Panthers activate DE Frank Alexander

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers activated defensive end Frank Alexander to the 53-man roster on Monday and placed wide receiver De'Andre Presley on injured reserve.

Presley suffered a concussion in Sunday's 17-13 victory over Cleveland.

Alexander was suspended for the first 14 games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy on two separate occasions. The second suspension, 10 games, ended last Monday and the Panthers (6-8-1) had seven days to activate him.

Alexander has played in 28 games with six starts. He has 3.5 sacks, five passes defensed and three fumble recoveries. Coach Ron Rivera's most valuable player in training camp, the fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2012 is considered one of Carolina's most versatile ends.

Ron Rivera becoming Mr. December

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
CHARLOTTE, N .C. – Sometime during Ron Rivera’s first season as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers there was a message that continues to pay off four years later.

“Hey, this is a time – it doesn’t matter where we are right now – this is a time we’ve got to get used to winning in December because that’s what you’re going to have to do to get into the postseason,’’ offensive coordinator Mike Shula recalled of Rivera’s speech in 2011.

The Panthers were 3-1 in December that season. They are 14-3 in December overall under Rivera, which is tied with Seattle for the second-best record in the NFL behind the New England Patriots at 16-2.

They have won six straight in December with their current 3-0 win streak that continued with Sunday’s 17-13 victory over Cleveland.

The late-season resolve hasn’t always turned into a playoff berth, but it has kept the Panthers (6-8-1) in position for one this season in the down NFC South. A win over Atlanta (6-9) on Sunday at the Georgia Dome would make them the first repeat winner of the division.

“It’s the resolve of our players,’’ Shula said. “It’s kind of been consistent with some of our games. It might not always work at first. You might get frustrated for whatever reason.

“Just keep playing, believe that you’re going to get it done and guys have done that.’’

Rivera says a lot of the December success goes back to the way players continue to do the little things that matter regardless of the record. He reminded that there’ll be 15 or so players staying after practice on their own now just as there were early in the season.

“Probably the one thing I wish is we could be better in the month of October or late September, that’s for sure,’’ Rivera said with a smile. “But I think a lot of it has to do with things that we do at the end of the year with our players and our players doing the extra time that they put in, I think helps them. Along the line there’s probably something we can learn from what we do in December."

Some credit has to go to the coaching staff. Last season, Rivera became more aggressive with his fourth-down decisions after a 1-3 start. That in part led to an eight-game winning streak.

The late-game offensive play-calling has been more aggressive late this season, particularly in the last two games, after a conservative approach contributed to a 19-17 loss to Atlanta in Week 11.

“I think we get better and more comfortable as a team,’’ Rivera said. “Understanding and learning, especially this year, how young this football team was.’’

The December hot streak isn’t totally new for Carolina under Rivera. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Panthers have the best December win percentage of any NFC team since 2002.

Carolina is 38-18 (.679), followed by Green Bay at 36-18 (.667), Philadelphia 37-19 (.661) and Seattle 34-22 (.607).

The Panthers weren’t horrible in their previous four seasons under John Fox. Including a 1-3 finish in Fox’s last season (2010), they were 10-7.

But Carolina definitely has taken winning in December to a new level under Rivera.

“I hope we get to 15,’’ Shula said of the December win total it would take to make the playoffs. “It’s become something [where] guys believe it might not always start the way you need to, just keep going.’’
METAIRIE, La. -- The first big decision facing the New Orleans Saints when their offseason begins next week is whether to make any coaching-staff changes -- most importantly, whether to stick with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

As they have all season, Saints players continued to offer strong support for Ryan in the locker room Monday. Safety Kenny Vaccaro didn't even just say he wants Ryan to be back; he insisted he will be.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Bill Haber/AP PhotoDespite the Saints' defense falling near the bottom of the league in several key categories, players are supportive of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
"Rob will be here," Vaccaro said twice in response to questions about Ryan. "Rob's my guy. I love Rob. I'll fight for Rob every game. I'm a Rob guy, so there's no point even asking me about Rob. He'll ride with me until the end. Year 17, he'll come get me off my couch and say, 'Come play with me.'"

Cornerback Keenan Lewis agreed.

