METAIRIE, La. – Both the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) control their playoff destinies heading into Sunday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints could clinch the NFC South title Sunday if they win and the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) lose to the Cleveland Browns. However, if the Saints lose and the Panthers win, the Saints will be mathematically eliminated.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on the latest installment of the Saints’ oldest and most heated rivalry. Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

Win back the crowd: Far and away, the biggest stunner of New Orleans’ 2014 season has been the current four-game home losing streak. Before that, the Saints had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs. The Superdome had earned a reputation as one of the last places opponents wanted to set foot inside.

Instead, some of the Saints’ recent performances have been downright hideous (namely their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago). And the home fans have turned downright hostile.

Check out this picture by The Times-Picayune. Everything about it is as unfamiliar as it is unsettling.

That’s the No. 1 thing that has to change Sunday – and potentially in a home playoff game. The Saints need to turn their home-field advantage back into an actual advantage instead of sucking the life out of the place with early miscues.

That means early turnovers by quarterback Drew Brees and others, as we’ve seen in recent home losses, are unforgivable. And the defense can’t get lit up by big plays early.

The Falcons need to be the ones feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable instead of the Saints feeling pressure to perform inside their own building.

“I think you understand how to utilize the home crowd,” Brees said. “Early success, starting fast -- all those things keep the crowd involved, keep 'em loud. Big plays, momentum-changing plays. So you understand when you’re down and you’re not doing those things, you’re kinda taking that out of it, that benefit, that edge. So, man, we’ve gotta get that back.”

It’s kind of a chicken-vs.-the-egg thing to suggest whether the home fans need to pick up the team or vice versa. Regardless, it’s clear that neither has been happening lately.

Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted that players don’t let the boos affect their performance – but he said they’re well aware that it’s happening. And that it’s deserved.

“I think we’re going to have a great environment. That’s what’s special about playing at home,” Payton said. “Absolutely, we’re going to need every person in there to be as loud as can be, and we’re going to need to play well. Our fan base is real smart. They understand that. I think it goes hand in hand.”

Jones
Defending Falcons’ receivers: A huge X-factor in this game is whether or not Falcons receiver Julio Jones will play. Before he injured his hip two weeks ago, he was on a tear with 21 catches for 448 yards – in just a two-week span!

Payton said it obviously makes a difference whether or not Jones plays. But both Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan insisted it didn’t alter their preparation. And they’re both well aware of how deep Atlanta’s receivers group is with Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester.

The Saints were torched by Atlanta’s passing game in a 37-34 overtime loss in Week 1, with QB Matt Ryan throwing for a franchise-record 448 yards. The Saints did a decent job of preventing Jones from burning them over the top. Instead, they were ripped apart underneath by all four receivers and a couple running backs – thanks in part to a lot of missed tackles.

Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (whom I would love to see in a one-on-one matchup with a healthy Jones) said the Saints were surprised by how the Falcons used Hester. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said he and fellow safety Jairus Byrd played too deep and that the Saints need to use more of an attacking approach.

Ryan bluntly said, “I don’t think we played very well on defense, I don’t think we coached very well on defense, and the simple fact is they beat us and they did what they wanted to. … They obviously executed a hell of a lot better than we did.”

Exploiting Falcons’ pass D: Brees needs to torment the Falcons’ pass defense in a similar fashion. Not only do the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (292.5 per game), but they also rank dead last in sacks (16).

Payton and the Saints' players said Atlanta’s run defense has improved in recent weeks. That’s all the more reason why the Saints’ season will come down to Brees being able to exploit the Falcons' biggest weakness. Brees needs to be the guy who’s on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and 35 TDs, with a league-best 70.0 completion percentage – and not the guy who’s stumbled too many times with 12 interceptions and two lost fumbles.

W2W4: Packers at Buccaneers

December, 20, 2014
Dec 20
12:00
PM ET
Five things to watch for in Sunday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers: He might be the best quarterback in the league, but Green Bay’s Rodgers doesn’t have a great history when it comes to playing games in Tampa. He is 0-2 in two starts at Raymond James Stadium. Rodgers has thrown three interceptions in a game three times in his career. Two of those came in games in Tampa.

Green Bay’s road woes: The Packers are undefeated at home this season, but they haven’t been very good on the road. They are 3-4 away from Lambeau Field. Green Bay is averaging 21.1 points per road game and scoring 41.1 points per home game. The Packers have lost seven of their past eight games in Tampa. Their last road win against the Bucs came in 2003.

