NFL Nation: Matt Bryant

Tony Gonzalez, Curtis LoftonAP Photo/David Goldman"It's not the outcome that we wanted," Tony Gonzalez said, but "I'm happy the way we played."
ATLANTA – Sean Weatherspoon looked every one of his defensive teammates straight in the eyes before Thursday night's game and encouraged them to play like there was no tomorrow.

The Atlanta Falcons linebacker had delivered plenty of emotional sermons before, including a tearful one at halftime of the Seattle game when he was still on injured reserve. But this time, he was in the line of battle with his teammates in full uniform, prepared to fight right alongside of them.

"Just motivation," Weatherspoon said of this pregame speech. "You get out there and play together, and don't worry about anything else. As long as we have a chance to get on the field, we still feel like we have a chance to help our offense, help win the game. We just talked about playing with a certain energy, man.

"Ultimately, we didn't get the result that we wanted. But we did play with more energy tonight."

Any notion that the Falcons had mailed in the season was put to rest Thursday night, even despite their 17-13 loss to the rival New Orleans Saints. The Falcons played with a sense of urgency despite dropping to a hard-to-imagine 2-9 on the season. They took this game personally, not just because many Saints fans infiltrated the Georgia Dome.

Trying to snap a four-game losing streak and attempting to salvage a dismal season was enough inspiration.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who insisted this week that the team hadn't quit on coach Mike Smith, was asked why the Falcons came out so motivated.

"Because we've been getting embarrassed," Gonzalez said. "I hope that's the reason why. We're a better football team than what we've showed these last [four] weeks. I think the way we played today was back to that old Falcons style of football. Obviously, we didn't come out and win. But I'm happy. I'm encouraged by it.

"And don’t get me wrong -- we still lost. It's a bad taste in our mouths. It's not the outcome that we wanted. We're not accepting it. … We're still disappointed. But at the same time, I'm happy the way we played. If we keep that same attitude, like I said before, things are going to be looking good for us in the future. No doubt."

Progress was watching the defense force a three-and-out on the opening drive and limiting Drew Brees and the Saints to three points in the second half. Progress was the Falcons' offense getting consecutive 8-yard runs from Steven Jackson and the line paving the way for Jackson's 1-yard touchdown plunge on its opening drive.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinSteven Jackson went over the top for his first rushing TD as a Falcon.
Progress was having a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, something the Falcons haven't experienced in recent weeks.

"I felt like the effort in the ballgame was good and gave us a chance to win the football game," Smith said. "I like how we started the game. We liked how we started the game. Felt like we played well, in spurts.''

The Falcons might have surged ahead had it not been for an untimely fumble in the red zone by rookie receiver Darius Johnson at the start of the fourth quarter. It was another one of those miscues symbolic of how the season has imploded. But Smith emphasized that the fumble was not why his team lost the game.

There were other gaping holes. The offensive line allowed too much pressure on Matt Ryan, who was sacked a season-high five times. The defense surrendered another handful of explosive plays, including a 44-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham on a play that safety William Moore admitted he botched.

Despite those deficiencies, and the costly fumble, the Falcons had a chance in the final minutes. Smith stood behind his decision not to go for a fourth-and-15 from the Saints’ 34-yard line trailing by four with 2:24 left. He opted instead for a 52-yard field-goal try, which Matt Bryant missed after the Saints froze him with a timeout. Smith's thought was to pull to within one with the kick, stop the Saints with three timeouts and then drive for a game-winning field goal.

It didn't work out exactly as planned, but at least the Falcons' effort was spirited.

"I thought that we responded to some momentum changes, to some adversity, in the football game," Smith said. "But still not good enough. When you don't win, it's not good enough."

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

November, 21, 2013

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 17-13 loss to New Orleans Saints on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome:

Showing fight: Tight end Tony Gonzalez promised the Falcons would come out with some fight despite entering the game with a 2-8 record. He was right. The Falcons definitely put together a spirited effort against their NFC South rival. It showed from the start when the defense forced Drew Brees and the Saints into a three-and-out to begin the game, including two run-stuffing plays. And the offense played with just as much enthusiasm, as evident with Steven Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown flip -- his first rushing TD with the team. Despite some hiccups in defensive coverage and pass protection, the Falcons competed for almost the entire game, though the defense seemed to just wear down at the very end. It wasn’t truly over until Matt Bryant missed a 52-yard field-goal try in the final minutes. The Falcons needed to play with the same type of fire the previous four weeks. They’ve now lost five in a row.

