To fully illustrate where the Falcons' season is with four games remaining, quarterback Chris Redman is now being viewed as a key element to possible late-season success.
Redman, who had thrown one NFL regular season pass since he was with the Baltimore Ravens in 2003, was inserted in the fourth quarter of Atlanta's 28-16 loss to St. Louis Sunday in a game featuring two of the league's more inept teams.
The Falcons were down 21-3 when he was put in for Joey Harrington and Redman led lengthy drives that resulted in consecutive touchdowns -- a first for Atlanta this season.
Coach Bobby Petrino said after the game that his former pupil at Louisville would be considered to start next Monday's game against the New Orleans Saints. The way things have gone for 3-9 Atlanta, there shouldn't be much of a question about not giving Redman a chance.
The Falcons are evaluating players at every other position and making changes when needed so Redman, who was out of football and selling insurance last season, seems like the next best option at quarterback.
"It feels good to be able to get back out there," Redman said. "It has been a long time since I was in the game atmosphere. I had to get some of the rust off, I guess."
Harrington lost his job for the fourth time this season after playing erratically and failing to illicit any type of energy among his teammates. That he has been pulled so many times proves that Petrino doesn't have much faith in him. Harrington seemingly has exhausted his multiple opportunities, just as he did in Detroit and Miami.
Byron Leftwich seems just as much of an afterthought as Harrington. His fragility -- he has had to have ankle surgery and he suffered a tailbone injury in his two opportunities to start -- has cooled the optimism that was abundant upon his free-agent acquisition early this season.
His limited mobility also is a concern behind an injury depleted and not-very-good offensive line.
Redman "was very accurate and he was hitting hands," said Petrino. "He was taking what the defense gave him and when they were rolling the coverage one way, he knew where to go and put the ball in guys' hands."
When signed as a free agent last summer, the prevailing thought was Redman was brought in to help Petrino teach the system to the quarterbacks who were going to make the roster. Yet, as training camp went along, Redman began to show that he was a viable option. He was engaged in a battle for the No. 2 job with D.J. Shockley and held the edge for the top backup job when Shockley went down with a season-ending knee injury in preseason.
He has bounced back and forth between the No. 2 and No. 3 quarterback spot all season while Petrino gave Harrington and Leftwich chances to emerge as the best option to win. Neither emerged.
Now, it could be Redman's chance.
--RG Kynan Forney, who has started for most of the past seven seasons, was deemed inactive for Sunday's game with the Rams -- and it was not because of injury. D'Anthony Batiste started in his place. It was the second straight game Forney was ruled inactive but in Atlanta's Thanksgiving night loss to Indianapolis, Forney got sick on game day. Coach Bobby Petrino would not disclose why Forney watched the game in street clothes, saying it was a football decision. The Falcons are going through an evaluation process and Forney has not played to expectations for much of the year.
--FS Jimmy Williams was inactive for the Rams game. Williams, Atlanta's top draft pick in 2006, was supplanted by Antoine Harris as the nickel safety. Williams has had a hard time getting on the field after making the transition from cornerback to safety. He never really challenged Chris Crocker for the starting job and his recent mediocre play on special teams left him out of favor with coaches.
--WR Roddy White's 10 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown were career single-game highs for the emerging third-year player. White has a career-high 62 receptions for 920 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
--WR Joe Horn (hamstring) returned from a three-game hiatus to have his best game of the season vs. St. Louis. Horn's four catches for 38 yards tied his high for catches in a game this season and gave him his yardage high.
--RB Jerious Norwood could start getting more of a look over the final four games following his season-best 94-yard (eight carries) performance against the Rams. Petrino feels more comfortable with Dunn carrying the brunt of the rushing load but Dunn had just 17 yards on 10 carries against St. Louis while Norwood was able to find holes and use his game-breaking speed to click off chunks of yardage.
The Carolina Panthers realize they have nothing left to play for -- and that just may make them one of the league's more dangerous teams heading down the stretch.
With his team anguishing in a five-game losing streak and all but out of the playoff race in the NFC, Panthers coach John Fox offered his players this simple bit of advice last week: Go have fun.
"We forgot about how to have fun -- so that was our mantra this week," Fox said following Sunday's 31-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Fun, in some cases, meant lining Steve Smith up at quarterback and splitting Vinny Testaverde out wide. Fun meant running reverses and double reverses. Fun meant teeing off on 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer because they were willing to live with the consequences. Fun meant forcing six turnovers and scoring touchdowns on defense.
Although the Panthers (5-7) pose little threat to NFC South leader Tampa Bay, they could make things difficult for four teams with playoff aspirations down the stretch, beginning this Sunday at Jacksonville.
After the Jags, the Panthers play host to Seattle and Dallas before wrapping up at Tampa Bay.
"It's like when you were little. It's about going out and scoring touchdowns and making tackles and sacks and having fun and laughing and jumping around," said defensive end Mike Rucker, who had a hand in two sacks and forced a fumble on Sunday. "That's what we were doing out there. You think about when you were a kid -- before the big crowds, before the paychecks, before all of that, what was it about? It was about having fun. That is what we went back to today."
