It’s Week 14 in the NFL and the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Several contenders now know what they have to do to make it to the post season and the intensity of the games is about to experience a big boost. The most competitive division in the NFL this year is the NFC South. While the Panthers and Buccaneers are tied for first at 9-3, the Falcons are within arm’s reach at 8-4. The Saints are bringing up the rear, but are still an average 6-6 and sport the top ranked offense in the league. There will not be a dull moment in the division for the rest of the year, and Week 14 will be a major proving ground for these teams as all four squads are locked up in divisional battles.
Tampa Bay……9-3……@ Carolina
Carolina………..9-3……v. Tampa Bay
Atlanta………….8-4……@ New Orleans
New Orleans…6-6……v. Atlanta
Tampa Bay @ Carolina 8:30pm Monday Night Football
The biggest game of the season in the NFC South is Monday Night when the Bucs travel up to Charlotte to take on the Panthers on Monday Night Football.
The teams are tied at the top of the division standings with the Bucs currently holding the tiebreaker due to their 27-3 shellacking of the Panthers back in Week six.
Jeff Garcia and the Bucs have won four straight and have not missed a beat with leading rusher Earnest Graham heading the IR for the remainder of the season. The Bucs defense will have a tall order on Monday night as they will be charged with the task of keeping the Panthers’ two-headed monster in the backfield at bay.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewarthave turned into one of the league’s top rushing duos and Williams has been especially effective in the last month. His string of four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances was broken last Sunday in Green Bay, but he substituted a big yardage day for a big scoring day by recording a team record four rushing touchdowns.
Carolina will need to avoid the slow start that has plagued them at various times throughout the season, perhaps most notably in Tampa Bay where a botched special teams play on the Panthers first drive spelled doom for them throughout the entire contest.
Carolina never rebounded from their early mistakes and the offense was only able to manage a John Kasay field goal all afternoon. The Bucs will be looking to stuff the Panthers’ run-first offense as they have only allowed one rushing touchdown all season. If the run gets taken out of the equation early, the Panthers will be forced to rely on Jake Delhomme to bring them the victory. Delhomme has played better in the last couple of weeks, but still hasn’t had a big game since his poor stretch following the bye week. Delhomme had two big passes late in the game last Sunday but threw the ball less than 20 times for the second time in the last three games.
Improving his decision making, Delhomme has not thrown an interception since November ninth in Oakland, where he threw four.
Jeff Garcia will rely on Warrick Dunn to burden most of the work out of the backfield while Carnell “Cadillac” Williams will see limited action as he continues to rehab from a knee injury suffered last season when Tampa Bay visited Bank Of America Stadium.
If the Panthers defense holds true to form, Garcia should have a good statistical day as the Carolina secondary has been known to give up the medium yardage to receivers all year. With that being said, the Panthers defense has bent but not broken in several outings. Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers all had quality outings in losing efforts against the Panthers.
Expect to see the Carolina secondary forced into longer coverages as Garcia’s ability to avoid the pass rush comes into play. Julius Peppers, Tyler Brayton, and Charles Johnson will need to be quick off the ball to put a hand in Garcia’s face and limit the amount of check downs he completes.
This should be an instant classic. The Panthers are 6-0 at home and will have the benefit of the prime-time slot and their newly-energized home fans. Bank Of America Stadium is no easy place to play these days and the near-freezing temperatures in the forecast could mean trouble for the Buccaneers as well.
Atlanta @ New Orleans Sunday 1:00pm FOX
The Falcons are riding a three game win streak to the Bayou and will certainly meet a road block when they get there.
The Saints, although 6-6, tote the league’s highest ranked offense, and the league’s leading passer in Drew Brees. Brees is on track to break Dan Marino’s single season record for passing yards and has been one of the top performers in the league all season.
It’s the Saints defense that has the team resting at the bottom of the division, setting up a potential shootout on Sunday. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has led the Falcons to a season that has gone above and beyond all expectations for this team. In what was supposed to be a major rebuilding year, Ryan was expected to struggle while coming to grips with the ins and outs of an NFL offense. That has not been the case as Ryan along with off-season acquisition Michael Turner in the backfield, has led a charge from Atlanta that has been heard around the league.
Ryan’s favorite target has been the previously troubled Roddy White who went from being notorious for his drops and off-the-field partying habits to leading the NFC in receiving yards with 1,085 to date.
Atlanta’s defense is certainly more effective than the Saints but the Saints are coming into Sunday’s match-up with a 5-1 record at the Superdome this year. Their one loss was on Monday Night Football to the Vikings earlier in the year in a close game. New Orleans has not won a division game since week one against the 'Bucs and would like to keep their outside chance at a playoff spot by playing the role of spoiler this weekend.
The Falcons currently hold the second Wild Card playoff spot in the NFC by virtue of a tiebreaker with the Cowboys due to Atlanta’s better divisional record. With such a tight race for position in the NFC playoff picture, every game is critical.
The Saints will be without running back Deuce McAllister and defensive end Will Smith after the two were suspended by the league for testing positive for a banned diuretic substance earlier in the year. Reggie Bush will need a big game to keep the Falcons defense guessing and to allow Drew Brees to get comfortable in his game. If the Falcons can put a halt to Brees rhythm like the' Bucs did last week, it could be the end of the road for the Saints.
Expect to see a high-octane performance from both teams in a NFC South divisional battle.