Stock watch: Undrafted rookie receiver Darius Johnson’s stock skyrocketed and plummeted all in the same game. He played like a veteran in the first half, catching a team-high five passes for 65 yards. He almost had a touchdown, but a replay review showed he was down at the 1-yard line. As good as Johnson looked, though, he still made some rookie mistakes. He had a key drop across the middle while wide open on a third-and-2 play in the third quarter. Then in the fourth, Johnson fumbled the ball away after a catch, killing a Falcons drive into the red zone.

Third downer: When the Saints converted 5 of 5 third-down tries on their second drive of the game, you figured it would be a bad night for the Falcons' defense. It was. Atlanta gave up way too much room on third down, allowing the Saints to march at will. Third-down defense and surrendering explosive plays have been a problem for the Falcons all season. They also gave up a 44-yard touchdown from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.

Line change: Once again, the Falcons' offensive line experienced a change. Garrett Reynolds, who regained his starting spot at right guard after being benched last week, was benched again in favor of center/guard Peter Konz. There might be some more changes next time out after the Falcons allowed Matt Ryan to be sacked a season-high five times. Left tackle Lamar Holmes didn’t have a good day going up against right defensive end Cameron Jordan (2.5 sacks), and Saints left defensive end Akiem Hicks had a field day against the Falcons' linemen, too.

Bad call? Speaking of Hicks, he wrapped Ryan up high and twisted the quarterback to the ground in the second quarter on a play that appeared to be a roughing penalty. Falcons coach Mike Smith was livid that no call was made. And the sack essentially cost the Falcons a touchdown as they settled for Bryant’s 39-yard field goal. A touchdown there might have changed the complexion of the game. Smith and the Falcons are sure to reach out to the league about the officiating.

What's next: The Falcons have a few extra days to prepare for their trip to Toronto to face the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo beat the New York Jets 37-14 in Week 11 and has a bye this week. In other words, nothing gets any easier for the Falcons moving forward.
It’s that time of year when everyone is making lists about various topics, so let’s turn to another one.

Matthew Berry ranks the 200 best fantasy football picks for 2013. The best fantasy player in the NFC South?

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin, Thomas Davis
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesTampa Bay running back Doug Martin could be ready to deliver a monster fantasy season.
According to Berry, it’s Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin. Berry ranks Martin as the No. 5 player, behind only Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Ray Rice and Marshawn Lynch. They’re all great running backs, but I think Martin has a chance to climb a spot or two on the list once the season gets rolling.

People tend to forget that Martin played his entire rookie season without guard Davin Joseph and about half of it without guard Carl Nicks. Put those two back in the middle of the line and it’s not hard to imagine Martin putting up numbers even better than he did in his first season.

Fantasy football tends to put a lot of value on running backs and Atlanta’s Steven Jackson also comes in with a high ranking. Berry put Jackson at No. 12.

Now, let’s leave it up to Berry to bring back up the spirits of those Saints fans that took a hit earlier when Pro Football Focus ranked Drew Brees No. 79 on its list of the NFL’s top 100 players. Berry has Brees at No. 15 overall and second among quarterbacks (behind only Aaron Rodgers).

Brees is always a good fantasy pick, but I think he could be better than usual this year. Coach Sean Payton had a full season off to come up with new wrinkles for his offense, and that can only help Brees’ numbers.

Berry also scored some points with New Orleans fans by rating Jimmy Graham as the league’s top tight end (No. 20 overall).

Some other NFC South players on Berry’s list:

Live from the Georgia Dome

January, 20, 2013
ATLANTA -- I’m in the Georgia Dome, where things are quiet for the moment.

The gates aren’t open to fans yet and the only players I see on the field loosening up are Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher.

But the atmosphere is going to change soon enough because the parking lots already were jammed with tailgate parties and I did notice a few fans wearing San Francisco jerseys.

I’ll be back with inactives about 90 minutes before kickoff. Colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando are here with me and Ashley Fox also should be arriving soon. Also, I'm scheduled to chat about the matchup between the Falcons and 49ers on ESPN Radio at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET.

Be sure to join us in the Countdown Live chat throughout the game.

