NFC South Hot Topic: Nov. 26

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 12 games.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Only the Dolphins, Jets and Rams boast a worse record than Atlanta, and the Falcons play St. Louis this Sunday. A loss to the Rams in St. Louis would draw both teams even with three victories and improve the Falcons' chances for a top-five spot in the NFL Draft next April.

Though no team wants to pile up losses, no team wants to end up in draft purgatory either; those spots out of the top seven or eight where finding an immediate impact player is a lot more dicey than if it had its pick of the litter in the top four or five.

The Falcons are dealing with such a case this season. Defensive end Jamaal Anderson was taken eighth overall to replace departed left side disruptor Patrick Kerney. He was to deliver the pass rush that Kerney didn't provide in an injury-marred 2006 and be steadier against the run because of those 285-pounds he carried.

So far, the Falcons are still waiting. Anderson has yet to register a sack or even steady pass pressure. He has been decent against the run but he has hardly provided the immediate help Atlanta expected.

The Falcons need assistance at nearly every position, especially at the offensive skill spots and the offensive line. How they opt to shop in free agency could determine their draft plan, but it would be hard to think the Falcons won't try to bolster those incredibly barren spots through the draft.

Atlanta would love to get a shot at Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden. He's the big running back coach Bobby Petrino desires and McFadden has the speed to become a multi-pronged threat that could open up other offensive options.

The Falcons also need a quarterback. Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich aren't the long-term answers, although one is expected to be retained to groom his eventual replacement. The danger with drafting a quarterback with a high pick is if a team misses, it could be a huge set back -- Harrington is proof of that.

Making matters more difficult for Atlanta, the offensive line is a mess and if there isn't a young nucleus of linemen hired to protect the quarterback, well, another Harrington or David Carr could be in order.

The Falcons have to find a left tackle to replace veteran Wayne Gandy, whose career could finally be over following a torn anterior cruciate ligament that required surgery and ended his season. Atlanta also must acquire a right guard and right tackle to eventually take over for aging and more injury prone Kynan Forney and Todd Weiner, respectively.

Rookie Justin Blalock has started at left guard all season and struggled. Rookie center Doug Datish went on injured reserve in training camp with a broken hand.

Things aren't so bad on defense, but they're not good either. There is a chance that free safety Chris Crocker will be allowed to leave via free agency and veteran strong safety Lawyer Milloy won't be brought back. Weak-side linebacker Demorrio Williams could also be allowed to leave through free agency but his heir, rookie Stephen Nicholas, is already on board.

The key to a lot of what the Falcons could do in the offseason rests with cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall, who has played in the past two Pro Bowls, arguably is having his best season yet. He has four interceptions and is playing well in all facets.

He has a frosty relationship with coach Bobby Petrino, though, and he will be entering a contract year in 2008. The Falcons have shown no signs of wanting to pony up the big money Hall cold draw on the free agent market in 2009 and coaches continue to express how much confidence they have in rookie David Irons, the Falcons' top special teams player.

Hall likely will be traded and that could help Atlanta move into an elevated draft position to help the Falcons get the player they desire -- just in case Atlanta wins a few more games and finds itself in draft purgatory.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Joey Harrington did little to convince coach Bobby Petrino that he should retain his starting quarterback job, but Harrington seems to have gained more support from teammates over the past few weeks. Byron Leftwich is expected to practice Monday after missing Thursday night's game with a tailbone injury. Petrino said that Leftwich would be Atlanta's starter when he is healthy, but he backed off that pledge in recent days.

--Now that RB Warrick Dunn reached the 10,000-yard rushing milestone, there is a chance the coaching staff could begin getting the ball to second-year game-breaker Jerious Norwood more. There was a concerted effort to get Dunn to the hallowed rushing ground, but with the season slipping away and the likelihood that Dunn won't be back next season there could be a phasing in of Norwood and rookie Jason Snelling.

--WR Joe Horn is expected to practice for the first time since injuring his hamstring three weeks ago. Horn said he will be ready to face the Rams Dec. 2.

--OT Todd Weiner's (left knee) health remains uncertain. Weiner and the Falcons coaching and medical staffs hoped that rest would alleviate some of the damage he sustained two weeks ago after re-aggravating the surgically repaired joint against Tampa Bay. He was held out of the Thanksgiving game with Indy and if Weiner is still bothered, he could be shut down and Quinn Ojinnaka could start at left tackle for the rest of the season.

--Backup TE Dwayne Blakley (concussion) is expected to be ready to play vs. the Rams.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

This past weekend was a microcosm of the entire Carolina Panthers season and their ever-changing quarterback situation.

The Panthers, after preparing all week for the New Orleans Saints with Vinny Testaverde as their starting quarterback, learned Saturday morning that Testaverde's back had tightened up. Testaverde, 44, couldn't go and the Panthers had to go with David Carr, who didn't get any reps with the first team in practice.

"If it didn't hurt so bad, it would be laughable," coach John Fox said of the team's quarterback woes which have plagued them all season.

Jake Delhomme and Brett Basanez are already on injured reserve, while Carr has struggled with back and head injuries and Testaverde has been hobbled by Achilles and back problems.

Laughable is a good way to describe Carolina's offense.

