We have separation! One team has launched itself above the competition in the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers have now reached a two-game lead in the division putting Tampa Bay and Atlanta in the running for a wild card spot. That may be all they can hope for. Meanwhile, New Orleans can only hope to be a spoiler.
Two weeks to go and there is still much to be decided.
Atlanta Falcons (9-5):
Looking Back: Did no one tell the Falcons that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year? As good as this division is, Atlanta has yet to lose at home against a divisional opponent. Michael Turner continued his assault on the opposition with a 150-yard performance. The best part of this win was how they did it – by hanging in there, playing solid defense and by showing the ability to regain their composure to win in overtime.
Looking Forward: The show must go on the road to Minnesota next week. A fierce pass rush and a defense that has proven to be a test for any offense awaits them. The wild card race promises to come down to the last week and if the Falcons want to remain in the picture, they’ll have a tall order to fill.
Carolina Panthers (11-3):
Looking Back: Their ailing owner, Jerry Richardson, watched as the Panthers dismantled division-leading Denver at home. The defense didn’t start as fast as they did six days earlier but they got their act together after giving up ten quick points. From there the Broncos didn’t mount another serious scoring threat and the offense put up 23 unanswered.
Looking Forward: Controlling your own destiny to home field advantage is a nice sentiment and all but it would be nicer if the Panthers were doing it by facing lesser teams. Up next, the world champion New York Giants will greet Carolina with little hospitality in New Jersey. The winner of the game will own the number one seed and the road to the Super Bowl will be set in the NFC.
New Orleans Saints (7-7):
Looking Back: Thursday was a cruel blow to the Saints. After getting Reggie Bush back to nearly his old self again, New Orleans fell three points short in a crucial matchup with Chicago. The loss dropped the Bayou boys from playoff contention. The question for the final two weeks will be how seriously everyone takes Drew Brees as an MVP candidate.
Looking Forward: The defense has been tough to watch at times. The offense remains lethal. Detroit is one of those opponents that can help you get well quickly. The Colts nearly fell to the lowly Lions in week 15 but the Saints can make the run toward a winning season with a head to head against the winless bunch from Motown.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5):
Looking Back: One week they’re tied for first place. Within seven days, they had fallen to second place and two games back. The loss to Atlanta will hurt especially since their chances likely would have improved had Jeff Garcia been able to go in this one. The Bucs missed his ability to make plays with his feet. Losing in overtime after fighting back will either motivate this club or the annual implosion will continue.
Looking Forward: Tampa Bay will host a desperate Chargers team next Sunday. San Diego got a gift from Herm Edwards and they are still mathematically alive for the postseason. The Bucs are suddenly in a must-win situation especially at home where the fans will be loud. Gruden’s scowl will be highly visible all week.