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News » Playing in the wild, wild South

Playing in the wild, wild South

Playing in the wild, wild South
Putting it bluntly, the NFC South was a joke last year. Only Tampa Bay (9-7) was over .500, and the Bucs were upset at home in the opening round of the playoffs by the Giants.

Carolina (7-9) was held under 14 points eight times, New Orleans (7-9) allowed 30 or more points six times, and Atlanta (4-12) was in chaos.

But in a year where the assumption was that both wild card spots would again be filled by NFC East teams, the NFC South has been reborn and will serve as a roadblock in the final five weeks to the Cowboys' and Redskins' playoff hopes.

The NFC South and AFC East are the only two divisions with every team above .500. Tampa Bay and Carolina are 8-3, Atlanta 7-4 and New Orleans 6-5.

Nine wins was enough for the title last year but may not be enough for a sniff at a playoff spot this year.

"Obviously we're in a stronger division right now with the way Carolina and the way Tampa and the way Atlanta is playing, but that's just the nature of our league," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "In other divisions, we might be tied for first."

Those divisions are the NFC North and AFC West. Instead the Saints face a must-win game Sunday at Tampa Bay to stay within striking distance of not only the Bucs and Panthers, but also wild card contenders Washington, Dallas and Atlanta.

The NFC South is a division full of wild subplots. The teams are a combined 21-2 at home, 8-15 on the road. Saints quarterback Drew Brees could break the single-season passing yardage record, and New Orleans leads the league in offense. Falcons running back Michael Turner is third with 1,008 rushing yards, and Carolina's DeAngelo Williams is sixth (883). Tampa Bay's defense ranks fourth in the league.

Of the four teams, Atlanta is undoubtedly the surprise of the group. The Buccaneers always play great defense, and Jon Gruden came to his senses and stuck with Jeff Garcia at quarterback. Carolina's Julius Peppers has been rejuvenated, and the Panthers can run against anybody. And New Orleans can turn any game into a track meet.

But Atlanta? The Falcons have rookies in the front office (GM Thomas Dimitroff), on the sideline (coach Mike Smith) and at quarterback (Matt Ryan). But the franchise has moved on from Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino. Ryan has a solid 88.3 passer rating to go with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Things will become clearer after next weekend's Tampa Bay-Carolina and Atlanta-New Orleans matchups. The other remaining division contests are Saints-Bucs (Sunday), Tampa Bay-Atlanta (Week 15) and Carolina-New Orleans (Week 17).

"Is it 10 [wins to capture the division], is it 11, is it nine - it's tough to project," Payton said. "The next two or three weeks have always cleared things up and narrowed the field, and you'll begin to get an idea of who's contending and who's not. I think that will be the case again this year."

Said Garcia: "I don't think it's wrong to look at what we have in front of us these next three weeks just as long as we know where our focus has to be and on this week and this game. But we have three division opponents, and everybody is pretty tight. Any one of the four teams is capable of winning the division depending on the streak they go on."


Redskins THIS WEEK

Giants (10-1) at Redskins (7-4)

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 5, 45

Line: Giants by 3 1/2

Outlook: New York is rolling toward a division title and home-field advantage in the NFC. The Redskins are clinging onto the final wild card spot, but a loss this week doesn't squash their chances. The Redskins' best hope is what happened last December in the swamp - make Eli Manning throw more than 40 times. Not likely to happen. The Giants are just better right now.

The pick: Giants 20-12


Steelers (8-3) at Patriots (7-4)

Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 9, 13

Line: Patriots by 1

Outlook: Matt Cassel's streak of 400-yard passing games and the Patriots' streak of 500-yard total offense games will end at two against the Steelers' top-ranked defense. But which quarterback would you rather have - Cassel or Ben Roethlisberger? The pick here is Cassel and the Patriots to keep pace with the Jets atop the AFC East.