Tampa Bay’s home woes: The Bucs are 0-6 at home this season. The only time the Bucs have gone winless at home over an entire season was in 1976, the franchise’s first year.

Mike Evans: After a stellar start, the rookie wide receiver has cooled off recently. In his past four games, Evans has just 154 receiving yards.

Demar Dotson vs. the Green Bay pass rush: Dotson will make his second straight start at left tackle after spending his career on the right side. The Bucs have given up on Anthony Collins, who didn’t play well after he was signed as a high-priced free agent. The team wants to see if Dotson can be the long-term answer at left tackle.
METAIRIE, La. -- Kenny Vaccaro said the best way to describe the versatile role he is now back to playing in Rob Ryan’s system is "ADD" -- which is fitting since the New Orleans Saints safety said people have often used that term to describe his personality, as well.

But Vaccaro admits it took him a while to realize that this hybrid/nickel role is the best one for both him and the Saints’ defense.

The second-year pro said he wanted to move into a true strong safety role this season, thinking he might become "great" at one thing. Instead, he went through growing pains all season before switching back this past week.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints believe using Kenny Vaccaro in multiple roles benefits their defense more than having him play only strong safety.
"I took it wrong in the offseason," said Vaccaro, who admitted that he looked at someone like fellow 2013 rookie Eric Reid making the Pro Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers and thought that could have been him. "Eric Reid, for instance, he plays free safety, he’s sitting back there and that’s all he’s doing. He went to the Pro Bowl last year. And I was like, 'Dang, maybe if I played one position, I could ...'

"I thought that might help me make more plays, I guess. But not really though. Not in Rob’s scheme. The position I was in last year, that’s where you want to be. You want to be that guy that he designs the whole thing around."

Vaccaro was widely praised by analysts last season because he was so valuable in that versatile role -- drawing many comparisons to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu. Vaccaro said that’s the model he’d like to follow.

"I was getting caught up trying to be a strong safety. When I watch Polamalu, that’s what I can do, and that’s how I can impact the game. And I think that suits me better, and Rob thinks that, too," Vaccaro said. "And there’s nothing wrong with that, and I think I took it kind of for granted what he believes in me."

Ryan certainly agrees. Known as one of the NFL’s more creative defensive coordinators, Ryan has always loved the idea of using Vaccaro as that versatile chess piece to both attack defenses and keep them guessing.

"I just think to utilize him, he’s got all these abilities, I think it’s better to be able to put him in different spots," Ryan said. "They have to be able to identify him as an offense. I think if he’s playing one spot, that strong safety, if you’re just playing a true strong safety, those guys make some tackles, but it’s not ... I think he’s a better player, he can affect the game more in different spots. So I think you’ll see him do that, and I think it’s better for our team."

The Saints have made some other tweaks to their defense, too.

Corey White has been moved from cornerback to safety -- admitting that it’s more of a steep adjustment for him both physically and mentally at this stage of the season, even though he did play safety in college.

The Saints moved cornerback Terrence Frederick into a starting role and Patrick Robinson into a dime role last week. They moved Jamarca Sanford into the starting strong safety role -- though Sanford’s hamstring injury might force another tweak this week.

And partly due to outside linebacker Junior Galette's knee injury, the Saints used Galette in a limited role as a pass-rush specialist last week while playing more of a base 3-4 run defense than they ever have, with Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber on the edges. Galette said he expects to play a similar role Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I think our guys have always been multiple," Ryan said of some of the tweaks. "And look, we need to get some juice going on defense. And I think what we’ve done has helped. I think we get guys in some familiar roles, some guys in the roles that they maybe are built for. But at the end of the day we have guys that play multiple positions, and that’s a good thing to do."
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said he expects to remain in a limited role Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons as he continues to recover from a knee injury.

Although Galette never appeared on the injury report this week, he told reporters Friday that his knee still isn’t 100 percent and that he thinks it’s a “smart” approach to keep limiting his snaps. He played only 27 snaps on Monday night against the Chicago Bears in a pass-rushing role -- and still wound up with two sacks.

Galette
“Probably the same thing going into this game. Kind of ease off the knee a little bit,” Galette said. “Right now my knee’s not 100 percent. So just being smart and making sure I’m not playing 60 snaps on half a knee.”

