NFC South Hot Topic: Oct. 29

Did you miss how Tampa Bay's NFC South rivals did on Sunday? Here's your chance to catch up with them for Week 8 in the "Hot Topic," with a game wrap and player updates for the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. It's a free service from Bucsblitz.com.

Did you miss how Tampa Bay's NFC South rivals did on Sunday? Here's your chance to catch up with them for Week 8 in the "Hot Topic," with a game wrap and player updates for the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. It's a free service from Bucsblitz.com.

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Falcons have had a few days over the bye weekend to digest the firestorm created by the surprising release of defensive tackle Grady Jackson last Tuesday. The question is, have players moved on?

In terms of preparing for Sunday's game with San Francisco, the focus should be there. In terms of trusting the coaching staff and management, there could be a gap that's unable to be bridged.

Most of the players on the roster seem to have bought in to new coach Bobby Petrino's system, but his handling of his players, particularly his lack of communication, has caused widespread skepticism about his plan for this season. Since Petrino has the backing of ownership and management, the distrust goes to the top.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was the loudest voice speaking out about veteran players' belief that the coaching staff has bagged this season by cutting Jackson and has turned its eye to 2008. However, several other players shared the same sentiments.

Hall said that players will play hard, but their motivation might necessarily be to win games, but more so to win the affections of other teams that might want to pay them if/when they are released or traded in the offseason.

Sometimes individual motivation translates into the overall better health of the team -- in terms of victories. Then again, sometimes it becomes incredibly divisive.

There is time for a miraculous rally -- or at least a competitive one. There also is plenty of time for a disastrous meltdown that would culminate months of unprecedented turmoil that started in April when police found those 66 dogs and dogfighting equipment on Michael Vick's property in Surry County, Va.

PLAYER NOTES

--OT Quinn Ojinnaka, who is set to take over at left tackle, said he spent the weekend of his bye week in the film room studying the 49ers. He added that he is out to prove the Falcons wrong for bypassing him on the depth chart when Weiner and Gandy went down. If he can't prove to this staff that he's an NFL player, he'll show potential suitors that he can play.

--Rookie CB David Irons is emerging as the Falcons' top special teams player. The speedster is an ace on coverage teams and has shown the acumen and willingness to do anything the coaching staff asks of him. Irons also has impressed on defense and he could be positioning himself to get some snaps by the end of the season.

--RT Tyson Clabo, who has done a solid job filling in for Todd Weiner, is a much better cut blocker than an inline blocker and teammates said he has found a way to use his chopping skills effectively in the in-line blocking scheme. Clabo, as he proved on a 67-yard touchdown run from Jerious Norwood vs. the Giants, engages his defender long enough to provide room for him to gain leverage and then sweep down at his legs.

--OLB Stephen Nicholas is not expected to play vs. the 49ers because of a high ankle sprain sustained nearly a month ago. Unlike quarterback Byron Leftwich, who opted to have surgery to get back on the field quickly, Nicholas was prescribed a more traditional rehab.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Carolina Panthers return to the road this Sunday to face the Tennessee Titans.

And that's a good thing.

The Panthers suffered their fifth straight embarrassing loss at home dating back to last season, routed 31-7 by the defending Super Bowl champion Colts this on Sunday.

Carolina has now lost its last five homes games by a margin of 149-51, or by an average of 19.6 points per game.

Strangely enough, they've won their last six road games, including all four this year -- which is why they maintain a half-game lead over Tampa Bay in the weak NFC South.

"It's not where you play, it's who you play," coach John Fox said of his team's miserable play at home. "The way it's gone is the way it's gone."

At least the Panthers fared a little better than the Washington Redskins, the other NFC team humiliated by an AFC power. The Panthers hung with the Colts for nearly 30 minutes. And yet, they still went into the locker room trailing 10-7 despite controlling the ball for more than 22 minutes of the first half.

But three turnovers and a lack of big plays on offense did them in as the Colts got three touchdowns from Joseph Addai and two touchdown passes from Peyton Manning to hand Carolina its fifth straight loss at home.

"I thought we hung in there for two quarters," said Fox. "We probably did miss some opportunities and gave them some opportunities. In the second half we weren't able to generate enough offense to stay with them."

Linebacker Na'il Diggs put it a little more bluntly.

"When we went back out in the second half there it didn't seem like we were the same team, period," said Diggs. "And we've had our instances last year where we did the same thing against teams that weren't as good and it cost us. And it cost us today. I think we played great in the first half. I don't think anybody is going to complain about how we played in the first half. But we come in here (to the locker room) and it seems like we go to sleep. Then we go without the same tenacity and we don't do anything the same as we do the first half. After a successful half, we don't do the same things in the second half. And that's just attitude. To me we need an attitude adjustment."

The Colts took away Carolina's top weapon in Steve Smith by playing a soft Cover 2 zone and shut down Foster and the running game. Testaverde threw a costly interception in the end zone in the second quarter and didn't return for the second half because of tendinitis in his right Achilles tendon and was relieved by backup David Carr.

