NFC South Hot Topic: Nov. 28

Hot Topic is your source for NFC South news at Bucsblitz.com. Today get updated on what's going on in Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans as they prepare for Sunday's games.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Falcons coach Bobby Petrino is sticking with Joey Harrington as the starting quarterback, even though Byron Leftwich (tailbone) is healthy enough to play Sunday at St. Louis. In fact, Petrino said there actually could be competition for the No. 2 spot between Leftwich and Chris Redman.

The developments are interesting because early in the season, Petrino said Leftwich would be his starter as long as Leftwich is healthy. That didn't last long as Leftwich was hurt in the third quarter of his first start for the Falcons at New Orleans. He returned as the starter after Harrington won two games and had a tough go of it against Tampa Bay before being replaced by Harrington.

Petrino seems to think Harrington gives Atlanta the best chance of winning, whereas Leftwich has done little more than validate his injury-prone ways that cost him his job in Jacksonville. Harrington also is more mobile than Leftwich, which is a good thing based on Atlanta's shaky pass protection.

As interesting as to how things play out this season will be how the coaching staff handles Harrington and Leftwich entering next season. Both signed two-year, $6 million deals, although Leftwich could earn up to $7 million.

Neither Harrington nor Leftwich are the team's long-term answer and it is unlikely that both would be back next season, when the Falcons are expected to have a young quarterback on the roster to develop.

If Atlanta drafts a quarterback, it would need a veteran to take the snaps for much of next season until the young project is ready to be unveiled. In that scenario, the Falcons might sign a potential starting quarterback in free agency and have either Leftwich or Harrington serve as the main backup.

Leftwich is not accustomed to being a backup, although it appears he will get a nice taste of being one over the next few weeks. Harrington, who routinely says he wants to remain a part of the franchise, was slated to be the No. 2 quarterback last season in Miami and this season with the Falcons until circumstances forced him into a starting role.

At least for now, Petrino seems to have more confidence in Harrington, which is a pretty significant change of heart from just a few weeks ago.

In other news, suspended quarterback Michael Vick, who remains on the roster, will face state felony dogfighting charges in Virginia April 2. A court selected the date Tuesday. Vick currently is in jail, serving advance time before being sentenced Dec. 10 on federal dogfighting charges.

Vick pleaded guilty in August to conspiracy of running an interstate dogfighting ring that was based on a Surry County, Va., property he owned.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Joe Horn will start Sunday vs. the Rams after missing the past three games with a hamstring injury. Rookie Laurent Robinson, who started in Horn's place, will return to his No. 4 receiver role.

--OLB Michael Boley, who is garnering some Pro Bowl attention, has 101 tackles -- surpassing his career high of 90, set last season. Boley's tackle numbers are based off the team's film review. According to the NFL, he has 89 tackles, which ranks him 12th in the league. Boley also has three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

--C Todd McClure and rookie LG Justin Blalock are the only offensive linemen to start all season. Blalock has aligned next to four different tackles, which coach Bobby Petrino said has accounted for some of Blalock's struggles.

--Rookie RB Jason Snelling, who was placed on the practice squad after a strong preseason, has now distinguished himself as the Falcons' short-yardage back for the rest of the season. Snelling was activated three weeks ago after Dallas tried to claim him off the practice squad. Ever since, he has run authoritatively and played well enough on special teams to displace veteran Artose Pinner, who was used in short-yardage situations for most of the season.

--RT Tyson Clabo has started six games at right tackle after moving from backup guard and he could have found himself a home. Petrino said Clabo had his best game of the season vs. Indianapolis and that Clabo has played well since being inserted as a starter after Todd Weiner had to have knee surgery. Clabo had a similar run of success last season when he was moved into the starting lineup at guard after suspensions and injuries to Matt Lehr and Kynan Forney, respectively.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Guard Jeremy Bridges was found guilty Tuesday of assault by pointing a gun stemming from an incident outside of a Charlotte strip club on July 26, one day before the Carolina Panthers began training camp.

Bridges was given a 60-day suspended sentence, one year of unsupervised probation, ordered to pay a $500 court cost and serve 60 hours of community service by Mecklenburg County District Court judge Tom Moore. He was also ordered to surrender his gun.

Bridges' high-profile attorney, George Laughrun, has appealed the decision.

That appeal will be heard Jan. 7 and a jury trial could commence in February or March, Laughrun said.

"That is the judge's decision based on what he heard," Bridges said.

"Maybe the defendant gave a better ending speech than my lawyer did. But I know I'm not guilty in the whole situation. We'll appeal it."

Bridges, a starting guard for the Panthers, has already served a two-game team-imposed suspension but could face an additional penalty from the league once the case is reviewed.

"As you are aware, following this incident the club suspended Jeremy for two games for conduct detrimental," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said in a statement. "At the league level, personal conduct policy also applies and we have been informed that the NFL will review this matter."

Said Bridges: "If the NFL suspends me further that would be crazy based on the fact there is no visual evidence that says I did what they said I did."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Vinny Testaverde will start Sunday against San Francisco providing he's healthy, coach John Fox said.