Three Saints players are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game: Left tackle Terron Armstead (neck), defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring).

Of that group, Hicks seems to have the best chance of playing after he returned to practice on a limited basis Friday. Armstead and Sanford did not practice all week.

Armstead would be replaced in the starting lineup by Bryce Harris, who’s had some ups and downs in cameo appearances this season but played well in Armstead’s absence last week.

It’s unclear how the Saints will replace Sanford since he just replaced Kenny Vaccaro last week as the starting strong safety. Perhaps Vaccaro will return to that role in base packages and play his nickel/hybrid spot in nickel and dime packages. Other possibilities include Marcus Ball and Corey White.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has a chance to set an obscure record on Sunday versus the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel.

With a win, Newton can become the winningest Heisman trophy quarterback recipient against another Heisman Trophy quarterback.

Newton, who won the 2010 Heisman at Auburn, is tied with Sam Bradford (2008), Vinny Testaverde (1986) and Roger Staubach (1963) with three victories against former Heisman quarterbacks.

Newton
Newton
Manziel
He’s looking for No. 4 against Manziel, the 2012 winner.

The two-time Pro Bowler’s only loss against a former Heisman quarterback came in Week 5 of the 2013 season. Carson Palmer, who won the 2002 Heisman, and the Arizona Cardinals beat Carolina 22-6.

Newton has completed a combined 68 of 108 pass attempts for 883 yards and three touchdowns against former Heisman winners. He has four interceptions, three coming in the loss to Palmer.

Here’s the breakdown on Newton versus Heisman quarterbacks:
  • 2013 Week 7 vs. Rams, Sam Bradford: W, 30-15 -- Newton was 15 for 17 for 204 yards and 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions
  • 2013 Week 5 at Cardinals, Carson Palmer: L 22-6 -- Newton was 21 for 39 for 308 yards and 0 touchdowns , 3 interceptions.
  • 2012 Week 16 vs. Raiders, Carson Palmer: W 17-6 -- Newton was 18 for 29 for 170 yards and 1 touchdown, 1 interception. He also rushed 12 times for 60 yards 1 touchdown
  • 2012 Week 9 at Redskins, Robert Griffin III: W 21-13 -- Newton was 13 for 23 for 201 yards and 1 touchdown , 0 interceptions. He also rushed 8 times for 37 yards and 1 touchdown.

Over the last 10 years, according to ESPN Stats and Information, there have been nine Heisman quarterback matchups. This will be the first one between Newton and Manziel, who became the starter at Cleveland last week.

Manziel and Newton first met at George Whitfield’s quarterback training academy. Newton reached out to Manziel in the summer of 2013 when the former Texas A&M star was under fire from the NCAA for reportedly accepting money from an autograph broker.

“He said to keep my head up and don’t let anything get me too down and continue to focus on those guys in the locker room,’’ Manziel said. “Cam had obviously been through something like that before and he had great words of advice for me.’’

Newton’s father was accused of seeking money for his son to attend Mississippi State out of junior college. The NCAA found no major violations in its investigation.

“I remember talking to him for probably 30-40 minutes one night and Cam helped me out in that sense a lot, and I never got a chance to thank him for it,’’ Manziel said. “He really helped keep my mindset on the right track during a tough time, especially coming from a guy who I looked up to when I was in high school watching him play.

“That was a big thing for me and a big moment in my life from a guy like Cam, who is pretty high up on the pedestal for me and a guy that is incredibly fun to watch. That was a big thing for me with Cam.”

On Sunday, Newton will attempt to keep Manziel from knocking him off his pedestal as he is expected to start for the first time since fracturing two small bones in his lower back in a two-vehicle accident.

If successful, he’ll set a new standard for Heisman quarterbacks.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons receiver Julio Jones, recovering from a hip injury, was not on the field for the start of Friday's practice.

 Jones hasn't practice all week and is game-time decision for Sunday's game against the Saints. With the Falcons' season on the line, there are strong indications he'll play through the injury despite the missed practice time.

Jones tested his hip last Saturday at the Falcons' indoor practice facility, and it was determined he wouldn't be able to go against the Steelers. Coach Mike Smith said the decision on Jones' status will be made when the inactives are released 90 minutes before Sunday's kickoff.

Also missing from Friday's practice was starting right guard Jon Asamoah, who has been sidelined with a back injury. It appears Asamoah won't be able to go, meaning Gabe Carimi would start in his place.