Falcons never doubted Matt Ryan

January, 14, 2013
ATLANTA -- Although the Atlanta Falcons hadn’t won a playoff game in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era before Sunday’s victory against Seattle, that didn’t stop them from acting like they’ve been there before.

They have been in similar situations many times this season, winning a lot of close games in the final minutes. That’s why, in this radio interview , kicker Matt Bryant said he went to all the offensive players with a message when the Falcons got the ball back, trailing by two points with 31 seconds left.

“I told everybody we’ve done this before," Bryant said. “I kept telling them over and over we’ve done this before."

Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal to win the game, but he wasn’t taking credit for the win. Instead, he was giving it to Ryan, who led the Falcons downfield to set up Bryant’s kick. Bryant said he never doubted Ryan would put him in position to make the kick.

“All the confidence in the world," Bryant said. “He’s a great leader. No matter if we’re 30 points up or one point down. He’s the same guy. He’s always going to be calm. He’s going to come through. He’s going to do what he’s got to do to get us in the position to win."

Explaining Atlanta's onside kick

January, 14, 2013
There was one oddity that might have gotten lost in the shuffle of the final minutes of the Atlanta Falcons' 30-28 victory against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

After Matt Bryant made a 49-yard field goal to put the Falcons ahead for good with eight seconds remaining, Atlanta attempted what looked like an onside kick. Matt Bosher kicked short and Seattle’s Heath Farwell quickly covered the ball at Seattle’s 46-yard line.

What were the Falcons doing by attempting an onside kick when they already had the lead? Well, it wasn’t supposed to be an onside kick.

“We did not execute exactly how we wanted to,’’ coach Mike Smith said. “These things happen in a ballgame. We were able to go out there those last two plays and get the win.’’

Seattle completed one quick pass. Then, wide receiver Julio Jones, who was inserted at safety for the final play of the game, intercepted Russell Wilson’s desperation pass into the end zone.

Smith wouldn’t go into much more detail about how the Falcons ended up handing the Seahawks decent field position. He implied that the play was supposed to be a squib kick. But he wouldn’t say if Bosher didn’t get the message or if the play just wasn’t executed properly.

Quick Take: 49ers at Falcons

January, 13, 2013
Five things to know about the San Francisco 49ers' matchup against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in the Georgia Dome:

1. Same thing all over again? At least on paper, this matchup looks awfully similar to the one Atlanta won against Seattle on Sunday. Like the Seahawks, the 49ers have a young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who can run out of the read option and a strong defense. The last time the Falcons and 49ers played, the game ended in a very similar way to the victory against the Seahawks -- with a decisive last minute field goal. In Week 4 of the 2010 season, San Francisco defensive back Nate Clements had a late interception of Matt Ryan. If Clements simply went down, the 49ers would have been able to run out the clock. But Clements attempted to return the interception and Atlanta receiver Roddy White made a great hustle play. White chased down Clements and stripped the ball. Guard Harvey Dahl recovered and Ryan led a quick drive that ended with Matt Bryant kicking a 43-yard field goal for the win.

2. New territory: The Falcons, who came into the league in 1966, are going to the NFC Championship Game for only the third time in franchise history. They won it in the 1998 season and lost it in the 2004 season. This will be the first time the Falcons have hosted an NFC Championship Game. That could weigh heavily in Atlanta’s favor. Since the arrival of coach Mike Smith in 2008, the Falcons are 34-8 in the Georgia Dome (regular season and postseason).

3. It's up to the O-line: One of the biggest keys to the game will be Atlanta’s offensive line. The Falcons did a great job protecting Ryan against the Seahawks. He wasn’t sacked while attempting 35 passes. But the 49ers thrive on their pass rush and it’s a big part of the reason why they’re in the NFC Championship Game. In their divisional round victory against Green Bay, the 49ers put Aaron Rodgers under duress or sacked him on 11 of his 43 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In those situations, Rodgers completed just two of nine passes for 13 yards.

4. Pounding on the ground: Atlanta’s running game, which struggled through most of the regular season, might be coming together at the right time. The Falcons rushed for 167 yards against the Seahawks, with Michael Turner leading the way with 98 yards on 14 carries. The Falcons had 88 rush yards after contact. The Falcons had 76 rush yards after contact in the first half, which is the most Atlanta has had in an opening half in the last four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

5. Opening the airways: The improved play from the running game might mean more play-action passing against San Francisco. Against Seattle, play action worked very well. Ryan was eight of 12 for 87 yards and three touchdowns when using play action.
Matt RyanAP Photo/Dave MartinMatt Ryan earned the right to be called elite after rallying Atlanta in the playoffs.
ATLANTA -- When the history of Matt Ryan's career is written -- and that probably won't happen for at least another decade or so -- what happened Sunday will mark a significant turning point.

