh, and then there’s that inexplicable loss to St. Louis two weeks later. Brees attempted 44 passes in that game. Win either the St. Louis or Tampa Bay game, and the Saints are the No. 2 seed and playing at home, where they were undefeated in the regular season.

There’s a line of demarcation where too much Brees becomes a bad thing. It’s somewhere in the low 40s. Yeah, Brees threw 44 times in victories against Houston and Jacksonville, 45 times in a three-point win over Carolina and 47 in a December victory against Tennessee. But none of those was pretty, and Houston was the only playoff team among that bunch.

In games in which Brees attempted 43 or fewer passes, the Saints were 8-0. They also were at their best in those games. They had a running game, some defense and no huge mistakes by the special teams.

But the Saints apparently didn’t notice that trend. They put too much on Brees on Saturday, and they did have some valid reasons for that. Brees didn’t help matters with two interceptions, and the Saints turned the ball over three times in the first quarter.

They fell behind 17-0. Then, they let Brees bring them back but didn’t do anything to help him. The running game, which had been so much better than last season’s, was nonexistent. Sproles, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas combined for only 13 rushing attempts and 32 yards.

Thomas left the game with an apparent concussion after losing a fumble near the goal line in the first quarter. Without him, the New Orleans offense became predictable. When Ivory was in the game, it was obvious the Saints were running. When Sproles was in there, it was obvious they were throwing.

And they threw way too often against a defense that can generate pressure. On his 63 drop-backs, Brees was sacked three times. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was under duress an additional 17 times. When under duress, Brees completed five of 16 attempts (31.3 percent). Brees also threw away five passes after throwing away only eight during the regular season and in the first round of the playoffs.

Again, there should have been a lesson from the regular season. The most times Brees was sacked or under duress (17) was in the St. Louis loss. Against Green Bay, Brees was sacked or under duress on 12 of his drop-backs.

The more often you have Brees drop back, the more you’re asking for trouble, especially when you have two All-Pros at guard but very ordinary tackles.

However, the biggest letdown of all came from the defense. It happened twice after Brees brought the Saints all the way back to take the lead.

The New Orleans defense was pretty good in the 2009 championship season, but it’s fallen off dramatically since then. After doing a decent job against the 49ers most of the game, it totally collapsed in the final four minutes.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireWith no running game to help out, Drew Brees faced heavy pressure from the 49ers defense.
The Saints allowed Alex Smith to score on a 28-yard run, the longest of his career. No one should ever confuse the slow-footed Smith with Steve Young. But now, in addition to Young, he’s going to get compared to Joe Montana.

After the late touchdown to Graham, Smith took the 49ers on a drive for the ages. He hit tight end Vernon Davis with a 14-yard touchdown pass to win the game with 9 seconds left. Matched up against strong safety Roman Harper most of the game, Davis finished with seven catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

The Saints should have known going into the game that Harper on Davis was a huge mismatch, but they kept letting it happen and they kept making Smith look great when it mattered most.

This game showed what’s been suspected since after the Saints won their Super Bowl. Their defense isn’t that good anymore.

That’s obvious now, and there are bound to be ripples, maybe even big waves, after this loss. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ contract just expired, and there already has been speculation he could be joining his old buddy Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. Coach Sean Payton, who once gave up part of his own salary to get Williams, might not stand in the way of a move after this one.

It’s going to be a busy offseason for the Saints. They must sign Brees to a new contract because his deal is up. The Saints have other expensive potential free agents such as Colston and guard Carl Nicks.

There’s no doubt the Saints will keep Brees and, in the process, probably make him the league’s highest-paid quarterback. But as they look at their salary-cap situation after taking care of Brees, they should take a long, hard look at their roster.

It’s time for some changes. You can do all sorts of flashy things and break lots of records by letting Brees carry your team. But he can win a championship only when he has some help around him.

