NFC South Hot Topic: Week 5 postgame

Need the inside scoop on the Bucs' rivals in the NFC South? Look no further than the "Hot Topic." Monday's edition wraps up Sunday's action. Bucsblitz.com is the only place you can find this in-depth information on the NFC South in one place.

ATLANTA FALCONS

The roller-coaster ride that has been Joey Harrington's NFL career jumped off track again in Atlanta's 20-13 loss to host Tennessee Sunday.

The former No. 3 overall pick was replaced by Byron Leftwich in the fourth quarter after failing to lead the Falcons to a touchdown, despite repeatedly favorable field position. Coach Bobby Petrino said he has not decided if Leftwich will start next Monday night vs. the New York Giants, but all signs are that will be the case.

"This was a change that we made in the middle of the game; we haven't made any decisions on where we go from here," Petrino said. "We certainly have a lot of video to look at. Anytime you're not executing like we weren't offensively it's not one guy's fault but sometimes you try to give a spark when you make a change."

Leftwich was signed less than three weeks ago to a two-year contract that could be worth up to $7 million -- a million more than the two-year deal Harrington signed last spring. His arrival resulted in a spike in play from Harrington, who, this time last week, was the talk of the town for his consistent and efficient play.

"I want to be this team's starter but if coach makes the decision the other way I'm going to support this team," Harrington said. "I've been through these situations before but I think I've played well enough up to this point to deserve a shot at it."

Harrington, who lost his starting jobs in Detroit and Miami, has not played poorly and much of his 16-for-31, 87 yards, one interception performance against Tennessee could be laid at the feet of his protection, which was poor at best. Harrington took a pounding from the opening snap. Petrino said that abuse could have led to Harrington paying more attention to the rush than the routes, which was another reason cited for the switch to Leftwich.

Leftwich, meanwhile, didn't do much better than Harrington (2-for-8, 87 yards, one interception for Leftwich), in large part because of poor protection and not having worked with the first-team offense since his arrival. Leftwich said he'd be fine to start with a week's worth of proper preparation.

"To be honest with you, hopefully yes," Leftwich said when asked if he wants to be the starter. "That was the first time I was in there with the first team offense with the Atlanta Falcons, ever, and it was great to be out there. You would love to hopefully have that week to prepare to go out and play but we'll see. Hopefully, I can get out there and play some football. I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't want to play some football."

Falcons players did not immediately endorse either player after the game, but it could be a split decision in the locker room about a change/non-change.

There seemed to be an initial bump in optimism when Leftwich signed with the Falcons, but some of that support found its way back to Harrington over the past two weeks.

"We've got to go with what we've got," wide receiver Joe Horn said. "Byron's been in games before. We supported Joey and we'll support Byron, whoever's our starting quarterback."

PLAYER NOTES

LT Wayne Gandy may have suffered a career-ending, left knee injury late in the fourth quarter. Gandy, 36, had to be carted off the field and came out of stadium X-ray facility in tears. Petrino said he was "worried" about Gandy's condition. The 14-year veteran had just started his 94th consecutive game.

DT Rod Coleman practiced three times last week and appeared set to make his season debut vs. Tennessee after right thigh and knee surgery. However, the coaching and medical staffs wanted to give Coleman at least another week to recover before putting him on the field Oct. 15 vs. the New York Giants at the Georgia Dome.

CB Chris Houston is getting more and more playing time. He rotated every series or two with starter Lewis Sanders vs. Tennessee. It is unknown if the coaching staff plans to make Houston the full-time starter this season, as it could use a similar rotation as it's using with outside linebacker Demorrio Williams and rookie Stephen Nicholas.

DB Jimmy Williams not only lost the battle for the starting job to incumbent Chris Crocker, but he's also lost his job in nickel sets to Antoine Harris. Williams has been relegated exclusively to special teams duty.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Carolina Panthers proved Kris Jenkins wrong, proving they do have some heart after all.

In fact, plenty of it.

The Panthers improved to 3-2 and regained a share of the NFC South lead with an improbable 16-13 win over the New Orleans Saints, a victory that may have salvaged the season before it spun out of control.

Carolina heads into Arizona this week before getting a bye and two weeks to prepare for Indianapolis. Already without Jake Delhomme, the Panthers could be starting a banged up David Carr, who injured his back on Sunday.

Nonetheless, the victory -- and the way in unfolded -- should do wonders for the team's confidence, especially on defense.

The Panthers twice were called on to save the game and twice they responded. After allowing the Saints to drive 93 yards on 24 plays, the Panthers blocked an Olindo Mare field goal to keep within seven. And then later, with under four minutes to play, the Panthers came up with another three-and-out stop after a Carr interception set the Saints up to win the game.

Defensive end Mike Rucker said the effort reminded him of Carolina's Super Bowl season a few years back.

"We felt like we were back in the old school where we didn't care," Rucker said. "That was kind of the attitude. We didn't care if we as a defense were out there 100 plays. We didn't care if the ball got turned over or if they ran a fake and got a first down. We didn't care. That is kind of the attitude we have to get back to -- back like we were in 2003 where we didn't care. Back to where we fight, scratch and claw to get a win."

The win came after a tumultuous eight-day run that included Jenkins questioning his team's heart after a 20-7 home loss to Tampa Bay the previous Sunday.

After Carolina's sixth consecutive road win at New Orleans, defensive end Julius Peppers said players got a rise out of Jenkins' comments.