Carr, who again lacked any confidence in the pocket, threw for just 95 yards and was intercepted twice by the league's 28th-ranked defense. After the Panthers picked up only one first down in the first quarter, fans quickly grew restless and began chanting "We want Moore!" early in the second quarter, hoping to convince Fox to bench Carr in favor of rookie Matt Moore.

As the game progressed, the chants grew louder even as the crowd got smaller.

"We just need to get guys healthy and get a guy who can go in there and make some plays and win football games," Carr said.

Few in Charlotte think Carr is capable of doing that, and right now it would be stunning if the Panthers bring him back next season after giving him a two-year, $6 million deal.

"I know everyone wants to pin it on the quarterback, but I think there's evidence that it's not just the quarterback," Fox said. "My take on it right now is that we are not a very good football team. We're just not playing well as a football and the buck stops here."

When asked after the game if he's worried about Carr's confidence, Fox replied, "I think that would be fair to access. You would have to ask him that. I'm sure when fans are booing him that will probably do it a little bit."

Said Carr: "You just try to go out and make a play. It wasn't like we wanted to go out there and do what we were doing. I wasn't purposely not scoring points."

The Panthers (4-7) have lost seven straight at home and been outscored by a remarkable 130 points (200-70) during that span. Carolina has not won at home in 372 days, but they look to end that streak Sunday against San Francisco.

Testaverde is expected to start, but that is a big if.

For the players, disgust emanated throughout the locker room.

"Right now we're probably one of the worst teams in the NFL right now, by the way we're playing," said cornerback Ken Lucas. "I know we're not talent wise, it's just not showing on the field. We've got to get this thing fixed, at least end this season positive fashion. But a lot of things will have to change in how we're playing."

After the game, the frustration was evident in the voice of longtime Carolina fullback Brad Hoover.

"Right now, I'm so sick of it I can't stand it," Hoover said.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB David Carr was booed relentlessly and ultimately benched after throwing for just 95 yards and two interceptions against the league's 28th-ranked pass defense.

--RB DeShaun Foster was horrible on Sunday, held to minus-5 yards rushing on nine carries. He also fumbled twice, once resulting in a turnover.

--WR Steve Smith had 49 yards receiving but has no chemistry with David Carr.

--CB Chris Gamble did not play because of a broken thumb.

--CB Richard Marshall started in place of Chris Gamble and had 13 tackles for Carolina.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints were eagerly looking toward a showdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just minutes after they rolled to an easy win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Bank of America Stadium.

While they didn't gain any ground on the NFC South-leading Bucs, who were hanging on for a win over the Washington Redskins, the Saints did the only thing they could do: they took care of themselves.

After sputtering to a 10-6 halftime lead over the offensively-challenged Panthers, the Saints (5-6) figured their season was hanging in the balance. But the possibility of dropping three games behind the Bucs and perhaps falling hopelessly out of the wild-card picture woke them up.

They set up a crucial game with the Bucs (7-4) by scoring the first three times they had the ball in the second half and coasted to a 31-6 victory over the listless Panthers.

"Obviously, we knew how important this game was," quarterback Drew Brees said after the Saints ended a two-game losing streak.

"This was a must-win for us -- a divisional game -- and we were two games back (of the division-leading Tampa Bay Bucs). We had to have this one. So the talk at halftime was, 'Whatever it takes.' "

What it took was a near-perfect third quarter in which the Saints scored the three touchdowns and got some solid play from the defense to set up the important contest with the Bucs.

Brees kick-started an offense that managed just 10 points and was shut out in the second half of a setback at Houston a week earlier. In the second period, he ended a three-quarter scoreless drought when he threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore before they got a 46-yard field goal from Olindo Mare.

But after guiding his team to a halftime lead, Brees came out firing in the third quarter. On their three touchdown drives, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 146 yards and touchdowns of one yard to Billy Miller and four yards to Marques Colston. Brees also scored on an 8-yard quarterback draw.

"I think we just really made an emphasis of it," Brees said of the difference in the two halves. "You saw that coming out three consecutive touchdowns on offense. The defense got us a turnover and started putting together some great stops."

The Saints' defense helped out indeed, harassing Panthers quarterbacks David Carr and Matt Moore all day.

Even though they had just one sack, they came up with a season-high four takeaways and recorded season-lows in holding the Panthers to six points (field goals of 45 and 29 yards by John Kasay) and 195 total yards.

The Saints also converted 11 of 18 third-down opportunities on offense, while the defense held the Panthers (4-7) to 3-of-13 on third-down tries.

"I thought we played one of our better games in all three phases," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We had good balance offensively and defensively and we did a good job on both sides of the ball on third downs. That was an important statistic."

PLAYER NOTES

--LT Jammal Brown returned to the starting lineup for Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers after missing one game with a strained left calf.

--LDE Charles Grant also was back on the field after being sidelined for the last two games with a sprained right ankle.

--RB Reggie Bush was questionable with a bruised left shin, but he played and had 62 total yards from scrimmage despite sitting out the fourth quarter when the Saints had the game in hand.

--DT Brian Young, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Nov. 7, missed his fourth consecutive game Sunday. The Saints hope to get him back for next week's contest with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

--DT Antwan Lake started for the fourth straight week in place of Young against the Panthers.

--CB Usama Young was activated for Sunday's game after missing the last two games with a hamstring problem.

--WR Robert Meachem, the Saints' first-round draft pick this spring, was inactive for the 11th straight game.


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