"I want him back. I'm gonna ride with him, no matter what the situation is. A great coordinator," Lewis said. "You can't just blame him when things go wrong. I don't think none of the blame should go to the coaches at all. We're the ones out there playing. We've gotta find a way to get it stopped.

"You know, I've played for two good coordinators. I was fortunate playing for Coach LeBeau [Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh], and I had an opportunity to play for Coach Rob, and I definitely feel as though he should be back."

When asked if players feel the need to convey their support for Ryan to the decision-makers, defensive end Tyrunn Walker said, "I think they know what they got. I think they know that he's a great coach and a great mentor."

Other veterans such as Curtis Lofton, Junior Galette, Parys Haralson and David Hawthorne, who have played with multiple defensive coordinators, have also passionately sung Ryan's praises in recent weeks.

So did head coach Sean Payton a few weeks ago when reports surfaced about an alleged rift in their relationship -- going above and beyond in crediting Ryan's passion and work ethic and even offering the ultimate compliment that he could've worked for Payton's mentor, Bill Parcells.

But the ultimate question is whether Payton can accept the lack of production he saw on the field from the Saints' defense. They're ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed (390.9 per game). They're tied for 28th in takeaways (16). And the Saints are by far the worst-ranked defense according to ESPN Stats & Information's defensive efficiency formula, accounting for negative-8.6 expected points added per game. That's worse than 2012, when the Saints were negative-7.0. And Payton fired coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after one year.

There were a few big differences that season, though. For one, Spagnuolo never actually worked for Payton, since Payton was serving a season-long suspension. But the bigger difference is Spagnuolo didn't have nearly the kind of "buy-in" from players in his system that Ryan has.

Plus, Ryan did get results from many of these same players in 2013 before this year's collapse.

A lot of the Saints' offseason decisions will depend heavily on how much they believe in the potential of 2013 vs. the regression of 2014.

Payton, however, wasn't interested in looking at any of those big-picture decisions on Monday with one week still remaining in the regular season and a game coming Sunday at Tampa Bay.

"We'll have a chance to look over every element, as far as from playing to coaching to who's in the building [next week]," Payton said. "All of those things, like we would every year."
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and his players talked about wanting to “finish the season the right way” next week at Tampa Bay.

And perhaps pride will inspire them a bit as they get one last chance to release the frustrations of this crushing 6-9 season.

But the more important motivator will be what offensive tackle Zach Strief talked about Sunday: auditioning for the future.

[+] EnlargeBen Grubbs
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe woes of the offensive line contributed to the Saints' falling out of the playoff race on Sunday.
This is the kind of season that demands change in the offseason. Payton talked a couple of weeks ago about the importance of finding out “who your guys are.” And he again stressed after Sunday’s 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that when the Saints review this season, they’ll take a close look at what they’re doing -- and who they’re asking to do it.

“When you’re 6-9, everybody’s job is on the line. That’s the reality of the business,” Strief said. “People are not going to be here, especially here, where there’s an expectation of winning. There’s going to be changes made, and you know that leaving the season, so there’s a lot to play for.”

Who, exactly, is on the hot seat is tougher to predict than ever heading into this offseason.

On one hand, the Saints veered so far off the track this year that all options should be on the table.

On the other hand, this team was built to win now with quarterback Drew Brees turning 36 next month. The Saints have invested heavily in several core players still in their primes (a lot of which I agreed with when I broke down their 2014 offseason moves last week). And there were a lot of folks suggesting New Orleans had the most talented roster in franchise history heading into this season.

So not only do the Saints need to decide whether a major overhaul is realistic with their salary-cap constraints, but they first need to decide whether it’s even necessary.

The first big decision will be the fate of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints’ defense was awful for much of this season. But Payton strongly defended Ryan’s passion and work ethic a few weeks ago. And the defense showed signs of life over these past two weeks.

What the Saints do with Ryan might be the best indicator of whether they believe more in the potential this defense showed in 2013 or the implosion we saw in 2014.

It’s even harder to believe that Payton will pin the blame for this year’s failings on the longtime assistant coaches whom he’s trusted through thick and thin (Joe Vitt, Pete Carmichael, Greg McMahon, et al). The Saints’ kick-return game was stagnant this year, but that was the only area that provided a spark during Sunday’s loss to the Falcons, thanks to a 99-yard return on the opening kickoff.