Testaverde said the Panthers were relaxed heading into a Week 6 game against Arizona, which they won 25-10 to improve to 4-2 on the season. But he said after that game the team tensed up and began putting too much pressure on itself.
"We just got too serious and pressed too hard," Testaverde said. "Coach Fox mentioned to the team to go out and have fun. Relax. Go play."
Even when Carolina's lead 17-point lead was cut to three in the third quarter, the Panthers refused to panic.
"When we get down, we think too hard and we start stressing. Today they scored and it was 17-14 and we just kept saying, let's go play," said cornerback Richard Marshall. "We didn't start stressing. When we get down, we stress too much."
Running back DeShaun Foster said he sensed a more relaxed atmosphere at practice last week and knew that was a good thing.
"It was kind of laid back and loose in practice," said Foster, who scored one of four Carolina touchdowns. "Everybody was just doing their job and having fun doing it. I think as long as we can keep doing it these last four or five games we will be all right," Foster said.
--RB DeShaun Foster could start losing carries to DeAngelo Williams. On Sunday, Foster ran 21 times for 58 yards, a 2.8-yard average, and scored on a 1-yard plunge. Williams ran for 82 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
--CB Chris Gamble returned to the starting lineup on Sunday for Carolina. He missed last week with a thumb injury.
--WR Steve Smith lined up at quarterback and running back on a few occasions this past Sunday. He ran twice for 21 yards and had eight catches for 64 yards.
--CB Richard Marshall is playing outstanding football for Carolina. After a 13-tackle performance last week, Marshall picked off a Trent Dilfer pass and went 73 yards for a score.
--DE Mike Rucker had two sacks and a forced fumble on Sunday.
--SS Chris Harris briefly left Sunday's game with a shoulder injury. It does not appear too serious. The Panthers reported no other injuries.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
All week long, the Saints pointed to Sunday's matchup with the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the most important game of the season.
They were right. It was a must must-win game in their eyes, considering they were two games behind the Bucs with just five to play. So it was, to be perfectly honest, a game they knew they had to have.
And they had it, until fumbling away the ball with 3 1/2 minutes to play while holding a 23-20 lead at home.
A double-reverse call by coach Sean Payton blew up in their faces and the Bucs turned the miscue into a touchdown with 14 seconds to play, virtually putting an end to the Saints' hopes of winning a second straight division title.
As a result of their 27-23 loss, the Saints will be reduced to scrambling for a wild-card playoff berth and even that is tenuous at best as they head into the final four weeks of the regular season.
Even if the Saints win out and the Bucs lose three of their final four, the Saints would lose the tiebreaker based on the Bucs' sweep in their season series.
The wild-card race isn't much better. The Saints are just one game out of the final wild-card spot; the problem is four teams are at 6-6 or better and the Saints and four others are 5-7.
The Saints could have put themselves in great position in both the division and the wild-card picture with a victory over the Bucs (8-4). But in the span of three minutes, 44 seconds, they threw it all away.
After the Bucs used their final timeout, Saints coach Sean Payton called the ill-fated play that resulted in a Tampa Bay recovery. They used that turnover to march 37 yards in eight plays to the game-winning touchdown.
"That was a disappointing loss and probably the worst job I have done as a head coach since I've been here," Payton said. "To have the opportunity we had, getting the safety late and have the ball at midfield in the four-minute offense ...
"Obviously, I regret the play call that resulted in a fumble that cost us the game," he said. "It's disappointing for our players and our staff to lose a game like that where we had every opportunity to win it."
After the game, neither Henderson nor Bush would comment on the play that eventually doomed the Saints.
"I'm not going to comment on that," said Henderson, whose 45-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter gave the Saints a 14-13 halftime lead.
Henderson was later asked about the emotions he felt when the Bucs recovered and started the march to the game-winning score.
"You can imagine what it was," he said. "Disbelief. Disappointment. We were just hoping the defense would get something to turn it around."
But they couldn't stop the Bucs, who went for a first down on fourth-and-1 from the Saints' 28 rather than kick a game-tying field goal. Two plays later, they got the backbreaking touchdown that left Payton kicking himself.
"We thought it gave us a chance to break one open," Payton said of the ill-fated play. "It was a reverse and we didn't handle the toss well enough. That's my fault, I shouldn't have called the play in that situation."
--LCB Mike McKenzie left late in Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Bucs with an unknown ailment, but Saints coach Sean Payton said he was fine.
--DT Brian Young returned to the starting lineup against the Bucs after missing four games with a left knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery.
--RB Reggie Bush, who has been nursing a bruised left shin for the last two weeks, was in the starting lineup against the Bucs.
--DT McKinley Boykin did not play against the Bucs because of a left knee injury that kept him out of practice all last week.
--RB Pierre Thomas was inactive Sunday because of a bruised kidney that forced him to miss practice on Thursday and Friday.
--RB Jamaal Branch was signed from the practice squad to provide backfield depth because Thomas was sidelined for Sunday's game.
--S Jay Bellamy was released to open a roster spot for Branch.
--WR Robert Meachem, the Saints' first-round draft pick this spring, was inactive for the 12th straight game.