It’s time to give Brees that help.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 45, Falcons 16

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
11:48
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NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 45-16 victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

What it means: The Saints (12-3) clinched the NFC South, which means they’ll be one of the top four seeds in the playoffs. They still have a shot at going as high as the No. 2 seed, but they’ll need to win their finale and hope San Francisco loses. The Falcons (9-6) already are in the playoffs, but now they can’t do any better than the No. 5 seed. Also, New Orleans’ victory means that, once again, no team has won the NFC South in consecutive years since the division came into existence in 2002.

Record time: With two minutes and 51 seconds left in the game, Drew Brees made history. With a touchdown pass to Darren Sproles, Brees broke Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season. Marino had 5,084 yards in 1984. Brees came into the game needing 305 yards to break the record. He finished with 307 yards. Brees also threw four touchdown passes.

The Sproles factor: I might be overlooking someone, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying Sproles was the best free-agent signing in the NFL this year. Sproles has made huge contributions as a runner, receiver and a return man. Early this season, I still saw some fans wearing Reggie Bush jerseys. I don’t think I’ve seen one in a couple of months.

The great debate: After watching the Saints absolutely dominate what had been a good Atlanta team for the past month or so, I think it’s fair to start talking about how the Saints match up with the Green Bay Packers. Remember, the Saints took the Packers down to the wire in the season opener at Lambeau Field. I know for certain the Saints are a better team now than they were in September. Yeah, you can bring San Francisco into the argument too, but that kind of waters things down. The Saints and Packers play great offense and a postseason game between them would be as exciting a game as you could ask for.

What I didn't like: From an Atlanta perspective, the way the Falcons lost this game had to be demoralizing. The Falcons had seemed to be on a roll in recent weeks. They’re already in the playoffs and they should have an easy finale. But the momentum Atlanta had built over the past month or so has been shattered. If they somehow end up facing the Saints again in the playoffs, that’s not a good psychological matchup. The Saints have defeated the Falcons twice already and that’s got to be in the heads of the Atlanta players.

What's next: The Saints host the Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale on Sunday. The Falcons host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Sprow: Saints can take Packers

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
11:54
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NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints are focused solely on their “Monday Night Football’’ game with the Atlanta Falcons right now. A victory will give them the NFC South title.

But fans and media have been getting ahead of the game and comparing the Saints to the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans’ quarterback Drew Brees to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. There’s also been a fair amount of debate about which of those quarterbacks should win the Most Valuable Player award.

Well, the looking down the road continues. In this Insider post, Chris Sprow goes into great detail about how well Brees has played in the past six games. He says that if Brees continues playing the way he has been, the Saints can beat the Packers, even if it’s in the NFC Championship Game in Lambeau Field.

He then points to several other reasons why the Saints might be better than the Packers, including the New Orleans defense and the continued emergence of Jimmy Graham.

Defense starting to make Saints scary

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
1:45
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Calvin JohnsonAP Photo/Bill FeigThe Saints' defense limited Detroit's leading receiver, Calvin Johnson, to just six catches for 69 yards.
NEW ORLEANS -- We’ve known for quite some time that the New Orleans Saints’ offense could probably score enough to stay with an NBA team if it needed to. Defense, though, hasn’t exactly been a strong point during the Sean Payton era.

Heck, you get the idea the coach only uses a defense because it’s required. You can’t fault him, because running an offense the way a smart kid would play a video game has brought New Orleans far more wins than losses through the years.

But it was the defense that was largely responsible for Sunday night’s 31-17 victory against the Detroit Lions at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Sure, Drew Brees (342 passing yards and three touchdowns) worked his usual magic and the offense put up the usual big numbers (tight end Jimmy Graham became the first tight end in franchise history to have 1,000 receiving yards in a season). But the defense, which has been known to give up some yardage and points, played perhaps its best game of the season.

Yeah, the Saints only allowed seven points in a win against the Colts and 10 in a victory against the Jaguars. But those were the Colts and the Jaguars. The Lions have a real offense (see Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson).

“(Johnson) can take over a game,’’ Payton said. “And the quarterback (Stafford) is playing with confidence.’’

