NFC South Hot Topic: Nov. 19

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 back at their Week 11 games, which ended in defeat for all three teams.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Falcons coach Bobby Petrino was steadfast last week that as long as Byron Leftwich was healthy, he would be the starter. A few days and one shaky performance later, Petrino backed off that pledge heading into the Thanksgiving night game against visiting Indianapolis.

Petrino declined to name Leftwich the starter after pulling him in the third quarter of a 31-7 loss to Tampa Bay Sunday. Petrino inserted former starter Joey Harrington after Leftwich's second interception led to a Bucs touchdown that made the score 24-0.

"We have to evaluate the video from today and see who gives us the best opportunity as a team to win the game," Petrino said. "I cannot tell you when that decision is going to be made."

By yanking Leftwich after he completed 15 of 28 passes for 106 yards and lost one of two fumbles to go with his interceptions, Petrino signaled to players that he has as little faith in Leftwich as he had in Harrington, who started eight of nine games but won two straight before being demoted this week.

Petrino's rationale for starting Leftwich was that he and his staff decided weeks ago that Leftwich was their guy. They made the claim the week before starting Leftwich at New Orleans.

Leftwich damaged right ankle ligaments in that game, had surgery and aggressively rehabbed in order to play this week. Now that Petrino has backed off his support of Leftwich, there were some questions from players about what Petrino's plan is for the rest of the season.

Leftwich said he expected to start against the Colts but he would understand if Petrino rolled with Harrington.

"You've got to understand that in this league when things don't go well, it's your responsibility," Leftwich said. "It's your responsibility to lead these guys to score points and win football games and I did a poor job of that today.

"Hopefully I get another opportunity. I know you don't want to play musical chairs at the quarterback position. Either way it goes I understand that. If I don't start it's something that I'll have to deal with because I had a great opportunity today and we didn't get it done."

Like Leftwich, Harrington took the high road about Petrino's indecision following the loss to Tampa Bay.

"All the external things can't change the fact that I need to be ready to play," Harrington said.

A huge detriment to Leftwich is his ankle injury is not completely healed and he is even less mobile than normal. His long windup and release is even more of an issue because he is not able to get his legs into all his throws. That resulted in some off-target passes.

The biggest problem, though, is the protection. Atlanta's offensive line has been shaky all season but with Leftwich being so immobile, Tampa Bay was able to generate pressure without blitzing much. Tight end Alge Crumpler was pulled out of pass patterns to help in protection and that didn't help much.

It isn't as if Harrington is elusive but he can escape some pressure. The drag on Harrington is he does not have the arm strength of Leftwich and he is reluctant to throw the ball down field at times. That confounds Petrino, who prefers to take deep shots to pull linebackers and safeties off the line of scrimmage so the offense can run the ball.

"It's tough right now and everybody plays a part," tailback Warrick Dunn said.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Joe Horn was sidelined for the second straight game by a lingering hamstring injury. Horn's inability to practice last week prompted normally guarded head coach Bobby Petrino to admit that he is concerned about Horn's injury. There is no timetable set for Horn's return. Rookie Laurent Robinson started for Horn again.

--Rookie NT Trey Lewis could be out for the season after suffering a right knee injury vs. Tampa Bay. Lewis limped off the field in the first quarter with the help of trainers but he did not come back in.

After the game, coach Bobby Petrino said the injury was serious and another team official said Lewis was done for the year. An MRI exam has been scheduled for Monday.

The loss of Lewis, who was inserted into the starting lineup after the Falcons cut veteran Grady Jackson, left Atlanta with Montavious Stanley as the only healthy nose tackle. Tim Anderson, a nose tackle who recently was signed after being waived by Buffalo, likely will be activated.

--Compounding the woes of Atlanta's defensive line, DT Rod Coleman could be out for a significant amount of time after suffering a triceps and hand injury on his right arm. Petrino said Coleman's injuries did not look good. No specifics were released.

Losing Coleman and Lewis would spell big trouble for Atlanta, which already cut NT Grady Jackson to make room for Lewis. Jonathan Babineaux is a very capable fill-in for Coleman but there is no depth behind him.

--LT Todd Weiner could also be a major injury casualty. Weiner re-aggravated damage in his left knee that he just had arthroscopically repaired six weeks ago. He got hurt in the second quarter and could not return. Quinn Ojinnaka replaced him. Losing Weiner would weaken an already shaky pass protection front and take a significant amount of leadership off the offensive line.

--RB Warrick Dunn gained just 32 yards on 15 carries against Tampa Bay, leaving him 26 yards shy of 10,000 rushing yards for his career.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Most teams would be a little disappointed in a 31-17 loss.

But the Carolina Panthers, who came into Sunday's game struggling on offense, found reason for optimism following Sunday's loss to Green Bay after putting up 382 yards and 17 points -- despite playing without their top offensive weapon in Steve Smith.

"I think we did some positive things today," said quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who threw for 258 yards and two touchdowns, but was victimized by three turnovers.

Added coach John Fox: "I don't think there's any quit in our guys. You could see that today. You never get used to losing and at the end of the day we've lost four in a row. But I saw improvement today and hopefully that will help us moving forward."

