NFC South: Peyton Manning

TAMPA, Fla. -- In our NFL Nation survey, we asked players around the league to name which quarterback they would want at the two-minute warning with the Super Bowl on the line.

As you probably expected, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning were at the top of the list. Brady got 40 percent of the vote and Manning received 26.9 percent of the vote.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Glennon didn't get any votes. That's understandable. Glennon just finished a rookie season in which the Bucs only won four games.

But I did see some signs that Glennon someday might be a quarterback you would want with a big game on the line. As a rookie, Glennon showed very good composure and earned the respect of his teammates. If he can continue to grow in those areas, he someday might be mentioned in this conversation.

Survey/respected player: Falcons

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When a guy misses an entire season due to neck surgery then comes back and continues to play at an elite level, he deserves nothing but respect.

Such was the case for Peyton Manning, who was voted the most respected player in a players’ poll conducted by ESPN.com. Some Falcons contributed to the vote in Manning’s favor.

Manning, who turns 38 in March, looks capable of playing into his late 40s. He doesn’t have to use his legs but can still improvise. The most dangerous weapon in his arsenal right now is his mind because he’s typically a step ahead of the competition.

I personally would have voted for Adrian Peterson because I know what it feels like to suffer a torn ACL, and Peterson’s dramatic comeback from the injury still amazes me. But it makes sense why players would hold Manning on such a pedestal.

When you’re at the top of your game for such a long time, you command respect.
It makes perfect sense that NFL players would vote Peyton Manning as the one player they would start a franchise with today. Manning is, of course, one of a kind.

The tremendous impact he has had on two franchises is telling. His command of an offense is unmatched, in my eyes. His 65.5 career completion percentage speaks to his accuracy and consistency.

A handful of Atlanta Falcons contributed to the vote being in Manning's favor, although some of the same Falcons made Manning look like anything but a franchise player when they picked him off three times during a 2012 win over the Denver Broncos.

It was interesting to see how much attention was given lately to Manning's losing playoff record. He is now at 10-11 going into the AFC Championship Game against long-time rival Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. No matter how you dissect his career, Manning still comes out a winner.

Now if the question was posed differently and players were asked which young quarterback they would start a franchise with, I guarantee Andrew Luck would have been first on the list. Luck was second on the list behind Manning in the voting, anyhow. Seems only fitting, considering Luck is Manning's heir in Indianapolis.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Derrick Brooks, Tony Dungy and John Lynch were named among the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 on Thursday night.

It’s fitting that all three have a chance to go into the Hall of Fame at the same time because the trio played a very big role in turning the Bucs from a laughingstock into a consistent winner in the 1990s.

Brooks, an outside linebacker, probably has the best chance of the three to get in this year. This is the first time Brooks has been eligible. Dungy coached the Bucs, but won his only Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.

The one potential knock on Dungy is that he won only one Super Bowl, despite having a great defense in Tampa and quarterback Peyton Manning in Indianapolis.

Lynch was known as one of the hardest hitters of his era. But it’s difficult for safeties to get into the Hall of Fame, and Lynch might have to wait until there is a class that’s not as deep as this one.

The Class of 2014 will be selected Feb. 1, the day before the Super Bowl.


The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan's new contract with the Falcons brings big money and huge expectations.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There’s an unwritten clause that comes along with Matt Ryan's five-year contract extension for more than $100 million, which was finalized Thursday afternoon.

He’s getting paid in a manner similar to Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco, so he’d better start playing like them for more than a 16-game regular season. There’s one thing those five quarterbacks have done that Ryan hasn’t: win a Super Bowl.

All five of those guys won a Super Bowl before fully cashing in. The Falcons, who once got burned by giving Michael Vick a huge contract, didn’t wait to lock up Ryan, who was headed into the final year of his contract.

But that’s where the caveat comes in. The Falcons have put up the money, and the expectation is that Ryan will reward them with a Super Bowl, or Super Bowls.

The contract extension is a very strong sign that the Falcons believe Ryan has what it takes to win the big one, just like Flacco (who came in the same 2008 draft class) did last season for Baltimore before collecting his bounty. It’s also a sign that the Falcons want Ryan to remain the face of their franchise as they move into a new stadium in 2017.

But the contract is also a leap of faith.

The facts are that Ryan has been about as good as any quarterback in the league over the past five regular seasons, but that hasn’t led to much postseason success. In Ryan’s tenure, the Falcons have won just one postseason game. That came last season against Seattle, and that win could have been viewed as a sign that Ryan has what it takes to win in January and February.