In thrilling fashion, Ryan finally won a playoff game, leading the Atlanta Falcons to a 30-28 victory against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round at the Georgia Dome.

It was the day that Ryan shed two labels: the guy who couldn't win a playoff game and "choker." And, at long last, he officially earned another.

“I feel very strongly that Matt is an elite type of quarterback," Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

Let's go ahead and give Ryan the elite label. With his game-winning drive, Ryan earned the right to be called elite, even by those who doubted him.

The sad part is I thought Ryan had earned elite status much earlier in his five NFL seasons. The guy has won a lot of games -- regular-season games. But the world was not going to believe in Ryan until he won a playoff game.

His first three postseason appearances didn't go well. As a rookie in the 2008 season, Ryan and the Falcons lost at Arizona. Despite having the No. 1 seed in the 2010 season, they lost at home to Green Bay. Last season, Ryan and the offense were dismal and they lost 24-2 to the New York Giants. The two points came on a safety by the defense.

With each loss, the chorus of doubters grew louder. The critics kept pointing to the fact Ryan never had passed for more than 200 yards in a playoff game.

“The one thing I've learned specifically is, in the postseason, it's hard [to win]," Ryan said. “It's difficult to do."

The pressure this time around was intense on Ryan and coach Mike Smith, who arrived the same year as his quarterback. Another loss could have put both on the hottest of seats heading into the 2013 season. But the pressure broke with a victory against the Seahawks. That's why Ryan was smiling more broadly than I've ever seen him as he walked through the tunnel toward the locker room after the game.

“I hugged him several times," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “I'm happy for every guy in that locker room. But I'm especially happy for Matt because he's the quarterback and all eyes are on him and everybody kept pointing to the past, which I don't think was very fair."

The pressure might not have been fair, but it was understandable. Until Ryan won in the postseason, a lot of people were going to continue to overlook the fact he'd spent five years showing he could handle pressure situations quite nicely.

Coming into Sunday, Ryan had 21 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including five this season. He long ago earned the nickname "Matty Ice."

But the 22nd game-winning drive of Ryan's career forever will be frozen in Atlanta history. It came after the Falcons, largely because of a defensive collapse, had squandered a 20-0 halftime lead and fallen behind 28-27.

Atlanta got the ball back at its own 28-yard line and 31 seconds remaining. Ryan promptly hit Harry Douglas with a pass that gained 22 yards. He followed that with a 19-yard gain to Tony Gonzalez.

With 13 seconds left, kicker Matt Bryant trotted onto the field and hit a 49-yard field goal.

“Our quarterback, guys and ladies, is a special player," Smith said. "He did a great job there on that last drive. I know his nickname is 'Matty Ice.' I feel like we have two 'Matty Ices.' We’ve got Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant. Matt Bryant has done some really big things for us."

There's no doubt Bryant is one of the league's best clutch kickers. But he would not have gotten the chance to win the game if it wasn't for Ryan.

The quarterback simply did what he's done throughout his career.

“I've been in these situations throughout the year and the last few years," Ryan said.

The only difference was that this was a playoff game and that's a big difference. The questions about having never won a playoff game now will cease.

“It'll be nice," said Ryan, who completed 24 of 35 passes for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Falcons now host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.

“We're in a spot right now where, with Matt at the helm, we always know we have a very good chance," Dimitroff said.

That finally rang true on a playoff stage. Maybe postseason wins come easier once you get the first one. Or maybe the 49ers will present an even bigger challenge than the Seahawks.

Ryan may have looked relieved as he was hugging Blank and Dimitroff, but that doesn't mean he is satisfied.

“Our goal isn't to win one playoff game," Ryan said. “Our goal is still in front of us. We’ve got two more games to go."

There's no reason the Falcons can't win the NFC Championship Game, as long as Ryan plays the way he almost always has in the regular season.

Ryan's been an elite quarterback for a long time. Now, it's time for him to keep proving it in the postseason.