Roddy White (knee), Harry Douglas (foot), and William Moore (foot) were suited up for Friday's practice.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- First, it was New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis talking about sending the Falcons to their funeral. Then it was injured Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon telling the "sorry" Saints to keep the Falcons' name out of their mouths.

Moore
Lewis
It all made for a good conversation leading into Sunday's critical showdown between the NFC South rivals. And Falcons safety William Moore added a little more spice to the trash talk a few days before kickoff.

In speaking about the words initiated by Lewis, Moore shook his head and laughed.

"On Sunday, that's when we really see what people are made of," Moore said. "Through the week, it really doesn't even matter. I really think when people talk during the week, they're really just trying to hype themselves up and give themselves energy. Speak with the pads. Don't talk about it; speak with the pads.

"The last I checked, [Lewis] was a defensive guy. I mean, I won't see him. But if he's calling out my guys like Julio [Jones] and Roddy [White], I put my money on those guys. I put my money on our offense.''

Moore actually commended the Saints, outside of Lewis.

"I think it shows the professionalism in their team that Drew Brees hasn't said anything; Jimmy Graham hasn't said anything," Moore said. "I guess Keenan is talking to the offense. But, like I said, I put my money on the offense."

In regard to Weatherspoon's comments, Moore had no issues with his injured teammate speaking his mind.

"Spoon's not dressing up, but Spoon has the right to say what he wants," Moore said. "Obviously, he feels some kind of way. I know he'd rather be out here with us. When it comes to that, we just have to step it up. Spoon is a part of this team. When he says something like that, we've got to go back it up because he is representing this team."

As Moore concluded, fellow safety Kemal Ishmael chimed in from his locker.

"That's real," Ishmael said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Remember when the sky was falling because the Carolina Panthers lost their top four wide receivers from last season? Remember the woe-is-me attitude from fans who wondered who quarterback Cam Newton would throw to this season?

Don’t look now, but the Panthers are on the verge of having two 1,000-yard receivers for only the second time in team history.

Olsen
Olsen

Benjamin
Tight end Greg Olsen has a career-high 960 yards receiving on 81 catches and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin has 952 yards on 67 receptions.

If they surpass the 1,000-yard mark in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, they will match the accomplishment Muhsin Muhammad and Patrick Jeffers achieved in 1999.

Muhammad had 1,253 yards receiving and Jeffers 1,082 that season in the more pass-friendly West Coast offense of George Seifert.

Is this vindication for all the criticism the Panthers took when they released all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and lost Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon to free agency?

“I think that would put a little comfort into the whole situation," Olsen said.

Consider:
  • Olsen ranks 16th and Benjamin 19th in receiving yards. The only other teams with two players in the top 20 are Green Bay, New England and Denver.
  • Smith ranks 23rd in receiving yards with 926 and LaFell ranks 27th with 819. Ginn has only 13 catches for 184 yards, so he’s not in the top 50 in either conference. Hixon suffered a season-ending knee injury in May.
  • Smith and LaFell have a combined 13 touchdown catches. Olsen and Benjamin have 15.

Vindication?

“I wouldn’t say vindicated," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “There were just things we had to do."

But the Panthers did what they had to do knowing they had a proven receiver in Olsen, knowing they’d have a shot at a receiver like Benjamin in one of the best and deepest draft classes ever at that position.

They also felt comfortable in their chances of landing a free agent such as Jerricho Cotchery, who has 40 catches for 509 yards.

But having Olsen first and foremost was critical.

“Right before the season we had a team meeting and everybody went around and said the things they want to bring to the table," Newton recalled. “And Greg stood up and said, in Greg’s way ... he wants to give everybody closure in the huddle that as long as they have Greg Olsen on the team, they’ll be all right.

“They don’t have to worry about the tight end responsibility and if he’s going to be able to make a play or not."

Newton wouldn’t look back at what he lost, but he didn’t hesitate to praise what he has.

“No doubt these guys have been playing great football at times with Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen," he said. “One of them couldn’t do it without the other. They surely couldn’t do it without the other guys doing their roles."

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a moment on Thursday where Cam Newton sounded philosophical.

It came when the Carolina Panthers quarterback was asked about being hesitant to say he wanted to start in Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns, when earlier in the season he was so bold with predictions coming off an injury.