But that was wiped out by what happened the following week. Ryan and the Falcons jumped out to a 17-point lead against San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. But they ended up losing that game and, in the process, squandering all the benefits of a No. 1 seed for the second time in three seasons.

There’s a growing perception out there that coach Mike Smith and Ryan don’t have what it takes to win it all.

Is that fair?

Maybe not, but that view isn’t going to change until, or unless, the Falcons win a Super Bowl.

Is that perception accurate?

I don’t think so. I think Ryan has what it takes to win a Super Bowl. He’s talented, poised and respected as a leader by his teammates. The past postseason woes haven’t been all his fault. The defense and the lack of a running game played big roles in the San Francisco loss.

The Falcons went out and revamped their defense by adding defensive end Osi Umenyiora and drafting Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. They spiced up the running game by replacing Michael Turner with Steven Jackson.

Add Jackson to wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, and Ryan might have the best skill-position supporting cast of any quarterback in the league.

The Falcons have done their part by surrounding Ryan with talent and paying him like an elite quarterback. Now it’s time for Ryan to live up to his part of the deal.

Now it’s time for Ryan to win a Super Bowl.

Sometime between now and the start of the regular season -- maybe even before training camp starts later this week -- I fully expect the Atlanta Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan to agree to a long-term contract extension.

Ryan
Ryan
The Falcons want it to happen and Ryan wants it to happen. About the only question remaining is how much Ryan is worth.

The money may be astronomical, but I think this snapshot of the top-10 average quarterback salaries makes it pretty clear what Ryan’s new deal will look like:
Ryan, who has averaged $11.25 million per year on his rookie deal, is going to end up in the top five. There’s even a chance he could jump all the way to No. 1.

The top four guys all have Super Bowl rings. Ryan obviously doesn’t. But he’s only 28 and his side can make the argument he has championships in his future.

NFC South Top 25: No. 2

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We continue my NFC South Top 25 with No. 2:

Matt Ryan, quarterback, Falcons

What he did in 2012: Ryan completed 422 of 616 passes (68.8 percent) for 4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while leading the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game.

Why he’s No. 2 in 2013: Ryan is coming off the best season of his career, and it’s not hard to picture him taking another step forward. He’s surrounded by top-notch talent in Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, and the arrival of Steven Jackson should give the Falcons a solid running game, something they lacked last season. Ryan also should benefit from the fact that this will be his second season in coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense. I believe there’s a good chance this will be the year that Ryan firmly puts himself on the same level as Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. These rankings are based mostly on what I think players will do in 2013, but the past also figures in a little bit. That’s why I can’t quite bring myself to put Ryan ahead of Brees. Ryan doesn’t have a Super Bowl title. Brees does, and that speaks volumes.

For previous entries in the NFC South top 25, click here.
Tony Dungy has been selected at No. 20 on our Greatest Coaches in NFL History list over on our main NFL page.

I’d like to say I saw this one coming all the way, but I can’t. Truth is, I was covering the Buccaneers for The Tampa Tribune back when Dungy was hired to coach Tampa Bay in 1996, and I wasn’t so sure he’d make it through a single season.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
Andy Lyons/Allsport/Getty ImagesTony Dungy laid the foundation for a Super Bowl winner as head coach of the Buccaneers.
The Bucs started 0-5 and eventually got to 1-8. They looked even more hapless than they did in the Sam Wyche years. They didn’t look like a team that was progressing, and Dungy seemed to be sitting back stoically. He didn’t seem all that bothered by the losing, and just kept telling his players his system would work.

I was having serious doubts about whether a nice, soft-spoken guy could succeed as an NFL coach. And, then, I saw magic happen right in front of me. The Bucs went 5-2 down the stretch, and everywhere you looked stars were emerging – Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Mike Alstott.

But the real star was Dungy, and, like a lot of people, I came to understand him a lot better as time went on. I realized what I first thought was a quiet nature was much more than it seemed. Dungy had a sturdy belief that what he was doing was going to work.

He didn’t yell or go crazy on the sidelines, like Wyche, but he had an intense desire to win.

And, before long, he started to win. The 1997 season was a magical one in Tampa Bay. Dungy’s system firmly took hold and the Bucs made the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

A period of unprecedented success followed. The Bucs became playoff regulars. But, eventually, ownership tired of Dungy’s bland offense and a trend of coming up just short of the Super Bowl. Jon Gruden came in and the Bucs promptly won a Super Bowl.

Dungy went on to Indianapolis and more success. No doubt it helped to finally have a quarterback like Peyton Manning.

But, when Dungy led the Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLI it was proof that nice guys don’t have to finish last.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is bigger than Aaron Rodgers and LeBron James.

Brees
That’s according to a new list of the 10 most influential athletes in America, according to Forbes.