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: We finally get to stop hearing how coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan can’t win in the postseason. They did it. The Falcons, who didn’t always play at a high level even when they were winning in the regular season, played something pretty close to a perfect first half, and that was enough to hold off a second-half rally by Seattle. This game came with enormous pressure because the Falcons were 0-3 in the postseason in the Smith-Ryan era, but the Falcons handled that pressure magnificently. Now, it no longer can be said that they can’t win big games.

A little perspective: The win was the first in the playoffs for the Falcons since they defeated the St. Louis Rams in the 2004 season.

The miracle: It never should have come down to it after the Falcons led 20-0 at halftime, but they trailed 28-27 with 25 seconds left. Ryan completed a couple of quick passes, and Matt Bryant won the game with a 49-yard field goal.

What I liked: The performance of Atlanta’s defense in the first half. Coordinator Mike Nolan cooked up a masterpiece. I thought the Falcons would have trouble with the running/passing of Russell Wilson and the power running of Marshawn Lynch. They didn’t. The defense turned in a brilliant performance with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux leading the way. Babineaux’s sack of Wilson at the end of the first half prevented the Seahawks from taking a little bit of momentum into halftime.

What I didn’t like: Atlanta’s defensive performance in the second half. The Falcons very nearly squandered the lead.

What else I liked: The way offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter used the running game as a supplement to the passing game. The Falcons are a pass-first team now, but there were times during the season when Koetter, perhaps acting on orders from Smith, tried to force the running game. That didn’t happen Sunday. Even against Seattle’s vaunted secondary, the Falcons rode the passing game. That opened the way for a few nicely timed big plays from the running game.

Play of the day: For five seasons, I’ve been laughing at people who say Ryan doesn’t have a strong arm. Can we finally put that myth to rest? If you didn’t see it live or catch it on the highlights, please go take a look at his touchdown pass to Roddy White with 4:16 left in the second quarter. Officially, the play went for 47 yards. But Ryan threw the ball well more than 50 yards in the air.

Reason for worry? Defensive end John Abraham left the game with an ankle injury and did not return. It’s unclear how serious the injury is. Aside from Abraham, the Falcons don’t have a pass-rusher of any consequence. If he’s going to miss the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons must get very creative with their blitz packages to generate any sort of pass rush.

What’s next: The Falcons will host the San Francisco 49ers in next week’s NFC Championship Game.
The guys at numberFire, fresh off projecting all wild-card winners correctly, use their latest Insider piece Insider to project a Seattle-San Francisco matchup in the NFC Championship Game.

Their projection model has the Seahawks beating Atlanta and the 49ers beating Green Bay by a combined four points.

Seeing such close final scores brought to mind the kicking issues affecting the Seattle-Atlanta and San Francisco-Green Bay matchups in the divisional round this weekend.

Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka has a strained calf. Punter Jon Ryan subbed for Hauschka on a kickoff during the Seahawks' wild-card victory over the Washington Redskins. Seattle won that game by 10 points. A closer finish might have complicated decisions on whether to attempt a field goal from various ranges.

The Seahawks aren't sure how well Hauschka will be able to perform against the Falcons.

The 49ers and Packers might be better off with an injured Hauschka, who made 88.9 percent of his field-goal tries during the regular season, than with their current kickers. San Francisco's David Akers and Billy Cundiff joined the Packers' Mason Crosby at the bottom of the NFL's rankings for field-goal accuracy this season.

Akers was 35th out of 37 qualifying kickers with a 69.0 percentage. Crosby (63.6) and Cundiff (58.3) rounded out the rankings.

The chart shows field-goal percentages by distance for NFC West kickers and their opponents in the divisional round. The 49ers have not yet announced which kicker will take the lead against the Packers.

"We have a leader in the clubhouse and we'll see how it goes," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters.

Akers made field goals from 25, 37 and 41 yards during the 49ers' 36-32 victory over New Orleans in the divisional round last season.

NFC South wrap: Year of the Falcons

December, 27, 2012
NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: Matt Ryan, Falcons. You could make a case for him as the MVP of the entire league. With one game remaining in his fifth season, Ryan already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdown passes (31). His 69.0 completion percentage also is way over his career average.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireFalcons QB Matt Ryan has made a case to be the league's MVP.
But the most impressive thing about Ryan’s season might be the 13 wins he already has led the Falcons to. It all has come in a season in which the Falcons have overhauled their offense to make the passing game a priority. With the running game posing almost no threat, Ryan has carried this offense.

