NFC South Hot Topic: Nov. 16

Need the skinny on Tampa Bay's divisional rivals? Look no further than the Hot Topic, your source for news on the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. Today take a look forward as they make preparations for this weekend's games, including injury reports.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington won't know who will start Sunday's game against visiting Tampa Bay until the last possible moment, coach Bobby Petrino said Thursday.

Leftwich went through his second day of practice since returning from right ankle surgery three weeks ago. That he went though the session splitting snaps with Harrington with the first-team offense signals that his ankle responded well to Wednesday's heavy practice load and that he could be healthy enough to take over.

Petrino said Leftwich was rusty but that was expected. Petrino said he wanted Leftwich to get in a heavy dose of work Thursday in order for him to regain his chops and for teammates to get used to Leftwich's cadence just in case he's ready to go.

Harrington also got in plenty of work, but it appears more and more that his run as a starter is coming to an end.

On a side note, Petrino tried to clarify the communication glitch that left Harrington blindsided at a news conference Wednesday when he was asked about possibly losing his starting job as soon as the Tampa Bay game.

"What we told Joey is he needs to prepare like he always does this week in practice because we don't know who is going to start," Petrino said. "It was a normal preparation for him. Prepare as if you're going to be the starter and let's see what the week brings."

Harrington said Wednesday that he was under the impression that the starting job was his and that he'd earned it by helping Atlanta win its past two games, the latter in which he threw a game-winning touchdown in the final 20 seconds. Harrington added that he doesn't agree with Petrino's decision to possibly pull him.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Joe Horn did not practice for the second straight day after missing last Sunday's game at Carolina with a hamstring injury. If he can't play, rookie Laurent Robinson would start.

"I'm concerned about that. It's been two days now, practice that he missed, and for Joe to miss two days of practice, there's got to be something that's really bothering him," coach Bobby Petrino said.

--FS Chris Crocker is playing much better than the coaching staff anticipated when they arrived last winter, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. Crocker, who is in the last year of his contract, has one interception, but he has been very strong in the running game and he has done a good job of getting the defense properly aligned.

--DE Jamaal Anderson (27 tackles) is playing well against the run but Zimmer acknowledged that the first round draft pick needs to step things up vs. the passing game. Anderson doesn't have a sack.

"Most defensive linemen from my experience that have been drafted high tend to take a little longer to develop than corners or linebackers because things happen so fast for them and the guys they were beating all the time in college, they're not playing against right now," Zimmer said. "It's just unfortunate that he hasn't fallen into a couple sacks."

--Rookie RB Jason Snelling has taken reps as the third-team tailback and he could supplant Artose Pinner as the short-yardage back. Snelling was promoted from the practice squad this week after the Dallas Cowboys tried to claim him.

--The Falcons avoided having their second consecutive game blacked out on television locally when some of the team's business partners bought some of the unsold tickets just before Thursday's 1 p.m. deadline.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

If Vinny Testaverde starts Sunday for the Carolina Panthers as expected, then he and Green Bay's Brett Favre will become starting quarterback tandem ever in the NFL.

Together they will be a combined age of 82 years, 44 days.

Testaverde chuckled at the news, knowing it's certainly not the first time -- or the last -- that he will break an age-related record.

"Last year when I threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown and we became the oldest to connect," Testaverde said.

Favre, 38, said he shared a laugh with his wife earlier in the week, saying this is the first time in quite awhile he won't be the oldest quarterback on the field. Favre also joked that Testaverde must be broke financially to want to come back to play at 43. He's since turned 44.

Testaverde laughed, saying, "Yeah, he would return at 43. He loves the game just I like I do. He loves the game and that's why he's still playing. But hey, when you're out there you don't think about your age."

All kidding aside, Favre said he's impressed with Testaverde's resilience.

"I think what Vinny is doing is amazing," Favre said. "I can remember the first game I ever played in was against Tampa and he had a phenomenal game, and how far we've come since then."

After last Thursday's practice, Testaverde had a setback with the tendinitis in his Achilles tendon, jeopardizing his playing status. But this week, he's held up fine.

"It feels much better this week than it did last week," Testaverde said. "I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent, but I'm getting closer to it."

Still, Testaverde acknowledged, the Achilles can flare up at anytime.

"Tendinitis can do that, so I don't want to jinx myself," Testaverde said. "It's going to be a nagging thing the rest of the year. There are some points where it grabs you, like a stabbing feeling, but it kind of goes away after a minute or two. The big thing was after Sunday's game I didn't have any setbacks."

If Testaverde can make it through practice Friday without any setbacks, look for him to start against the Packers.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Vinny Testaverde looks like Carolina's starter on Sunday simply because the Panthers can't afford to risk putting David Carr in at quarterback given how unstable he is in the pocket.

--QB David Carr has been cleared to play this week after missing the last game with a concussion.

--RB DeShaun Foster and the Panthers are 16-0 when Foster runs for more than 70 yards in a game. Foster did practice and should play Sunday after missing Wednesday's practice with a toe injury.

--WR Steve Smith missed his second straight day of practice Thursday with a leg injury. More than likely, the Panthers are simply being cautious with Smith, hoping that with a little rest he'll be ready for the Packers on Sunday.

--The Panthers got good news on Thursday as starting free safety Deke Cooper (shoulder) returned to practice sooner than expected and is likely to start against the Packers.

--CB Ken Lucas (hip) practiced full on Thursday.

--DT Damione Lewis (shoulder) missed his second straight day of practice on Thursday.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

After the Saints' shocking loss to the previously-winless St. Louis Rams last week, the big question was whether the Rams had drawn up a blueprint for stopping Sean Payton's passing game.

The answers may start to come Sunday when the Saints visit the Houston Texans. After a four-week stretch in which quarterback Drew Brees and his receivers did just about what they wanted, the Rams blitzed relentlessly and disrupted the Saints' passing game.

They blitzed on 16 of the first 18 snaps by the Saints, sacking Brees once and forcing two interceptions. By the end of the third quarter, the Saints had just 95 total yards.

Brees and Payton, however, weren't buying the theory that the Rams showed everyone else how to stop the league's fourth-ranked passing offense.

"Early on, they got us," Brees said. "As the game went on, we figured it out and we were able to move the ball right down the field."

Payton placed much of the blame on himself, saying the formations he called had players lined up in spots that left them vulnerable and caused blocking problems.

"We didn't get as much blitzing last week as everyone talks about," he said Wednesday. "I've read a number of articles about how much we got blitzed early in the game, and I've gone back and seen it four times now -- we got some pressure and some unique looks.

"I'm sure Houston has a pressure package and we'll have to prepare for it, whether it's on first and second down or in the nickel on third down," added Payton. "We have to make sure that we do our best to keep the quarterback clean, the ball comes out (fast), and all the things that you do when you see pressure."

PLAYER NOTES

--LT Jammal Brown missed a second straight practice Thursday with a left calf strain. His status for Sunday's game with the Houston Texans was unknown.

--LT Zach Strief, a second-year pro, would start if Brown can't play against the Texans. A seventh-round draft pick in 2006, the 6-foot-7, 349-pound Strief has played well when called on to replace Brown.

--CB Usama Young, who did not play last week because of a hamstring injury, worked on a limited basis again Thursday.

--LDE Charles Grant practiced for the second straight day Thursday and should start against the Texans.

--WLB Scott Shanle practiced fully on Thursday and could return to the lineup after missing the last two games with a strained left hamstring.

--DT Brian Young, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Nov. 7, will be sidelined for a third straight game Sunday. Young hopes to return in two weeks.


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