Brees, who plays in one of the NFL’s smallest markets, came in at No. 6, just one spot behind Peyton Manning.

Although we in the NFC South often talk about being overshadowed by bigger markets, Brees is proof that’s not always the case. Brees has combined his on-field exploits and his effervescent personality to gain awareness.

Even those that don’t follow football closely know about how Brees helped the New Orleans area recover from Hurricane Katrina. Rodgers and James came in slightly behind Brees.

But the real shocker is that Tim Tebow, who currently doesn’t have a team, topped the list of America’s most influential athletes.
The big storylines for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason have been the addition of running back Steven Jackson and what will happen at defensive end and cornerback.

Ryan
Ryan
But there’s something else on the horizon. That’s getting quarterback Matt Ryan signed to a long-term contract extension.

"From my point of view, we all know that Matt Ryan is going to be the quarterback for a long time in the Atlanta Falcons organization," coach Mike Smith told the media at the NFL owners meeting Wednesday. “He undoubtedly, in my mind, is an elite quarterback. He's played that way through his first five years.’’

It’s going to be costly and there will be salary-cap implications on the rest of the roster for years to come. Ryan is likely to get a deal that puts him on a pay scale similar to Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

Smith didn’t say if negotiations have started on an extension, but it’s clearly a priority.

“In terms of the timing and all that, I don't concern myself with it,’’ Smith said. “That's something that (general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) and (team president) Rich McKay and his representatives have to talk about. But I know this is going to be our quarterback for a long, long time.''

I highly doubt the Falcons will let Ryan go into the final season of his rookie deal without a new contract. I’d look for them to get through the rest of free agency and the NFL draft and then focus on locking up Ryan for the long term.

NFC South award time

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Doug Martin, Robert McClain, Drew BreesUSA TODAY SportsThe NFC South may not get a lot of recognition come awards time, but Tampa Bay's Dough Martin, Atlanta's Robert McClain and New Orleans' Drew Brees all deserve some attention.

Although we in the NFC South sometimes have an inferiority complex when it comes to recognition, there will be no shortage of it in what follows.

I already rolled out my All-NFC South team and named Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan the division’s Most Valuable Player. But let’s take this time to hand out some other awards for the 2012 season.

Comeback Player of the Year: I’m starting with this one because it’s probably my favorite story of the season. I’m going with Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. He probably won’t win the league-wide award because Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson are bigger names (there’s that NFC South inferiority complex again). But nobody came back from more than Davis. The guy tore his ACL three times. As far as anyone knows, no NFL player had ever come back from three torn ACLs -- until Davis did it. And he did more than come back and just play. He turned in a very solid season.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: This one is easy. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is the only choice. On the night they drafted him, coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about how Martin would be an all-purpose back. He was precisely that. He ran inside and outside, caught passes and made LeGarrette Blount disappear.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one is not quite as easy. I’m giving the nod to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, but only by a slight margin. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David also had an excellent first season, but Kuechly led the NFL in tackles, and Carolina’s defense was better than Tampa Bay’s.

Coach of the Year: Hmmm, I’ll go way out on a limb and take Atlanta’s Mike Smith. In a year when the other three teams went 7-9 and the Falcons went 13-3, Smith is the only option. Aside from throwing a challenge flag on a play that would have been automatically reviewed and trying to force the ball to Michael Turner too much, I can’t think of very many mistakes Smith made. Of course, the real test for Smith will be whether he can get the first postseason win of his career.

General Manager of the Year: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff wins in a landslide for the same reason Smith did. You just can’t argue with 13-3. Plus, I’ve got to give Dimitroff a lot of credit for not listening to public sentiment (that’s not a strong point for every general manager in this division) during the free-agency period. Fans were screaming for the Falcons to go after Mario Williams and other big-name free agents. Dimitroff didn’t listen and simply re-signed most of his own free agents. You can’t argue with the result.

Best free-agent signing: Receiver Vincent Jackson cost the Buccaneers a fortune, but he was worth every penny of it. Almost instantly, he became the best receiver the Buccaneers have ever had (yep, he edged out the likes of Alvin Harper, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green). He gave Tampa Bay a big-play threat, and he also made Mike Williams perhaps the best No. 2 receiver the Buccaneers have ever had.

Best trade: Dimitroff’s biggest move of the offseason was a trade to get Asante Samuel, even though there were rumblings the veteran cornerback was in steep decline. That turned out to be far from the truth. Samuel showed he has plenty left. More importantly, he has brought a swagger that Atlanta’s defense lacked in recent years.

