- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
The NFC South might not have the sizzle of the NFC East, but the playoff race in this division is quietly shaping up as a good one. If the Atlanta Falcons are for real, it could be a great one.
Jeff Garcia is back in charge of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense, and the Bucs are tied for the division lead at 4-2. Matt Ryan is pushing for rookie of the year honors in Atlanta, which also stands at 4-2. On Sunday, the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers will battle to see who can keep up in this race, which is turning into a sprint.
Unlike in other divisions this season, home field has meant everything in the NFC South. The Saints beat the Bucs in the Superdome in Week 1. The Bucs handled the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium in Week 6, ending years of home losses to the Panthers. The Panthers had a 20-point home win over the Falcons in Week 4.
That should give the Panthers a big edge Sunday, but you never know. For the Panthers, this game means everything. As expected, Jake Delhomme's return from Tommy John surgery has made Carolina's offense viable again. Coach John Fox has gone back to a basic game of running the ball and playing good defense, spurring the team's 4-2 start.
Not only does Fox try to beat opponents with elusive running back DeAngelo Williams, but he also tries to seal the deal with the more physical and possibly more talented Jonathan Stewart. Both backs are capable of getting 100 yards rushing on any given Sunday.
Fox's biggest challenge this Sunday is stopping the Saints' Drew Brees, the league's hottest quarterback. Brees is on pace to throw for 5,315 yards and 32 touchdowns this season. He's completing 71 percent of his passes. More amazing is that he's maintaining that high level while Marques Colston, David Patten and Jeremy Shockey have been sidelined with injuries.
Brees should have Colston and Shockey back this week, and there is an outside chance Patten could return as well. And if not for missed field goals by Martin Gramatica, the Saints would be 5-1 instead of 3-3.
Fox is thankful right tackle Jeff Otah is back on the field after missing two games because of a mild high-ankle sprain. As much as the Saints' offense is defined by Brees' passing weapons, the Panthers are just as reliant on their big offensive linemen and ability to wear down defenses. That style was disrupted over the past couple of weeks with Otah out and left tackle Jordan Gross missing a game with a concussion.
Fox has had the coaching edge in this series of late. Overall, he's 8-4 against the Saints, and he's won four of the past five games against them. Sean Payton is 1-3 against the Panthers. His concern is a defense that ranks 19th and is burdened by injuries.
His ace in the hole, though, is Brees, who doesn't fear being on the road against the Panthers. In his past two starts in Carolina, Brees has completed 70.3 percent of his passes for 609 yards and four touchdowns.
Something has to give Sunday.
1. San Diego Chargers at Buffalo Bills: Welcome to the scenic portion of the Chargers' schedule. Let's see LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers can take their cameras over to Niagara Falls this weekend. And once they finish up the game, the Chargers head to London for an international experience against the Saints. San Diego turned around its season by pounding the Patriots 30-10 in Week 6 to move within a game of the Broncos in the AFC West. Slowly but surely, Tomlinson is fighting through the pain of his toe injury and is trying to get back to full speed. The defense finally is playing with fire.
The Bills are well-rested from their bye week, which came at a perfect time for QB Trent Edwards. He suffered a concussion in Week 5 but is fine now. The Chargers would like to test him a few times with some well-timed blitzes.
2. Indianapolis Colts at Green Bay Packers: Peyton Manning finally is feeling right again. It's been a tough year for him. He admitted this week that he had a second surgery on his left knee in August and said he didn't want to reveal it earlier, having feared the Bears would take shots at him during the season opener. But in blowing out the Ravens in Week 6, Manning proved he's back in sync with his receivers.
Now, he must make another adjustment, with halfback Joseph Addai out two to four weeks because of a hamstring tear. Fortunately for Manning, Dominic Rhodes is there, but the team can't afford to have Rhodes go down. The stretch play is the key to the Colts' offense because Manning works his play-action passes off the threat of the stretch play. As long as Rhodes can run those plays successfully, Manning can run the complete Indianapolis offense. That wasn't happening early in the season because of offensive line injuries.
3. Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: Technically, the Bears are tied for the NFC North lead with the Vikings and the Packers at 3-3. Kyle Orton has done better than expected as the starting quarterback, but the Bears remain the most baffling team in the division. Just when it appeared they were going to make a playoff push, they went to Atlanta in Week 6 and made Matt Ryan look like Peyton Manning.
Vikings coach Brad Childress continues to take criticism from Vikings fans, but he's 3-1 since promoting Gus Frerotte to starting quarterback. The interesting matchup in this game is how the Bears will try to stop former Chicago receiver Bernard Berrian. In the past couple of weeks, Berrian has become the deep threat the Vikings paid $7 million a year to obtain, and Frerotte, who has a strong arm, has been getting him the ball.