The pick: Patriots 14-9


Falcons (7-4) at Chargers (4-7)

Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

Line: Chargers by 5

Outlook: The Chargers can't win a close game, but they're favored in part because Atlanta hasn't been great on the road. San Diego is nowhere near .500 but still only two games out of the AFC West lead, a margin that can be cut in half with a win over the Falcons and a Jets win over Denver. The Falcons, though, will win Michael Turner's first game against his former team.

The pick: Falcons 34-27


Bears (6-5) at Vikings (6-5)

Sunday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 4, 11

Line: Vikings by 3

Outlook: The NFC North lead is up for grabs. If the Bears win, they have the clear advantage because they begin a three-game homestand next week. The Vikings won at Jacksonville last week by intercepting David Garrard twice. Kyle Orton has only four interceptions in 299 passes this year, but he'll commit a key turnover or two and the Vikings will take over first place.

The pick: Vikings 22-17


Top offensive prospects for next spring's NFL draft:

QB Matthew Stafford, Georgia: One look at Daunte Culpepper last week, and it's clear Detroit needs to start over at quarterback.

WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech: If he declares himself eligible, he'll be attractive for a team needing immediate help, but taking a receiver high is a gamble.

WR Percy Harvin, Florida: Why isn't the Virginia native getting more attention? Probably because Reggie Bush hasn't done much. Harvin, though, is more dynamic and versatile.

OT Andre Smith, Alabama: He's a junior but gigantic (330 pounds). A red flag should be that some analysts project him as a guard. Teams don't take potential guards this high.

OT Michael Oher, Mississippi: We haven't heard much about him since being featured in the book "The Blind Side." But most online mock drafts have him in the top 10.


A look each week at one statistic last week's games. This week: quarterback rating.

13-3 Record last week among teams whose quarterback posted the higher passer rating. Eight passers were above 100. The only three to have a better rating and lose were Jacksonville's David Garrard, Carolina's Jake Delhomme and San Diego's Philip Rivers.


* Another interesting week in Cleveland. QB Brady Quinn's broken finger will keep him out of the year, but that didn't stop coach Romeo Crennel from naming Quinn the starter entering 2009. Keep in mind, chances are Crennel won't even be around to change his mind. Derek Anderson is back in as the starter, and the best he can hope for is showing enough to make himself a trade option.

* Miami not only lost to the Patriots last week but also lost receiver Greg Camarillo for the season with a knee injury. He leads the Dolphins with 55 catches for 613 yards. "Greg was a staple in our offense," QB Chad Pennington said. "He was a guy that was extremely reliable so it's a tough loss for us." The good news for Miami - it faces St. Louis on Sunday.

* Only Denver could lose to Oakland 31-10 at home and still feel good about making the postseason. The Broncos are 6-5 but still two games ahead of San Diego, which can't win a close game. The Broncos are minus 12 in turnover ratio, are down to their fifth starting tailback, have backups playing at all three linebacker spots and have been forced to play 12 rookies. The Broncos likely will fall to .500 when they play at the New York Jets this week.


* Although the schedule is favorable (three out of last five at home), does anybody really believe Green Bay is a playoff team after it was beat up at New Orleans? The defense is in shambles. The Packers' 18 sacks are tied for 25th in the NFL. That's still more than the Redskins have, but way off Green Bay's total of 36 last year. Coach Mike McCarthy said: "Five games to play, we're not out of anything. It's right in front of us. We need to win Football games."

* Why did the 49ers wait so long to play former Maryland quarterback Shaun Hill? In his three starts, San Francisco is 1-2 but averaging 27 points a game, and Hill has thrown for 733 yards and six touchdowns. For the year, Hill is completing 60.3 percent of his throws and has a 94.3 passer rating.

* Gutsy move last week by embattled Vikings coach Brad Childress. At Jacksonville, Childress benched running back Adrian Peterson for the opening two possessions after Peterson was late to a meeting Saturday. Chester Taylor started in the 30-12 win, and Peterson carried 17 times. "Everybody understands what the ground rules are," Childress said.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 29, 2008

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