Second-best trade: I know there is a segment of Tampa Bay fans that thought the midseason trade of Aqib Talib to New England was a horrible move. I understand that the Bucs' pass defense was bad and trading away your best cornerback isn’t going to provide immediate help in that department. But I think Dominik deserves kudos for looking at the big picture and for getting anything in return for Talib. Let’s be honest: Talib was nothing but a headache throughout his time in Tampa, and there was no way Schiano was going to want him around in 2013. Talib would have walked away in free agency, and the Bucs wouldn’t have had anything to show for him. The trade at least gave them a 2013 fourth-round pick.

Best release: A lot of people think Smith is too nice a guy. That’s mainly because the Atlanta coach genuinely is a nice guy. But that doesn’t mean he’s soft. Smith can be very firm when it’s in the best interest of his team, and that’s what happened at midseason when he and Dimitroff released defensive end Ray Edwards. Let’s not sell Edwards short and say he was a slouch. The 2011 free-agent signing was a tremendous slouch. He had lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann, and he was causing problems in the locker room. Instead of letting things fester and spread to other corners of the locker room, Smith simply told Edwards to hit the road.

Best defensive player on the worst defense in history: The New Orleans defense shouldn’t get too many accolades because it allowed more total yards than any defense in history. But middle linebacker Curtis Lofton deserves some praise. He came over from Atlanta, where he no longer was viewed as an every-down linebacker and showed that, at least for the Saints, he still was an every-down linebacker.

Best assistant coach: Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wins, although Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan got consideration. Koetter came in and did a better job than predecessor Mike Mularkey of letting Ryan go out and do the things he does best.

Best off-field tactic: Appeal anything and everything. That’s the approach New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma took throughout the entire bounty scandal. There were plenty of twists and turns, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who oversaw the final appeal, did not clear Vilma of wrongdoing (no matter what Saints fans think), but Tagliabue ultimately did vacate what was supposed to be a season-long suspension for Vilma.

Most underrated player: Robert McClain. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re not a Falcons fan. Even Atlanta fans had no idea who McClain was until Brent Grimes went down with a season-ending injury. McClain stepped up and gave Atlanta quality play as the No. 3 cornerback and sometimes even as the No. 2 cornerback. For the record, McClain was a seventh-round draft pick by Carolina in 2010 and spent some of 2011 in Jacksonville. He probably will be sticking around Atlanta for a long time.

Best performance by a guy that had a "down" season: Drew Brees might be the only guy in the world who can go out and throw for 5,000 yards and have people still think he had a bad season. Brees wasn’t horrible. But when you’ve been almost flawless for several seasons, anything less is viewed as an off year.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 28, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 17 games:

The record book. Although his play has been dismal recently, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman can make a lasting impression if he throws a touchdown pass against Atlanta. He needs just one scoring strike to set a new franchise record for career touchdown passes, which tells you a lot about the history of this franchise and its quarterbacks. Freeman currently is tied with Vinny Testaverde with 77 touchdown passes. A touchdown pass would also give Freeman the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season. He currently is tied with Brad Johnson, who set the team record (26) in 2003.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John BazemoreMatt Ryan has put together a stellar record in the Georgia Dome, going 33-4 there in his career.
At home in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons haven’t lost at home this season. In fact, they’ve won 11 straight home games dating back to last year. That’s the longest streak in franchise history and the longest active winning home streak in the NFL. Quarterback Matt Ryan is 33-4 at home in his career. Since 2008, the Falcons are 23-1 at home against teams that did not finish with a winning record.

Touchdown machine. In his last five games, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has been responsible for 14 touchdowns (passing and rushing). That’s the most of any player in the league in that span. Newton also has a shot at Peyton Manning’s record for most passing yards in the first two seasons of a career. Manning threw for 7,874 yards in his first two seasons. Newton has thrown for 7,672 yards.

A (bad) place in history. We’ve talked all season about New Orleans’ struggles on defense. There were a few minutes later in the season when it looked like things were starting to improve slightly. But this defense has a chance to set an NFL record for most yards allowed in a season. If the Panthers can manage 282 yards, the Saints will break the record (6,793 yards) set by the Colts in 1981.

The 5,000 club. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees currently has 4,781 passing yards on the season. If Brees reaches 5,000 yards, he’ll be the first player in history to hit that mark three times. He went over 5,000 yards in 2008 and last season.

More on Matt Ryan and MVP

December, 26, 2012
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On Saturday night/Sunday morning, I wrote this column in which I said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has resurrected his campaign for the Most Valuable Player award with his play in recent weeks.

Ryan had been getting a lot of MVP talk early in the season, but that seemed to fade around midseason. But I’m not the only one saying Ryan’s back in the MVP conversation.