4. Denver Broncos at New England Patriots: This is a scary game for coach Bill Belichick and Patriots fans. The Broncos have a potent offense, thanks to QB Jay Cutler, that can put up 30 or 40 points. It's pretty clear Matt Cassel, Tom Brady's replacement, can't get into a shootout, because he doesn't have the ability to connect on long passes. In Week 6, he was 1-for-8 on throws longer than 10 yards. He should look better Monday because the Broncos have one of the weakest defenses in the league. One of the other concerns for the Patriots is halfback Laurence Maroney, who developed a mysterious shoulder injury last week and is questionable for this game.
5. N.Y. Jets at Oakland Raiders: On display in this game will be two of the strongest arms in football -- Brett Favre of the Jets and JaMarcus Russell of the Raiders. It took Jets coach Eric Mangini a couple of games to trust Favre's gunslinger style, but he's letting Favre throw the ball downfield more.
That's not the case with Russell. In Week 6, interim coach Tom Cable went against the coaching style of the fired Lane Kiffin and wanted to see what Russell could do in the passing game. Russell failed miserably in a 31-point loss to the Saints. He threw 35 passes but completed only 13. Part of the problem is the Raiders' receivers. They lack the ability to get separation from cornerbacks. They also drop too many passes. To be competitive in this game, the Raiders have to go back to the ball-control running offense.
6. Cleveland Browns at Washington Redskins: Week 6 was a learning experience for both teams. The Redskins learned not to take a bad team like the Rams for granted. The Browns learned during their Monday night win over the Giants that they can play at a high level. Browns QB Derek Anderson looked great. He moved the ball well and mixed in some long passes. Braylon Edwards focused on making big catches and didn't drop the ball. The question for Sunday is which teams will show up. The Redskins won't take anything for granted. Coach Jim Zorn will make Washington think it is playing the 10-win Browns of last season, not the current 2-3 version.
7. Seattle Seahawks at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Mike Holmgren era isn't ending as planned. At 1-4 and with Matt Hasselbeck visiting back specialists instead of starting at quarterback, it's going to be hard for the Seahawks to get back in the NFC West race. A loss here could seal the deal on the team's season.
The Bucs have reestablished themselves as playoff contenders now that Jeff Garcia has returned as the starting quarterback. The defense is playing well. Coach Jon Gruden has depth at running back. And the hidden gem on this team is the offensive line, which has been rebuilt over the past couple of years.
Seneca Wallace probably is going to start at quarterback for Seattle despite a pulled calf muscle. If Wallace can't go, Holmgren will go back to Charlie Frye, who struggled in Week 6. The Seahawks were blown out on East Coast trips earlier this season in Buffalo and at the Giants. This could be another one.
8. Dallas Cowboys at St. Louis Rams: What a week for the Cowboys. They lost Tony Romo, Mat McBriar, Sam Hurd, Felix Jones and maybe Kevin Burnett to injuries -- stemming from Sunday's loss to the Cardinals. Adam "Pacman" Jones got suspended indefinitely. Jerry Jones traded for wide receiver Roy Williams just when safety Roy Williams was coming back to the lineup. Don't you wish HBO had a regular-season version of "Hard Knocks" just to keep everyone updated? Who will start at quarterback for Dallas, Brad Johnson or Tony Romo and his injured pinkie? Oh, and by the way, the Rams will be on the field, too.
9. San Francisco 49ers at N.Y. Giants: This is the fourth of four games in which East and West coast teams are crossing the country to play each other. So far, no West Coast team has won on the East Coast, which probably doesn't offer much hope for the 49ers. The Giants have to feel embarrassed by their Monday night loss to the Browns. Eli Manning went back to making mistakes, something he got away from late last season. When the Giants fell behind, they couldn't use their power running attack. Coach Tom Coughlin has the attention of all the players this week as the Giants try to bounce back. As other teams have done, the Giants will try to turn J.T. O'Sullivan mistakes into defensive scores.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: If you think there has been a frenzy on Wall Street, check out what's going on here. At 0-6, Bengals fans are sellers. The well-traveling Steelers fans, pleased with their 4-1 start, are buyers, and they might be able to buy tickets from Bengals fans at discount prices. So the Bengals probably can forget about having a legitimate home-field advantage as they try to pull off the upset.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Home field has been huge in the NFC South. But don't assume the Panthers will roll over the Saints on Sunday. Thanks to the red-hot Drew Brees, New Orleans can never be counted out, writes John Clayton.