Maybe Newton didn't want to jump the gun on coach Ron Rivera, who had yet to comment on his plans at quarterback. Maybe he didn't want to hurt the feelings of Derek Anderson, who started for him in Sunday's 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay.

Or maybe, as Newton said, he's simply grown up.

"You live and learn," Newton said. "Life is all about growth and so much about football is transferable to life. The person that you started as, you're not the same person. And if you are, shame on you.

"From Week 1 until now I have grown up and there is no need to waste any energy with stressing. I don't need anybody doubting me wanting to play."

For the record, Rivera later said Newton was on target to start. It'll be his first game after suffering two small fractures in his lower back in a two-vehicle crash near Bank of America Stadium last week.

But as Newton has said repeatedly since the wreck, when he plays again doesn't matter.

That's where he's changed.

It's not that Newton doesn't want to play. He probably can't wait to run for a first down and do the move that Anderson imitated so well against the Bucs. Or to score a touchdown and do his trademark "Superman" gesture. But Newton won't be doing any of this simply to prove, in his words, he's "a tough man" as perhaps he would have before.

"Everybody goes through stuff in life where they really open up their lives and go, ‘Man, I'm fortunate to be alive,' " backup quarterback Joe Webb said. "The car crash reminded him life, you can't take it for granted.

"That not only did something for him, it did something for everybody else in here, too. It did something for me. I just saw the man the day before, and in the car crash his life easily could have been taken away."

Rivera said there's been a series of things that have gone on this season that have helped Newton and "us all mature and grow."

"I've gone through a bit of a metamorphosis myself in seeing all the things that we've had to deal with, I've had to deal with," Rivera said, referring to everything from defensive end Greg Hardy's domestic violence case and the backlash from that to Newton's crash.

"This has been a strange year for him. He's never been bumped up, nicked up or injured the way he's gone through this year. He's a tough individual. He's a tough-minded young man. He wants to play every time, get on the field every opportunity he can. He's had to take a couple steps back."

The first came in the opener at Tampa Bay when Newton wasn't happy with Rivera's decision to sit him and give his fractured ribs another week to heal.

Until then, the first pick of the 2011 draft hadn't missed a start. Now he's missed two.

"I agree with him, there are some things that have helped him mature and grow as a person and as a football player," Rivera said.

And you could hear it in Newton's voice on Thursday.

"When I go into that locker room I can go up and down each and every row and ask every person whether they want to play, and they do want to play," Newton said. "I can see it in their eyes and that is what is getting us over this hump the last couple of weeks.

"If I can play, we all know I want to play. But that the end of the day I won't jeopardize what we have the opportunity to do just because of my selfishness to say, ‘Oooh. I'm a tough man.' "
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are fitting running back DeAngelo Williams with a playing cast for his right hand that was fractured three weeks ago in a loss at Minnesota.

Coach Ron Rivera said there is a chance the team’s all-time leading rusher could play on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns after missing the past two games.

Rivera said Williams still hasn’t caught passes, and there is concern with how the hand will impact his ability to block. Williams was listed as limited in Thursday’s practice.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis was a full participant in practice after hyper-extending his left knee in Sunday’s 19-17 victory against Tampa Bay. Rivera said the bigger concern is linebacker A.J. Klein, who was limited in practice with an ankle injury.
METAIRIE, La. -- Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer is still keeping close tabs on the team and has agreed to join me on occasion to share his thoughts.

Stay tuned for his take on the Saints’ recent secondary shakeup and how they’ll match up with the Atlanta Falcons. Here are Greer’s thoughts on the leadership transition the secondary has gone through this season and how it has affected safety Kenny Vaccaro in particular:

“There's a huge transition, because what the men that were removed from that locker room (this past offseason) took was a culture. We had a sense of culture that was instilled during that 2009 championship season that we took long after that season was over. We knew how to hit, we taught everybody else how to tackle, the guys knew how to finish a play, how to intimidate and how to collectively weather the storm on the defensive side of the ball. And when all those guys who have had that culture are now gone, it’s up to the new guys who weren’t a part of that to create a new culture. And I think it’s been a process for them this year. There was a loss of leadership, but I think the biggest loss was the culture of accountability that we had for one another, especially in that secondary.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year safety Kenny Vaccaro was thrust into a leadership role that he may not have been ready for.
“We kept each other highly accountable, because I truly believe that Malcolm Jenkins knew what I was going to do, I knew what Roman Harper was going to do, we knew how to communicate with each other. I knew that on the sideline, if we were losing, Roman was going to be the guy that’s going to just calm us down. Malcolm was going to be the guy I really can’t talk to for a couple quarters. We understood that, and that formula worked for us. That formula worked for Kenny last year. That formula worked for Rafael Bush and Patrick Robinson, Corey White. We understood Corey was going to get in there and make a play, but then he was still young and he was going to make mistakes. We understood that, so we compensated and worked around that. Now all those guys right now are trying to find out who those guys are.