Biggest disappointment: The Carolina Panthers. Back in the preseason, the Panthers were a trendy pick as a team on the rise. The media, myself included, thought quarterback Cam Newton would only build on a fantastic rookie season and that Carolina had fixed its defense. Fans got giddy and even center Ryan Kalil joined the fray, taking out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that promised a Super Bowl victory.

Instead, the Panthers didn’t even come close to making the playoffs. They started so poorly that general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October and coach Ron Rivera clearly is on the hot seat. The current three-game winning streak might get Rivera another year. But you have to wonder why a team with this much talent didn’t open the season playing the way it is now.

The story that never stopped: The New Orleans Saints dominated the offseason headlines for the entire league (maybe the entire sports world) when the NFL exposed their three-year bounty program. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was given a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game suspension.

While all that was going on, fans also started sweating as negotiations between quarterback Drew Brees and the team dragged on far too long. Brees finally signed and Vilma and Smith tied things up in the appeals process before eventually having their suspensions vacated. All the drama took a toll as the Saints started 0-4 before getting on a bit of a roll and briefly entering the playoff picture. But the soap opera isn’t over. During the season, it was revealed that the NFL had voided the contract Payton signed last year. He could end up being a free agent when he is reinstated.

Has the window closed? Even if Payton does return to the Saints, they might not automatically be the winning team they were the previous three seasons. This team will face major salary-cap issues in the offseason, and veterans like Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.

The defense needs lots of work up front and some more help in the secondary. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is eligible to be a free agent and the wide receivers are getting older. No matter who is coaching the Saints, they’re going to need some major work in the offseason.

The turnaround that wasn’t: Right from the start of the season, it appeared new coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact on the Buccaneers. At first, the Bucs were piling up moral victories by playing close against good teams. Then, they started winning and got to 6-4, the playoffs looked like a possibility and Josh Freeman was looking like a franchise quarterback.

But something has gone horribly wrong the past five games. Freeman suddenly reverted to his 2011 form, the pass defense has been ridiculously bad and the Bucs are having a second straight miserable December. That makes you wonder if the team is buying into Schiano’s hardline style. It works for guys like Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin because they win. But when a coach like that is losing, you have to wonder if he’s another Nick Saban or Ray Perkins.

All-Division Team

You will quickly notice that the Falcons dominate the All-NFC South team. That’s largely because they ran away with the division and winning counts for a lot in my eyes. That’s why I took Julio Jones as the second receiver over Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. Those three had stats as good or better than Jones, but his play has helped the Falcons win 13 games so far. I also used that logic in choosing both of Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, although it certainly helped that the other three teams had major problems at cornerback.

Waiting for word on Roddy White

December, 16, 2012
ATLANTA -- I’m in the Georgia Dome press box and am keeping a close eye on the field to see if Roddy White makes an appearance.

The wide receiver is questionable with a knee injury and the Falcons have said he’s a game-time decision. Actually, a decision will come before game time. Inactives have to be turned in 90 minutes before the game.

I’m thinking there is a good possibility the Falcons will bring White, who did not practice all week, out onto the field to test out his knee sometime soon. Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant and a small group of Giants are the only players on the field at the moment. I’ll continue to keep an eye out for White and will let you know as soon as we get the inactives.

Live from the Georgia Dome

November, 29, 2012
ATLANTA -- I made it to the Georgia Dome press box without seeing any flying eggs. I’m not sure if the New Orleans Saints’ team bus had to endure any more eggs on the way to the dome.

In fact, I’m not even sure if the Saints have arrived yet. The only player currently on the field is Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant. And the only other activity on the field is a rehearsal of either the halftime or pregame show.

I’ll be back with the inactives approximately 90 minutes before kickoff.

Also, please join us during the game for the Countdown Live chat. Your entry way into that will be popping up in a separate post on this blog before the game.

Falcons getting Pro Bowl attention

November, 29, 2012
ATLANTA -- All throughout a 10-1 start, I’ve constantly heard from Atlanta fans about how the Falcons aren’t getting enough respect on a national level.

Well, maybe that’s starting to change.

I’ve got some updated numbers on Pro Bowl balloting, and the Falcons are pretty well represented. Fan voting continues until mid-December, and coaches and players will vote later in December. Fans, players and coaches each count as one third of the vote.