Sure, Stafford put up 408 passing yards and it’s not often you can say a defense played a good game when it gives up 400 passing yards. However, the New Orleans defense did play well. Stafford only threw for one touchdown and Johnson was limited to six catches for 69 yards. Holding Detroit to 17 points is more than respectable.

“That was a big part of the game plan,’’ cornerback Tracy Porter said. “We created population around him and were able to minimize the damage he can do.’’

The New Orleans defense was particularly good early on. Johnson had just two catches for 19 yards in the first half, and the Lions didn’t score until there were 2 minutes, 28 seconds left in the first half. New Orleans went into halftime with a 24-7 lead. The Lions got back into the game with 10 unanswered points in the third quarter, but never scored again.

“Some of those stops on third down early in the game were pivotal and we were able to get a lead,’’ Payton said. “In that second half when that momentum swung a little bit, we got a key score and then a key stop defensively. All in all, it was a good hard-fought win. We have a ton of respect for that team we just played.’’

They should, because the Lions have a good offense and the Saints are going to see more good offenses down the line, especially if they get into the playoffs, which seems pretty much automatic at this point.

The Saints improved to 9-3 and clinched their third straight winning season. And they're going to need more games like this from their defense.

Let’s be brutally honest, the Saints are never going to have a great defense that can shut teams down all the time. That’s not the way coordinator Gregg Williams plays. His emphasis is more on being opportunistic, creating turnovers and making some big stops when needed. That’s what the Saints did against the Lions. That’s also what the Saints did in the 2009 season when they won the Super Bowl. They regressed defensively in 2010 and that’s part of the reason why they were bounced in their first playoff game.

Up until the Detroit game, the current defense has played more like the 2010 unit than the 2009 group. But this game might end up being a turning point. It was no coincidence that middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned after missing four games with a knee injury. Vilma led the Saints with 10 tackles.

“He’s the guy that runs the show,’’ free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Our other guys did a really good job filling in for him, but it’s a lot easier when he’s in their making the calls.’’

The Saints were able to pressure Stafford. He was sacked three times and hurried five others. The Saints did a good job containing the running game as well: the Lions finished with 87 net yards on the ground.

“Three and out is just as good as a turnover,’’ said Porter, who created New Orleans’ only turnover of the night with a fourth-quarter interception.

As Porter and Jenkins chatted in front of their lockers before meeting with the media, they talked about how the Saints should have had more interceptions. They started with two passes that went off Jenkins’ hands. Then, they started doing some more math.

By the time they were done, the conclusion was the Saints should have had five more interceptions.

“It wasn’t perfect,’’ Payton said. “There’s a handful of things we’ve got to get corrected to get to where we want to go to. But we’ve got time to do that.’’

Where the Saints want to go is the Super Bowl. Even with all their offense, the Saints are going to need some help from their defense down the road. Getting some stops and keeping Johnson under 100 yards and out of the end zone was very good.

Keep doing that and add some turnovers and the Saints could be really scary in the playoffs. Speaking of the playoffs, it’s looking at the moment like the unbeaten Green Bay Packers are the team to beat in the NFC.

But don’t hand the Packers the NFC title just yet. The Saints could have something to say about it before all is said and done. They went up to Lambeau Field for the season opener and took the Packers down to the last play of the game before losing.

Like the Saints, the Packers score points in bunches. But Green Bay’s defense hasn’t been dominant. The Saints have improved on defense since the opener.

If they can keep doing the good things they have recently and improve on those handful of things Payton talked about, the Saints might be able to slow the Packers enough to win -- if they end up meeting down the road.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 49, Giants 24

November, 29, 2011
11/29/11
12:00
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NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 49-24 win against the New York Giants on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

What it means: The Saints are 8-3 and still alone at the top of the NFC South. They also have the city of New Orleans rocking as the season comes down to crunch time. When teams have to come into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for prime-time games late in the season, the Saints have a huge home-field edge. They’ve got the Lions coming in for a prime-time game Sunday, and the Falcons come to New Orleans the night after Christmas. If the Saints win the NFC South and get the No. 3 seed, they’re pretty much guaranteed a trip to the NFC Championship Game, which could be a return trip to Lambeau Field, where the Saints started the season with a close loss to the Packers. But, hey, I'm thinking anything is possible for the Saints right now. This season is starting to remind me a lot more of 2009 than 2010.