“You have to know your guys. You have to know their tendencies. I know that as soon as Patrick Robinson motions across, I have to make sure I get his attention, because he’s going to be locked in on his receiver. He can cover better than anybody in the league, but I know that when he’s coming across that I have to lock in and over-communicate with him. With Corey, I know he’s going to communicate with me. So it’s little things like that that I think as a secondary, they had a lot of questions to answer. Who was going to be that guy to step up and lead their pregame? Who was going to be that guy to help them weather the storm and really take control of the secondary when everything gets down? Who’s going to be that guy to overly communicate when they’re on the field making adjustments? And I think a lot of that, I think they invested that (newly-signed veteran safety) Jairus Byrd was going to be that guy. But once he got injured, all that sense of responsibility and leadership just got heaped on Kenny Vaccaro in a matter of days.

“Every young player that comes into the league goes through a maturity process, and it really helps when you have an older veteran to help you through that transition -- particularly that plays your position. When I was coming into the league, I had Troy Vincent, I had Nate Clements. Kenny has been thrust into this new leadership role, and there has been no type of transition. It just happened abruptly. Let alone, having the position change that Kenny had from a nickel-hybrid type player to a strictly strong safety. But keep in mind, I don’t question his ability at all. But knowing the psychology of the game, I understand that need for that player in there that has weathered the storm.”

Last stand for Da'Quan Bowers

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
1:52
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- When he came here in 2011, there was hope that Da'Quan Bowers would blossom into one of the league’s best defensive ends.

Now, he is auditioning just to prove he belongs in the NFL. The final two games of the season mark Bowers’ last chance to show something. He will be a free agent after this season, and this is his last chance to convince the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to re-sign him. It’s also a chance to show other teams what he can do.

Bowers
Bowers, who moved from defensive end to defensive tackle this season, probably will get more playing time in the final two games than he has all season. That’s because All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.

The 2-12 Bucs obviously are out of the playoff picture, but they will be watching Bowers closely, because they have to make a decision on whether or not to keep him around.

"You like to see a guy who can be physical at the point of attack," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "We’ll probably get more runs at that position than we have all season because of Gerald not playing. He’ll have an opportunity to show his teammates and his coaches what he’s able to do in an extended period. We saw a little of that last week when Gerald went down early. [Bowers] got in a few more snaps and he found out the importance of conditioning. We need to see if he can pass rush, we need to see him go down in and down out and really do the things we ask him to do in run defense as well. It’s a great opportunity for him. He’ll be able to showcase that he’s capable of being a quality NFL starter."

Once talked about as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, Bowers’ stock slipped because of concerns about his knee. The Bucs took a shot on him in the second round. But Bowers was a non-factor, recording just 5.5 sacks in his first three seasons.

But when coach Lovie Smith arrived this season, the expectations for Bowers weren’t the same as before. Gradually, Bowers was moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he’s handled the transition well.

"It’s a totally different position even though you’re playing on the defensive line," Frazier said. "The blocking schemes are a lot different than when you’re a defensive end. Sometimes there are two people blocking you, with a guard and a tackle versus a tight end or a tackle at defensive end. Based on our needs, he fits the situation. He did a good enough job for us a week ago. We’ve been playing him inside throughout the season. We’ve also had him outside. But, at this point, he’s probably exclusively an inside player for us because of the circumstances."

The circumstances are that Tampa Bay is light on healthy defensive tackles. That means Bowers will get a lot of playing time, and he will have a chance to influence whether the Bucs decide to keep him around.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Derek Anderson didn’t leave Cleveland under the best of terms in 2009. Admittedly frustrated after being cut, he called the fans “ruthless’’ and said they “didn’t deserve a winner.’’

[+] EnlargeDerek Anderson
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsIf Cam Newton can't go, Derek Anderson would love to get the start against the Browns, his former team.
 “I will never forget getting cheered when I was injured,’’ Anderson said at the time. “I know at times I wasn’t great. I hope and pray I’m playing when my team comes to town and [we] roll them.’’