Carr, who is battling a back injury, seemed flustered in the pocket, often fleeing rushers or quickly dumping the ball off to a back or a tight end. The Panthers couldn't put together any semblance of a drive and the game quickly turned into a blowout.

"The first half was a football game; the second half wasn't," Fox said.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB David Carr was still hurting from back problems and suffered through a rough second half. He looked uncomfortable in the pocket and resorted to short passes to his backs and tight ends.

--QB Vinny Testaverde, 43, left Sunday's game at halftime with a strained Achilles tendon. It's unclear how long -- if at all -- he will be out. He said he has had tendinitis in it for some time.

--WR Steve Smith was held to 18 yards on two catches Sunday as the Colts shut him down by shifting Bob Sanders to his side in a soft Cover-2.

--DE Mike Rucker has no sacks through seven games this season.

--TE Jeff King caught a career-high 10 passes on Sunday, largely because that is what the Colts were giving the Panthers.

--LB Na'il Diggs injured his hand on Sunday, the extent of which is unknown.

--CB Ken Lucas was beat by Reggie Wayne for a 59-yard touchdown on Sunday, but he was given no safety help on the play.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

While the Saints have won three straight games to climb back into the NFC South race as they near the midway point of the season, coach Sean Payton remains somewhat cautious.

With a 31-10 trouncing of the 49ers on Sunday, the Saints (3-4) moved to within a game of the division-leading Carolina Panthers and are now a half-game behind the Tampa Bay Bucs with the next two games to be played at home against Jacksonville and winless St. Louis.

While he didn't want to dampen his team's spirits after a convincing win on the road, Payton reminded the media in his post-game remarks that there is still a lot of work to be done over the next nine weeks.

When asked if his team had gotten to 3-4 quicker than he expected after an 0-4 start, Payton quickly put things in their proper perspective.

"We're still 3-4," he said flatly. "Where we are now is still below water. We've got a lot (of games) ahead of us. But we're still under the water."

The good news is the boat isn't taking on as much water as it did earlier in the season. After being outscored 119-51 in the first four games, the Saints have almost turned that around in outscoring the opposition 81-43 the last three weeks.

The win over a struggling 49ers team might not raise too many eyebrows around the league, but the Saints played probably their most complete game of the season. And when you start the season 0-4, you take any win you can get.

The offense piled up a season-high 438 total yards behind Drew Brees' pinpoint passing and the defense allowed just 260 yards, most of which came after the outcome had long been decided.

The Saints were especially solid in the passing game as a 43-yard pass from Brees to David Patten on the first play from scrimmage got the ball rolling. Brees went on to complete 31 of 39 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns -- hitting Marques Colston for three of the scores.

Brees posted season-highs in completions (31), passing yards (336), touchdowns (four), completion percentage (79.5) and passer rating (136.8) -- bringing back thoughts of last year's offensive juggernaut.

"Today was definitely closer to a lot of performances last year," said Saints left guard Jamar Nesbit. "The key was in getting into an early rhythm, and the offense really executed today."

On the other side of the ball, the Saints' defense did its part again.

It held an opponent under 100 yards rushing for the sixth consecutive game and limited Pro Bowler Frank Gore to 41 yards on 12 carries. Alex Smith hit on 22 of 43 passes for 190 yards, but looked unsteady in his first game back from a separated shoulder.

The Saints had two sacks of Smith and they also came up with a fumble to end a scoring threat in the first quarter.

"We just didn't make too many mistakes defensively, and our offense sure did help us a lot," said defensive tackle Brian Young, who had one of the sacks. "Having that big of a lead for the majority of the game gave us a really big advantage."

PLAYER NOTES

--C Jeff Faine was sidelined for Sunday's game with the San Francisco 49ers because of a strained left pectoral muscle. It was unknown when he may be able to return to the field.

--C/G Jonathan Goodwin replaced Jeff Faine in the starting lineup against the 49ers. It was Goodwin's first start since joining the Saints in 2006.

--RCB Jason David, who had surgery to repair a fractured left forearm on Sept. 25, started Sunday after missing the last three games. The Saints also had a bye week during that time.

--CB Jason Craft, who filled in while David was injured, returned to his regular role in the Saints' nickel and dime packages.

--RB Reggie Bush left the game late in the third quarter with what coach Sean Payton said was a bruised rib on his left side. Payton said Bush, who did not return, was fine and that the injury didn't appear to be significant.

--LDE Charles Grant sprained his right ankle with 9:42 left in the first quarter, but returned late in the second period. He was credited with a half-sack on the final play of the first half.

--WLB Scott Shanle strained a hamstring in the second half and did not return.

--WLB Brian Simmons replaced Shanle and played the remainder of the contest.

--G Andy Alleman, a third-round draft pick this spring, was active for the first time this season. He was one of only two backup linemen dressed.

--CB Fred Thomas was a healthy inactive after playing in the last three games because of David's injury.


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