"The talk about heart, all of that talk was nonsense really to me," said Peppers. "I'm not taking away from what Kris said because to a certain extent I agree with him on that, but you can't go out and say the team has no heart. I think it rubbed some guys the wrong way and they came out and played today."

Of course, if that was the case, then Jenkins' speech served its purpose.

"I'm not a spotlight person," Jenkins said after the game. "Last week when I (talked), it wasn't me trying to grab any spotlight. The intention was to challenge my teammates."

After the game, head coach John Fox said he was proud of how his team hung together and prevailed, even though it seemed like they'd twice lost the game.

"I think sometimes things get made a lot bigger on the outside," Fox said. "I never doubted this team even with the comments that were made. It's like any family -- you prefer keeping the comments within the family. We kind of deviated from that a little bit, but with the kind of guys we got it kind of pulled us closer."

In many ways, this was a game the Panthers had no business winning.

But as offensive tackle Jordan Gross said, the Panthers have to keep building on this one.

"The real test, the real tell, is if we can do this every week or not," Gross said. "Our history has been one up and one down. We have to go Arizona next week, get a win and get on a roll."

PLAYER NOTES

RB DeShaun Foster was held to 59 yards on 19 carries Sunday. The yards were tough to come by against the Saints and Foster did the best he could. There simply weren't many holes.

QB David Carr left Sunday's game with a back injury. He did return in the second quarter and finished up. But he said he has never experienced a more painful injury.

QB Jake Delhomme did not play. He did throw some before Sunday's game.

MLB Jon Beason started in the middle for Carolina on Sunday. He had 13 tackles and did well for his first game there. He replaced James Anderson in the lineup.

MLB Dan Morgan did not play.

DE Julius Peppers failed to register a sack, but blocked a field goal and had two tipped passes.

WR Steve Smith scored a touchdown and made a few big plays, but clearly he misses Jake Delhomme. He did return a punt Sunday.

RB DeAngelo Williams handled kickoffs for the Panthers on Sunday with Nick Goings out.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints were so close to their first win Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, they could almost taste it.

After three consecutive losses to open the season, Saints players said they were hungry for a win coming off a bye week that included some much-needed reflection. Prior to that, they were beaten by 31, 17 and 17 points.

But the Saints (0-4) will have to wait at least another week for that first win, thanks to their final-play 16-13 loss to the Panthers in the Superdome. The problem is they might have to wait a bit longer than that, considering they have to go to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in Qwest Field this week.

For the first time this season, the Saints had a victory in their sights. They were leading 13-6 going into the fourth quarter and were heading toward another possible score when their offense, defense and special teams all collapsed.

The Saints failed to get a touchdown after driving 90 yards, and then watched as defensive end Julius Peppers blocked Olindo Mare's chip-shot field goal that would have still given them a 10-point lead over the offensively-challenged Panthers.

That inspired the Panthers, who scored the final 10 points of the game -- getting the game-winning score ion a 52-yard field goal by John Kasay on the final play of the contest.

Taking advantage of their fresh start following the bye, the Saints defense gave up its fewest points of the season and the offense was able to put together some drives for the first time this year.

But it all came apart in the final 10 minutes, leaving them to kick around a winless start with two West Coast trips (they also play at San Francisco on Oct. 27) in the next three weeks.

"We should have won this game," quarterback Drew Brees said. "We had this game won. This game was in the bag. We let it out of the bag. The other three we got beat. Today we gave it away."

The Saints had only two turnovers on Sunday, so their biggest problem was in punching the ball into the end zone.

In four drives that reached the Panthers' 6, 10, 2 and 2, they scored just one touchdown and two field goals. That's an area the Saints used to be effective in prior to losing bullish running back Deuce McAllister to a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 24.

In addition to the missed field goal, they had a touchdown negated by an illegal formation penalty on left tackle Jammal Brown just before halftime.

What was so disappointing to coach Sean Payton was an offense that had struggled to put together productive drives this season looked much better in controlling the ball for 35 minutes, 13 seconds to 24:47 for the Panthers.

"Offensively for the amount of time that we drove the football, to come away with the points we had on the board ..." Payton said before pausing. "If we score 13 points, we're not going to win many games."

PLAYER NOTES

SLB Scott Fujita missed the first game of his six-year NFL career when he was sidelined by a sprained right ankle for Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers.

SLB Brian Simmons took Fujita's spot in the starting lineup against the Panthers. It was Simmons' first start since joining the team this spring.

DT Kendrick Clancy was not active for the second straight game because of a right turf toe injury that he suffered on Sept. 16.

S Jay Bellamy, who has been slowed by a sprained left ankle, was inactive for the game with the Panthers.

RB Reggie Bush started Sunday in place of Deuce McAllister, who is out for the season with a knee injury.

RCB Jason David did not play against the Panthers on Sunday because of a fractured left forearm. He is expected back in 3-to-5 weeks.

RCB Jason Craft, who usually serves as the nickel cornerback, got the start against the Panthers in place of Jason David.

SS Kevin Kaesviharn was the fifth defensive back on the field with Craft moving into the starting lineup.

CB Fred Thomas, who lost his starting job in training camp, was a game-day active for the first time this season.

RB Pierre Thomas, an undrafted free agent, was active for the first time this season and was the deep man on kickoff returns.

P Steve Weatherford handled kickoff duties on Sunday because Olindo Mare was nursing a groin injury.

LB Marvin Mitchell was signed from the Saints' practice squad on Saturday for depth because of the injury to Scott Fujita.

QB Tyler Palko was waived to make room for Marvin Mitchell on the 53-man active roster.


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