That opportunity could come on Sunday.

The Carolina Panthers still haven’t decided whether starting quarterback Cam Newton will return after suffering two small fractures in his lower back nine days ago in a two-vehicle crash near Bank of America Stadium.

If Newton can’t play, Anderson will get his second straight start and third of the season when Carolina (5-8-1) faces the Browns (7-7) in Charlotte.

Anderson is a realist. He knows Newton’s competitive spirit and that if he continues to progress from what he did in Wednesday’s practice, it will be hard to not start the two-time Pro Bowl selection.

Anderson also makes no secret he’d love to face the Browns, although not because of the things he said five years ago.

“The whole situation and how the whole thing went down in the last few months wasn’t great,” Anderson said on Wednesday. “I said some things I regret saying when I left.

“But it’s over with, I’ve moved on. I’m happy. I wasn’t in a great place when I left. I’m in a lot better place now.”

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen has said repeatedly there are a lot of NFL teams that would love to have Anderson as their starter. He wouldn’t bite when asked if one of those teams is Cleveland.

The Browns haven’t had a consistent quarterback since Anderson was cut. Brian Hoyer was benched last week in favor of first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel, who had a disastrous debut with a passer rating of 27.3 in a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati.

Anderson is 2-0 as a starter this year with a passer rating of 105.2.

“I know it’s been a while since he played there, but I’m sure he would be excited to go show them what he’s capable of these many years later after they kind of showed him the door,” Olsen said. “It’s been kind of a revolving quarterback position there ever since.”

But this game isn’t about revenge for Anderson as much as it is doing whatever he can to keep the Panthers in the playoff hunt. Carolina needs to win its final two games against the Browns and Atlanta, along with a New Orleans loss, to repeat as NFC South champions.

“It’s out of my control,’’ Anderson said of whether he starts or not. “I just have to continue to have a very good understanding of what we’re going to do. If I play, I’ll play and be ready to go.’’

That the opponent is Cleveland does make this intriguing, though. Anderson went to the Pro Bowl with the Browns in 2007 after passing for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns en route to a 10-5 record as the starter.

He was 16-18 as a starter during his five seasons that he described as “up and down, wonderful at times.’’

But Anderson isn’t focused on those times or the bitter feelings he had back then.

“I’ve moved on from it,’’ Anderson said. “I’m focused on us.’’

 
There are times when even NFL players are reminded how football means little in the grand scheme of life.

Atlanta Falcons nose tackle Paul Soliai recently experienced one of those moments.

Soliai
A few weeks back, Soliai received the call he feared would come sooner than later: his father, Rev. Foto Levao, died after suffering a heart attack while at the airport in Samoa.

"He was on his way back to his house in Las Vegas," Soliai said. "They had gone to Samoa for a visit. He had a triple bypass before, so I think he knew it was coming to an end. So he just wanted to go back home to Samoa one more time."

Soliai said his father was 64 when he passed away. Since the funeral was in Samoa, Soliai was away from the team for a week and missed the Arizona game. He returned for the Monday night matchup with the Packers, but came off the bench.

Getting back in a normal football routine might have been difficult at first, but Soliai adjusted.

"I know if my dad was still here, he’d probably tell me to just keep playing," Soliai said. "Since the funeral was back in Samoa, it was nice to see family, because I hardly go back. And my mom is doing good now. She’s back in Vegas. I call her every day just to make sure everything is OK."

Falcons coach Mike Smith expressed sympathy for Soliai through the difficult time.

"That’s a very difficult personal situation that as a coach and as an organization, you have to be supportive, and that’s what we were," Smith said. "For Paul and his family, it’s a situation they had to deal with. We just wanted to support him."

Soliai is refocused on football now. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said Soliai played by far his best game of the season last week against the Steelers. Soliai recorded his first sack of the season to go with a quarterback hit and two tackles in 35 snaps played.

Soliai would be the first to say he hasn’t performed up to his own expectations after signing a five-year, $33 million contract ($14 million guaranteed), but he will try to finish up the season strong. And he will keep his father in his thoughts every step of the way.

"He’s actually my stepfather, but he took care of me since I was 3," Soliai said. "I never called him my stepdad. I never called him by his name. I always called him my dad, because that’s the only person I knew. He was just a good guy."

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