Of course, big numbers and moral victories of sorts don't count in the standings, where Carolina (4-6) dropped two games behind first place Tampa Bay in the NFC South. The Bucs clobbered Atlanta, a team the Panthers couldn't beat last week at home.

The Panthers are in dire need of a win this Sunday against New Orleans and are eager to snap a home losing streak that has stretched beyond a full calendar year.

Much of the optimism surrounded the play of Drew Carter, who caught five passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in place of Smith. He has flashed in the past, but on Sunday he provided a needed deep threat, hauling in receptions of 46 and 49 yards -- and looked confident doing it.

Rookie Dwayne Jarrett added three catches for 39 yards.

"What we wanted to do this week was step up and show people without Steve, we could still play," said the normally reserved Carter. "People always think Steve is this one-man show, and you feel like you want to step up with them.

"Steve is awesome, but sometimes you feel like people doubt you for no reason and you want to prove them wrong. Today I wanted to prove them wrong, and hopefully people see that, and don't second guess our options, second-guess our receiving corps."

The Panthers have been searching for a No. 2 receiver ever since Keyshawn Johnson was cut in April.

Carter was in competition for that job back in training camp, but lost out to Keary Colbert.

"Drew did some good things and it's something to build on going forward," Testaverde said. "We need to become more consistent in what we're doing. It seems like we keep talking about the same things, but (improving the passing game) continues to be a process for us."

The improved performance has the Panthers with a little hope that this lost season is not a wash.

"You lose four in a row, and the first thing everybody expects you to do is give up," said guard Jeremy Bridges. "Am I frustrated? Nah. When you get frustrated, you give up. I don't think nobody on this team gave up. We know we can be a good football team, but right now, we've got to win out."

Probably not, but a win over New Orleans sure would help.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Steve Smith did not play Sunday because of a shin injury.

--WR Drew Carter caught five passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in place of Steve Smith.

--CB Chris Gamble injured his thumb. Coach John Fox said it may be broken.

--QB Vinny Testaverde threw for 258 yards and two touchdowns, but he also turned the ball over three times.

--RB DeShaun Foster ran well on Sunday, going for 87 yards on 20 carries.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Two short weeks ago, everyone thought the best was yet to come for the rejuvenated Saints.

They had just won four consecutive games to climb back to the .500 mark heading into the second half of their schedule -- one that was decidedly easier than their first eight-game stretch -- with a lot of confidence.

When they walked out of Reliant Stadium on Sunday afternoon following a 23-10 loss to the Houston Texans, the Saints (4-6) were right back at square one.

The momentum they gained from the four-game winning streak, however, was all but gone after the Saints turned the ball over three times -- one on a Reggie Bush fumble just a foot from the Texans' goal line -- and eventually matched their season low with 10 points.

"This one is tougher to swallow than most," Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. "We had some opportunities the last two weeks to make something of the season, and we didn't capitalize on those chances.

"They (losses) are all frustrating, but this one's hard," he said. "Having had our chances the last two weeks and doing nothing with them, that's hard."

Consequently, the Saints, who had a chance to move into a first-place tie in the NFC South with the Tampa Bay Bucs last week, are now two games out heading into key games with Carolina and Tampa Bay the next two weeks.

What's concerning to coach Sean Payton is the mistakes the Saints are making on both sides of the ball going into the crucial matchups with the Panthers and Bucs.

They struggled with the turnovers on offense and gave up another easy touchdown on defense when Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson got behind cornerback Jason David for a 73-yard pass in the first quarter.

The Saints drove 66 yards to the Texans' 3 on their ensuing possession with a chance to take a 10-7 lead, but Bush fumbled it away.

Then, on their next series, tight end Eric Johnson deflected a pass into the hands of Texans cornerback Von Hutchins after they got to the Houston 29. Eric Johnson later tipped another Drew Brees pass that linebacker Morlon Greenwood picked off.

"To walk away with only 10 points is just ridiculous," said Brees, who completed 33 of 49 passes for 290 yards. "Especially in the first half, we fumbled the ball on the 1-yard line, that should be a touchdown. Then, we are driving and we get the tip interception.

"I felt like we were moving the ball," he said. "We were in the flow and on our way to scoring a touchdown there. You walk away from the first half with 10 points and it very easily could have been 24."

"It's a disappointing loss. Without watching the tape, the penalties when they came and turnovers when they came was the difference in the game," Payton said.

"If we don't get that corrected -- regardless of the effort and all the other things you might do well throughout the game -- those things are going to bring you down. That is what's disappointing, that what's hard to swallow about this game."

PLAYER NOTES

--LT Jammal Brown was inactive for Sunday's game with the Houston Texans because of a strained left calf.

--LT Zach Strief made just the second start of his two-year NFL career in place of Brown.

--LDE Charles Grant missed his second straight game with a sprained right ankle. He worked out before the game, but coach Sean Payton held him out because he wasn't 100 percent yet.

--LDE Josh Cooper started in place of Grant for the second week in a row.

--DT Brian Young, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Nov. 7, missed his third consecutive game Sunday.

--DT Antwan Lake started once again in place of Young against the Texans.

--CB Usama Young did not play Sunday against the Texans because of a hamstring injury.

--WLB Scott Shanle returned to the starting lineup after missing the last two games with a strained left hamstring.


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