--QB David Carr will not start Sunday unless Testaverde is unable to go. Carr finished the last game with a quarterback rating of 20.1 as Carolina lost to New Orleans.

--RB DeShaun Foster fumbled twice on Sunday vs. New Orleans and finished with minus-five yards on nine carries. He lost 26 yards on one bizarre fumble play.

--RB DeAngelo Williams could see more playing time this week after Foster had a rough outing last week against the Saints.

--WR Drew Carter is playing better of late and contributing to the passing game. Carter had three catches for 41 yards against New Orleans and also drew a flag for a defensive pass interference resulting in a 41-yard gain for the Panthers. He also made another long catch but was ruled out of bounds.

--WR Steve Smith should have better numbers this week if Testaverde is back under center. Smith, by the way, led the Panthers in rushing last week with 22 yards.

--C Justin Hartwig and the Panthers offensive line struggled last week, but that could be because Carr was under center. The running game managed just 43 yards on 18 carries.

--TE Jeff King had five catches for 36 yards this past week against the Saints and figures to be a weapon on Sunday.

--DE Julius Peppers didn't have a sack Sunday but did intercept a pass.

--CB Richard Marshall did a nice job filling in for Chris Gamble and had 13 tackles.

--CB Patrick Dendy gave up a TD pass to Lance Moore last week. Dendy was forced to play nickel with Chris Gamble out.

--CB Chris Gamble should be back this week after breaking his thumb last week and missing Sunday's game vs. New Orleans. Gamble will have to wear a club on his hand to protect his thumb.

--PK John Kasay booted a kickoff out of bounds for the fourth time this season last week. He did account for all of Carolina's points with two field goals.

--P Jason Baker averaged 40.3 net yards on Sunday.

--DT Kindal Moorehead returned two kickoffs for 32 yards. Not bad for an upback.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints were obviously relieved and extremely happy to put an end to their two-game losing streak with a 31-6 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Bank of America Stadium.

But in the immediate aftermath of the easy victory, it wasn't difficult to tell that they had something else on their minds. Putting that win behind them was just as easy as the game itself when the Saints quickly shifted their attention to the final five games of the season.

Specifically, they were already looking ahead to Sunday's crucial NFC South showdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Superdome.

A win would pull the Saints (5-6) within a game of the Bucs (7-4) with four games remaining and give Sean Payton's team at least a fighting chance at defending the division title they won a year ago. A loss would all but end their hopes of becoming the first team to win back-to-back division titles since the NFC South was formed in 2002.

"It doesn't get any better than it's about to get, which is Tampa Bay coming to our house," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after accounting for all four of his team's touchdowns. "Obviously, they're the leaders in the division right now. We're one-two and we want that top spot."

No one had to tell Brees and his teammates what every game from here on out will mean to a team that failed to live up to its lofty expectations early, yet still has a chance to make something of the season.

But they're going to have to go through the Bucs first before focusing on the final four games.

While they say they weren't watching the scoreboard to see what the Bucs were doing while they were dismantling the Panthers, the Saints won't have to look at the out-of-town scores this Sunday -- all they'll have to do is look across the line of scrimmage.

"All I can say is it's a must-win, that's just it from now on," said cornerback Jason Craft. "We feel like we can't lose any more games. Of course, we have to take them one game at a time. That's what we plan to do."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Drew Brees hit on 24 of 36 passes for 260 yards and three TDs with one interception in a 31-6 victory at Carolina. Brees spread the ball around to nine different receivers and was not sacked in posting a passer rating of 103.9. He was 11 of 14 for 146 yards with two scores in a decisive third quarter. Brees also ran for an eight-yard TD on a quarterback draw.

--RB Aaron Stecker started in the backfield because Reggie Bush was nursing a bruised left shin and alternated series with Bush. Stecker had a team-high 42 rushing yards on 13 attempts with a long of nine yards and had two receptions for eight yards.

--WR Marques Colston had his three-game 100-yard receiving streak end, but he still caught seven passes for 93 yards. He had a 45-yard reception in the third quarter to set up Brees' eight-yard touchdown run and then caught a four-yard TD pass for the Saints' final score of the game.

--WR Lance Moore caught just three passes for 16 yards, but he had a one-yard TD grab on a third-and-goal play and had a 10-yard reception to set up another touchdown.

--TE Eric Johnson played a key role in the running game as a blocker and also caught a 19-yard pass to set up the Saints' first touchdown of the second half.

--FS Josh Bullocks recorded five solo tackles and had an interception among his two passes defensed.

--LCB Mike McKenzie had four tackles, but he was extremely active and had a team-high four passes defensed. He broke up passes intended for All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith on the first two plays of the game.

--SS Roman Harper had five tackles, an interception and a forced fumble, which the Saints recovered. He also had two tackles on special teams.

--RB Reggie Bush was limited by a bruised left shin, but he rushed for 32 yards on nine carries and caught three passes for 30 yards before sitting out the final quarter to rest his leg.

--DT Antwan Lake subbed for an injured Brian Young and finished with two tackles and a sack. He also deflected one pass at the line of scrimmage.


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