The streak is over: The Saints had lost the coin toss in each of their first 10 games. That ended Monday night as they won the toss and elected to receive.

What I liked: Everything on offense. The Saints have so many weapons, and coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees use them all so well, it’s almost unfair for a defense to have to put only 11 players on the field. It might have been a little hard to notice because of Brees' ridiculous passing numbers, but the Saints also ran the ball pretty well.

The confidence factor: I wasn't crazy about it at the time when Payton went with a fake field goal on the first drive. It didn't work. But he basically was saying, "I don't care if we score here or not. This offense is going to put up so many points that it won't matter if we get seven, three or zero points here." He was right.

What I didn’t like: New Orleans’ defense gave up way too many yards. Then again, it didn’t really matter because there was no way a depleted New York defense was going to stop Brees and the New Orleans offense. But New Orleans still needs some improvement on defense, or that might come back to bite the Saints in the postseason.

Unsung hero: Linebacker Will Herring was hurt much of the early part of the season, and we haven’t seen much of him since he’s been healthy. But Herring showed up big, intercepting Eli Manning in the first quarter.

What’s next: The Saints host the Detroit Lions on Sunday night.

Suggested reading on the Buccaneers

November, 20, 2011
11/20/11
11:19
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If you haven’t seen it already, I strongly suggest you take a look at this story by Rick Stroud that explores different theories on what is wrong with the Buccaneers.

It includes some really strong comments from Herm Edwards, now an ESPN analyst, but a former assistant with the Bucs and a head coach for the Jets and Chiefs.

Some of what Edwards had to say is similar to some things that have been written in this space. Let’s start with quarterback Josh Freeman. I have written several times that, although Freeman certainly deserves part of the blame, most of it should fall on the guys around him. I’ve heard from a few readers who suggest I’m “coddling" Freeman.

I stand by what I said about his problems being due primarily to the poor play of wide receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount. Edwards said pretty much the same thing.

"I feel a little for [Freeman] because he's a good player," Edwards said. "I look at the personalities he has to deal with -- Kellen Winslow, Mike Williams, LeGarrette Blount. He's looking at all this mess saying, 'Really?'"

I’m not sure if Winslow really belongs in there. The tight end hasn’t been putting up big numbers and he’s been accused of being a selfish player in the past. But he’s behaved pretty well since he joined the Bucs. Winslow spent most of the lockout working out with Freeman. That can’t really be said about Williams and Blount. Each of them showed up for workouts at times, but they weren’t regulars.

Edwards also criticized the Bucs harshly for picking up defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

"Why bring in a guy who doesn't like football?" Edwards said. "You want that guy influencing your young football team?"

That leads to another hot topic. There have been suggestions from many corners that the Bucs have some players who are not strong character guys and don’t have any very strong leaders.

"I see that [Coach] Raheem [Morris] got on them for not giving effort," Edwards said. “But when you have players who have some character flaws in the locker room, there's no steady force. When you're winning, it's okay. When you hit tough times, they take over. And when you lose, it's magnified."

It’s been kind of a crazy stretch for the Bucs. Morris has sniped at several writers, publicly and privately. He’s also pointed to a difficult schedule, which has led some people to say he’s making excuses. The past week or two has reminded me a little bit of the days when Sam Wyche was coaching the Buccaneers.

Let’s just say there never was a lot of stability when Wyche was running the show. I’m not quite ready to say the current Bucs are out of control, but there certainly have been signs they might be headed in that direction.

If the Bucs go into Lambeau Field and somehow beat the undefeated Green Bay Packers, everything suddenly will be fine with Tampa Bay. If not, the strange times might get even stranger.

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