NFC South: rapid reaction 15

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

About a month ago, there was a lot of talk about the upcoming "brutal schedule'' for the Carolina Panthers.

After midseason homecoming games with Detroit and on the road at Oakland, there seemed to be a wait-and-see consensus on the Panthers. Well, the waiting might be over or maybe it's just begun.

With Sunday's win against Denver, the Panthers have won three of their last four games and they've done it in impressive style. Since a Nov. 23 loss to Atlanta, the Panthers have defeated the Packers, Buccaneers and Broncos.

At 11-3, they've suddenly got a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC. And the good news is we'll get to see what, essentially, is a playoff game next Sunday.

The Panthers play the Giants, who were 11-2 heading into Sunday night's game at Dallas. They've got to go into Giants Stadium (and to New Orleans for the regular-season finale). Yeah, that's a nice way to cap off the "brutal'' part of the schedule. But, if the Panthers keep playing like they are, they could go into the playoffs already established as the NFC's best team.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ATLANTA -- For the last few weeks, Atlanta coach Mike Smith has been talking a lot about the "Over Club." That's the small group of veteran players the Falcons turn to for leadership.

On Sunday, we found out who the president of that club is in Atlanta's overtime victory against Tampa Bay.

It's John Abraham.

The 30-year-old defensive end might have been the player most responsible for keeping Atlanta's playoff hopes burning bright. Abraham recorded three sacks and two of them came at crucial times. One came near the end of regulation and helped make sure the Bucs had to settle for a field goal and not score a touchdown.

The other came on the final play of Tampa Bay's possession to start overtime. That helped give the Falcons good field position and helped set up Jason Elam's game-winning field goal.

Abraham, who the Falcons have tried to keep rested by limiting his snaps, now has 15.5 sacks for the season. That's a career best, eclipsing his 13 sacks he had with the New York Jets in 2001.

Rapid Reaction: Bears 27, Saints 24

December, 11, 2008
12/11/08
11:46
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The season didn't officially end for the Saints Thursday night, which is kind of a shame.

The next two weeks are going to just prolong the agony for the fans of one of the NFL's underachieving teams this season. They're also going to prolong the inevitable -- the change that comes when things don't go as expected.

That's already started with a report that offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Doug Marrone will be leaving for the head job at Syracuse, where he played in college, and the fact Deuce McAllister, arguably the most popular and best player in franchise history, didn't even dress for the game.

It's obvious Marrone and McAllister won't be back, but does it really matter?

Marrone was a good offensive line coach, but you can find others. As a coordinator, he really wasn't one. He didn't call the plays -- that job has belong to head coach Sean Payton, although Marrone had some of a coordinator's planning duties during the week. McAllister hadn't really been an integral part of the offense since 2006, missing most of last year with a knee injury and not playing much of a role this season.

Age and injuries have caught up to McAllister and it's been obvious for a while that the Saints would stick with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush this season and, perhaps, look for another running back in the offseason.

That's not all the Saints (7-7) will be looking for because Marrone and McAllister won't be the only ones leaving. It's going to be time to, once again, overhaul a defense that was overhauled last offseason. That defense has allowed more than 20 points in each of the last four games and it's really no different than last year.

Does defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs become the scapegoat and take the fall? Maybe, but I don't think it was the coaching as much as the personnel and lack of defensive depth. The Saints need to blow up their secondary and start from scratch and it would be nice if they could find a guy or two who can actually put pressure on a quarterback.

On offense, we mentioned the running back situation, but what about tight end Jeremy Shockey? The guy's a talent, but he didn't produce much. Maybe it was because of his injuries or maybe it's time to move on. On special teams, it's time for the Saints to invest in a solid kicker and a solid punter and not go through a season cutting and signing guys.

Across the board, it looks like the Saints, who came into the season looking like the NFC South's most talented team, need change. They might as well start making plans now.

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