Mike Sando leads this week’s MVP Watch with Ryan and currently has him ranked No. 2 to Peyton Manning. No offense to Manning, who is an excellent candidate, but I’ll throw out one other stat for those that like to point out the Falcons have had an easy schedule.

In games against teams with winning records, the Falcons are 4-0. In those games, Ryan has thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception.

Not that it matters, but I already hit our SportsNation poll and gave Ryan a No. 1 vote. If you’re an Atlanta fan, you might want to do the same thing.

Why not Matt Ryan for MVP?

December, 23, 2012
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Matt RyanAP Photo/Rick OsentoskiMatt Ryan again demonstrated his value to the Falcons with another sparkling performance.
DETROIT -- Quite unintentionally, the Atlanta Falcons made the strongest case yet for Matt Ryan's most valuable player award candidacy Saturday night.

Ryan did his part by completing 25 of 32 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-18 victory against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

But this isn’t a story about numbers. It’s a story about how Ryan is the dominant force for the first NFL team to win 13 games this season.

That was obvious from the start as the Falcons put the game in Ryan’s hands early, and Atlanta seemed on the way to a blowout. It became even more obvious in the fourth quarter when the Falcons put the game back in Ryan’s hands and made sure they clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“They’re not talking about him, but he’s my MVP," Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “Who’s playing better than him? In my mind, nobody. I’d definitely vote for him."

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson are getting all the attention when it comes to MVP talk. But maybe Weatherspoon has a point.

Why not Ryan for MVP?

For the moment, he’s the best player on the only team to win 13 games this season, and isn't it all about winning? He tied Steve Bartkowski’s franchise record for touchdown passes in a season (31) and he’s at or on his way to career highs in every statistical category.

But, again, this isn’t about numbers. It’s about how valuable Ryan is to the Falcons, who, once and for all, need to realize they aren’t the same old Falcons. And coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter need to realize they should stop even attempting to be anything close to the same old Falcons.

Let’s be honest. Running back Michael Turner has had a wonderful run with Atlanta, but his days as the backbone of the offense are long gone. The Falcons are a pass-first team now, and Smith and Koetter need to lose the stubborn streak that’s prompting them to force a running game that just isn’t there anymore.

They almost learned that the hard way against the Lions.

After Ryan played a nearly flawless first half (15 of 16 for 184 yards and three touchdowns) and led Atlanta to a 21-6 halftime lead, the Falcons took the ball out of Ryan’s hands in the third quarter.

They got conservative and tried to force feed Turner at the start of the third quarter. That got them nowhere, and it almost got them into deep trouble. The Lions followed a three-and-out by Atlanta with a touchdown. Early in the fourth quarter, a Detroit field goal cut the lead to 21-16 and all the momentum seemed to shift to the Lions at a time when Calvin Johnson was chasing (and, eventually, breaking) Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season.

But that’s when the Falcons put the game back into Ryan’s hands and he made his case for MVP. On a drive that featured only two runs by Turner, Ryan led the Falcons on an 11-play, 77-yard drive that was capped by a touchdown pass to backup tight end Michael Palmer.

“Matt made some big time throws on that drive," Smith said. “That’s what he’s been doing all season."

The people who vote for MVP should look long and hard at that drive, and so should Smith and Koetter. Ryan is the reason the Falcons are 13-2.

“There’s a lot of politics that come along with being MVP and things like that," said Atlanta receiver Roddy White, who caught Ryan’s first two touchdown passes and finished with eight catches for 153 yards. “But the guy has been here five years and he’s won a lot of games. Come on. He’s won 13 already this year and put us into this position going into the playoffs. And his numbers are up there with everybody else’s. I don’t see anybody else out there that’s better than him."

Neither do I. But White’s got a point about the politics. Brady and Manning have won Super Bowls. Ryan hasn’t even won a playoff game. The reality is Brady or Manning or Peterson, who’s putting up huge rushing numbers, probably will win the MVP this season, no matter what Ryan does.

But there’s a way Ryan can get more heavily involved in the conversation in the future. There also is a way for Smith to stop everyone from talking about what he and Ryan have yet to do.

That would be to go out and win a playoff game.

“This is a different team from last year or two or three years ago," White said. “Our players are more mature. I think we’re ready to go."

They’ll be ready and they’ll be a different team in the postseason only if Smith and Koetter grasp the fact that they’re not going to get anywhere with the running game. They need to grasp the fact that this team can only go a long way if it’s riding Ryan’s arm.

The Falcons can win in the playoffs, maybe even the Super Bowl, if they just let Ryan go out and play like an MVP.

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