Last week in this space I declared a Merry Christmas to all. I had my reasons. This week, it appears that it’s time to start humming Auld Lang Syne and popping champagne corks. Happy New Year, everybody!
Not 2009! Instead, (corny reference in three, two, one…) a new year has dawned in the NFC South. The Atlanta Falcons continue to prove that they belong in the NFC playoff picture. Poor New Orleans can’t seem to decide if they belong in it or not. Carolina might belong in it but not based on Sunday’s performance. And Tampa Bay sat at home making a resolution that they would remain in the picture.
Looking Back: Anyone who predicted this please step to the front of the line. No one? I didn’t think so. What the Falcons are doing is something to marvel at. The pundits might say that they won another game at home but they still took down a pretty darned good division opponent. They weathered the storm against that Saints passing attack while pounding the ball between the tackles to earn another big win.
Looking Forward: The Falcons now have to be considered a dangerous team. Their ability to run the ball with both Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood while playing solid defense makes them a team that no one wants to face right now. Their next test is against a Broncos team that has almost no one healthy in their secondary compounding their problems defending the run. Roddy White has to be anxious to get this one started.
Carolina Panthers (7-2):
Looking Back: Whew! That’s the sound coming from the Panthers’ locker room. They escaped their west coast trip with a win over a suddenly resurgent Raiders team. Jake looked pretty darned bad while the running game put up only 78 yards. Another 69 yards from DeAngelo Williams on a TD run made that final number look a lot better. The defense played extremely well with Julius Peppers racking up 2.5 sacks. Whew, is right.
Looking Forward: Trap game number two follows with Carolina hosting the Detroit Lions. No coach in his right mind would tell you that he’s happy to face a winless team hungry for its first win of the season. Daunte Culpepper will return to where his problems started – Bank of America Stadium (October 2005). Will he be glad to see the Panthers again? Doubtful. Will the Panthers be glad to be back home? You better believe it.
Looking Back: What does a quarterback have to do? Drew Brees put up 422 yards passing on Atlanta but came away with a loss. It didn’t help that he had a pick 6 with only a 7-point deficit staring at him on the scoreboard. It didn’t help much that Devery Henderson led the team in rushing with 30 yards – the stat isn’t as important as the fact that Henderson is a wide receiver.
Looking Forward: Someone in the Saints’ club house has to be feeling better knowing that they will be facing the Chiefs next week. Then again, maybe not. All of a sudden Tyler Thigpen looks almost like an NFL quarterback and the Chiefs almost look like a football team – almost. Already two games back in the division, New Orleans now faces a must-win situation if they are to have any hopes of making the postseason.
Looking Back: The carnage continued but the Buccaneers were able to sit at home and watch it from their sofas. Even better, the quarterbacks could be away from Jon Gruden for a week – they didn’t have to see him scowl and likely didn’t answer their phones so they didn’t have to hear him complain. The rest will be crucial for this bunch in keeping pace in this most competitive division.
Looking Forward: Maybe the Vikings haven’t looked like the team everyone thought they would be each week but Tampa Bay will certainly be taking them seriously. If there is a team that matches up well with the Bucs, it’s the Vikings. Tampa Bay will be up against one heckuva pass rush and one of the best running backs in the game in Adrian Peterson. Staying in contention in the NFC South will mean playing at a high level versus Minnesota.