At the moment, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez and guard Justin Blalock would be Pro Bowl starters, based only on the current fan vote. Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber and New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead also would be NFC starters.

But the Falcons have a slew of players that are in the top five at their positions. Let’s take a look at which NFC South players rank in the top five in fan voting:

Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
  • Tony Gonzalez, Falcons, No. 1
  • Justin Blalock, Falcons, No. 2
Defensive end
Defensive tackle
Outside linebacker
  • None in top five
Inside linebacker
  • None in top five
  • None in top five
Strong safety
Free safety
  • Ronde Barber, Buccaneers, No. 1
  • Thomas Morstead, Saints, No. 1
  • None in top five
Special teamer

All-NFC South midseason team

November, 7, 2012
NFC Midseason Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

All four division teams have played eight games, so that means it’s time for our All-NFC South midseason team.

Before we roll out the chart, let’s talk about a few significant matters that came up in choosing this team.

In recent years, the New Orleans Saints have dominated every time we’ve done any sort of midseason, postseason or preseason all-star team. That’s not the case this time, and there’s a very good reason for it. The Saints no longer are dominating the NFC South – or much of anything outside the controversial news headlines. Not even Drew Brees, the best player in NFC South history, made the team. How could he? Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is undefeated and is mentioned in every conversation for most valuable player. Also, when it comes to the rest of the team, how each team is faring factored heavily into who made the team. You’ll notice this team includes quite a few Falcons.

Speaking of the Saints, you’ll notice they don’t have a single defensive player on the team. I gave a lot of thought to including middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has been perhaps the only bright spot on the New Orleans defense. Lofton has done his job and been as solid as he can be. But I just couldn’t bring myself to include anyone from a defense that has a shot at being -- statistically -- the worst in NFL history.

As long as we’re on the subject of linebackers, this was the toughest position to pick on the entire team. Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon was an automatic choice. After that, I put Lofton in a group with Tampa Bay’s Mason Foster and rookie Lavonte David and Atlanta’s Stephen Nicholas, then I agonized for a bit. I chose Nicholas, partly because the Falcons are undefeated but mostly because he’s a player who has always had good athleticism and was always in place to make big plays in the past. But, this year, Nicholas is actually making the big plays. After that, it came down to a brutal choice between David and Foster. I like everything about David and think he could be a regular Pro Bowler. But I’m going with Foster because I get the feeling the Tampa Bay coaching staff has been more than pleasantly surprised with his huge jump from a confused rookie to a second-year player who is running the defense.

Speaking of the Bucs, I included guard Carl Nicks even though he went on injured reserve after seven games. Nicks won’t be on the end-of-season All-NFC South team, but I’ll take what he did in seven games over what any other guard in the division has done in eight games.

While we’re on the topic of offensive linemen, let’s talk about center. There’s no question Carolina’s Ryan Kalil is the best center in the division, maybe in the entire NFL. But he went on injured reserve early. That’s why I’m going with Atlanta’s Todd McClure. The veteran might have seen better days, but he still is playing at a pretty high level.

When you look at the chart below and see Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker on it, don’t laugh. I know he has had his problems in the past, but he is having a very solid season and his team’s record helps. I also went with Carolina’s Jordan Gross as the other tackle. He made it by only the slightest of margins over Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn. But part of it is that Gross deserves a lifetime achievement award, plus I needed to get a little Carolina representation on the team.

Speaking of Carolina, some of you might not be happy that defensive end Charles Johnson isn’t on the team. He has decent numbers, but he hasn’t been as consistent as a guy who is making a pile of money should be. I went with Atlanta’s John Abraham because he’s flat-out better than Johnson, and I took Tampa Bay’s Michael Bennett as the other defensive end because he’s been much more consistent than Johnson and is doing that while making the NFL’s minimum salary.

Finally, let’s talk about the secondary. This one took some thought because Carolina’s Chris Gamble is on injured reserve and my policy of no Saints on the defense eliminated New Orleans’ Jabari Greer. That left me little choice at cornerback. I went with Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson, who has been better than he was the past couple of years, and teammate Asante Samuel, who might no longer be great but clearly isn’t in steep decline. Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber is 37, but he also clearly isn't in any sort of decline in his first season after switching from cornerback. Barber was an easy choice. The other safety spot wasn’t easy. It came down to Atlanta’s William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, who both are having very nice seasons. I went with DeCoud because he has made a few more big plays.

Now, on to the NFC South midseason team: