NFC South Hot Topic: Dec. 12

Hot Topic is your source for NFC South news at Bucsblitz.com. Today get updated on what's going on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division rivals, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans, as they prepare for Sunday's games, including news on Bobby Petrino's resignation in Atlanta.

During the first half on Monday night's loss to New Orleans, Falcons owner Arthur Blank paid a visit to the ESPN booth.

Trying to spice up an otherwise dull matchup, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser peppered Blank with questions about the myriad of issues that have befallen the Falcons this season. Blank was very open with his assessments about Michael Vick, injuries, etc., and at the end of the visit emphasized how confident he was that Bobby Petrino was a great leader and the right coach to turn the franchise around.

Twenty-four hours later, Petrino was being introduced as the leader of someone else's battalion.

After just 13 games, Petrino bolted the Falcons to head back to the collegiate ranks at Arkansas.

In truth, it's not an especially surprising move. The Falcons are short on talent, long on drama, and Petrino's style had already rubbed many veterans the wrong way. There is no quick fix in Atlanta -- no recruiting class that can overhaul the depth chart and make the team competitive in the near future.

So instead of sticking around for what is likely to be a long and painful process in Atlanta -- and coaches who begin turnarounds are rarely kept around long enough to see them through to completion -- Petrino decided it was time to go back to college. With the Razorbacks, he doesn't have to defend his decisions not to discuss personnel moves with his players, and he doesn't have underperforming multi-millionaires to butt heads with.

Petrino didn't speak much about the decision to leave Atlanta during his introductory press conference in Fayetteville, Ark., but one comment spoke volumes about how quickly he soured on the dream of coaching in the NFL.

"I knew I wanted to come back and coach in college football," Petrino said. "I'm very excited to get back and work with the student-athlete."

Sounds reminiscent of Nick Saban, doesn't it? Ironically, Saban and Petrino will now be battling it out annually in the West division of the SEC.

Blank and general manager Rich McKay will hold a press conference Wednesday to discuss the situation. And now the search is on to find a new leader for a fledgling franchise.

PLAYER NOTES

--Rookie LG Justin Blalock was inactive after starting the previous 12 games. No reason was given but there is some thought that he may have hit the rookie wall and his regression was becoming unfairly counterproductive to him and his teammates. It is not known if Blalock will return to the lineup for Tampa Bay.

--RG Kynan Forney returned to the starting lineup, but he did not play well. Forney had been out the past two games because of an illness and because he was a game-day inactive, despite being healthy. Forney is expected to retain his spot.

--WR Joe Horn, who was critical of Saints coach Sean Payton before the game, had just two catches for eight yards. Horn is at the point where he can't get separation from defenders so every catch he makes is contested and there is little room for him to gain yards after the catch.

--RB Warrick Dunn has averaged just more than a yard per carry over the past two games against St. Louis and New Orleans, who won't be confused, defensively, with the Steel Curtain or the '85 Bears. His blocking has been woefully bad, but Dunn does seem to have lost some of the burst he showed just a few weeks earlier.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Carolina Panthers are trying their best to prevent any splintering or finger-pointing in the locker room in the wake of their 37-6 blowout loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Once again, Carolina's offense was brutal -- 149 total yards, 2.8 yards per play and one trip in the red zone -- despite playing against the league's 27th-ranked pass defense.

The Panthers' defense held tough in the first half as the Panthers went in the locker room down 10-6 even though the offense had gained just 67 yards.

But when DeShaun Foster fumbled on the first play of the second half, the floodgates opened and the Jags rattled off 27 straight points to win going away.

The closest the Panthers came to any division in the locker room might have been when cornerback Richard Marshall interrupted a reporter's interview with safety Chris Harris a few lockers away by saying, "Tell them the truth Chris. Tell them the truth Chris," after Harris had been asked a question about the team's offensive struggles.

When reporters tried to talk to Marshall a few minutes later, a team spokesman said he would not be talking.

Cornerback Ken Lucas said there is no room for the defense to point fingers at the offense after giving up 37 points. However, the defense did spend more than 38 minutes on the field.

"Who is to say how much time you are supposed to be out there on the field?" Lucas said. "It doesn't have to be that way. We could have stopped them three-and-out but we didn't. They sustained a lot of drives and kept the time going. They popped a couple of deep plays at the end. It's not one aspect of the team. It's everybody. We could have played much better on defense and we didn't. This ain't the time to be pointing fingers right now. We didn't play well at all today."

The offense has scored more than 20 points in a game just twice since Jake Delhomme went down in Week 3 and it's averaging less than 12 points per game during that span.

When asked if it has been tough keeping the team together when one side isn't producing, coach John Fox said, "We've been doing it for a while now, so I don't perceive any problems moving forward with three games to go. Again, our margin for error is not great. Our defense knows how they have to play, and we weren't good enough defensively yesterday either, and I think everybody in that locker room knows that."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Vinny Testaverde is not a lock to start Sunday against Seattle now that the Panthers are all but out of the playoff hunt. The Panthers could turn to rookie Matt Moore. That decision will come later this week.

--QB Matt Moore could start Sunday against Seattle. Coach John Fox has not made a decision on whether or not to go with the rookie Moore, Vinny Testaverde or David Carr.

--QB David Carr been the team's No. 3 on the depth chart the last two weeks.

--RB DeShaun Foster must be the angel child of the Panthers organization because he continues to start despite averaging 3.6 yards per carry and fumbling at key times. He has fumbled five times this year. DeAngelo Williams, his backup, is averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

--RB DeAngelo Williams actually got more snaps Sunday than DeShaun Foster, but only got three carries. He gained seven yards against the Jaguars. The week before he had 17 carries for 82 yards.

--WR Steve Smith has not caught a touchdown pass in seven weeks.

--TE Jeff King nearly had a touchdown on Sunday, but was slightly overthrown by Vinny Testaverde. He continues to start at tight end and is always a major target.

--WR Drew Carter started for the Panthers on Sunday over Keary Colbert.

--MLB Jon Beason and the Panthers defense allowed Fred Taylor to score on an 80-yard touchdown run Sunday.

--CB Chris Gamble had a rough game Sunday against the Jaguars, getting beat on several third down passes and giving up a touchdown to Reggie Williams, although he should have had help on the play.

--SS Chris Harris has two nice hits and a forced fumble on Sunday against the Jaguars.

--FS Deke Cooper had a rough game on Sunday, missing a tackle and allowing a Reggie Williams touchdown.

--KR/PR Ryne Robinson had a nice 40-yard return called back because of a holding penalty. He's looking a little better on returns.

--PK John Kasay made two more field goals on Sunday, but he has now hit five kickoffs out of bounds.

--P Jason Baker has been decent for the Panthers, but did seem to outkick his coverage on Sunday resulting in a 37-yard punt return. That could be the result of a bad coverage team, however.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Saints coach Sean Payton figured that Monday night's nationally televised game with the Atlanta Falcons was no time to sit around and cry over last week's loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs.

While the Saints' hopes of winning a division crown took a jolt with the Bucs loss, Payton knew his team still had a wild-card playoff berth to play for when they took the field at the Georgia Dome.

So Payton, who watched his team botch a double-reverse that resulted in a fumble that the Bucs turned into the game-winning touchdown, went right back to his playbook in a 34-14 romp over the Falcons.

Backed up to his own 9-yard line after a Falcons' punt, Payton confidently called another reverse. Drew Brees handed the ball to Devery Henderson, who picked up 15 yards, and while the Saints got nothing out of the possession, it set the tone for the game.

"It's important to get back on the horse," Payton said of the bold play call. "It's a play we wanted to run. It's a good play to start the game."

From there, the Saints' offense struggled temporarily. But after their second drive was fruitless as well, they scored on four straight possessions -- three to end the first half with a 17-7 advantage. Their three touchdown drives covered 99, 94 yards and 80 yards.

"We came back and put together back-to-back drives," said Brees, who threw for 328 yards and three scores. "We did a good job of spreading the ball around and did a good job of possessing the ball."

The victory left the Saints (6-7) one game behind Minnesota (7-6) in the race for the final wild-card spot. New Orleans, Washington, Arizona and Detroit are all tied, but the Saints would win a tiebreaker with each of the other clubs.

"It was a good team effort and a good win," Payton said. "I'm proud of the guys, we fought back (after the loss to the Bucs) and played a good game tonight."

PLAYER NOTES

--Saints running back Reggie Bush, who was inactive for Monday night's game with the Atlanta Falcons because of a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, was examined earlier in the day by orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said he had no update on Bush and would not know about his availability for the final three games of the season until speaking with Andrews on Tuesday morning.

Bush arrived in Atlanta about five hours before the game. He emerged from the tunnel that led to the Saints' locker room just before kickoff dressed in a black T-shirt and black warmup pants and jogged across the field to the team's sideline.

--The Saints were forced to make a late lineup change for the game with the Falcons when free safety Josh Bullocks injured a quadriceps muscle during pregame warmups.

Bullocks was inactive for the game and was replaced in the lineup by seven-year veteran Kevin Kaesviharn, who recently made a strong push to get more playing time at strong safety.

The injury ended a streak of 41 straight starts for Bullocks, a second-round draft pick in 2005. He replaced Jay Bellamy in Week 4 of his rookie season and had started every game until Monday night.

--Saints quarterback Drew Brees joined the 20,000-yard passing club late in the first quarter of the Saints' 34-14 win over the Falcons.

Brees, who went into Monday night's game with 19,942 career yards, eclipsed the 20,000-yard mark on his seventh completion of the evening -- a 36-yard toss to tight end Billy Miller.

Brees went on to throw for 328 yards against the Falcons and now has 20,278 yards for his seven-year NFL career. He has 7,922 yards since coming to the Saints in 2006.

--Wide receiver Marques Colston posted a single-season career high in receptions while catching nine balls for 92 yards and two scores.

His first catch of the night to start the Saints' third drive was his 71st this season -- which surpassed his total of 70 receptions last year as a rookie.

--Cornerback Mike McKenzie, who normally plays only on the left side, moved to the right side in the first period to cover Falcons wide receiver Roddy White. He later beat McKenzie for a 33-yard TD catch.

--FS Josh Bullocks was a late scratch after injuring a quadriceps muscle during pre-game warmups Monday night.

--FS Kevin Kaesviharn made his first start at safety for the Saints in filling in for an injured Josh Bullocks.

--TE Eric Johnson injured his groin while making a 13-yard catch late in the second quarter and sat out the second half.

--K Olindo Mare was helped off the field with a hip or leg injury, which occurred when he made a tackle on a kickoff with less than three minutes remaining in the game.

--RB Pierre Thomas returned Monday night after missing last week's game with Tampa Bay because of a bruised kidney.

--RB Jamaal Branch was signed from the practice squad to provide depth in the backfield because Reggie Bush was inactive with a knee injury.

--S Jay Bellamy was released to open a roster spot for Branch.


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