As for players, I’ve already written about some of the escalating salaries that jump off the page (Marques Colston $7 million in salary and bonuses in 2015, Brodrick Bunkley and David Hawthorne $4.5 million each, Jahri Evans $7.5 million, Ben Grubbs $6.6 million).

The offensive line has to be first on the priority list because we’ve seen regression there from older, expensive players like guards Evans and Grubbs -- but we haven’t seen a backup plan develop yet.

The Saints also have several decisions to make at a cornerback position that was a revolving door all year outside of top guy Keenan Lewis. They also need to get younger at receiver and linebacker -- not to mention deciding how much to invest on a possible successor for Brees in the draft.

The 2015 offseason might be the toughest one we’ve seen yet in the Payton-Brees era.

At least they’re getting a head start.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera repeatedly defended his late-game strategy in the days following a 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 11.

He insisted the conservative strategy to run three times against a stacked defense after quarterback Cam Newton had completed six of his last seven pass attempts for 136 yards and two touchdowns was the right one.

He argued that had Carolina thrown an interception or fumbled, or even an incompletion to stop the clock, he would have been crucified for that. He said the only mistake was that Graham Gano’s 46-yard field goal was wide left, even though the Falcons would have had 1:22 to get in position for a potential game-winning kick.

Perhaps Rivera was caught up in the euphoria of winning two replay challenges in Sunday’s 17-13 victory over Cleveland to set up a rematch with the Falcons for the NFC South title. But upon further review the fourth-year Carolina coach seemingly admitted his conservative approach was a mistake.

His play calling late against the Browns certainly hinted strongly at it.

Faced with second-and-9 from their own 21-yard line with 2:44 remaining, the Panthers (6-8-1) let Newton throw a pass to tight end Ed Dickson that went for 34 yards.

That first down forced the Browns to use their final two timeouts before a 30-yard run by Jonathan Stewart on third-and-5 sealed it.

"You have to be [aggressive]," Rivera said. "Lessons learned. I’m not going to kid myself about that. We could have run it. But again, one of the things we do and do best is when we keep that run-pass, quarterback-keep option alive. I think it creates more things and we’ll continue to do as we go forward."

The Panthers took a similar approach the previous week. Nursing a 19-17 lead against Tampa Bay, quarterback Derek Anderson threw a 12-yard pass to Kelvin Benjamin. Two plays later, the Panthers came back with a 10-yard pass to Benjamin.

They ultimately ran the clock down to 29 seconds before punting.

Perhaps the end of the first Atlanta game was similar to the "Riverboat Ron" moment Rivera had in Week 2 last season. In case you forgot, he settled for a field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 deep in Buffalo territory with a chance to run out the clock.

The Bills scored a touchdown in the final seconds for a 24-23 victory.

Carolina players liked the aggressive attitude Rivera had on fourth down the remainder of a 12-4 season. They appeared to like the late-game aggressive attitude shown on Sunday that has them needing a win or tie against the Falcons (6-9) to win the division.

"That last drive, not being able to close and then we missed a field goal," tight end Greg Olsen lamented of the first Atlanta loss. "Then we got it back and got a field goal blocked. So that was kind of a bad loss.

“I think guys are excited to try to redeem ourselves from that one.”

Upon further review, they have that chance because of a lesson learned.
The quad injury suffered by Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson during Sunday's 30-14 against the Saints is not believed to be serious, and Jackson should be back in the lineup for next week's NFC South showdown against Carolina.

Jackson was injured in the second quarter and ruled out early in the third quarter. He had four rushes for 9 yards, and caught a pass for 14 yards before exiting. He played 11 snaps.

Jackson's injury did allow rookie Devonta Freeman to get more touches. Freeman, who played 24 snaps, responded with a 31-yard touchdown sprint in the third quarter that gave the Falcons a 20-7 lead. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter also showed a new wrinkle in splitting Freeman out wide as a receiver, which resulted in Freeman's 36-yard reception that helped set up Matt Bryant's 44-yard field goal.

The Falcons certainly want to incorporate Freeman into the offense, but Jackson's role as a physical tone-setter continues to be an important part of the game plan. He's also a veteran leader who has no issue with sharing the load with Jacquizz Rodgers and Freeman.

In other injury news, safety William Moore is expected to get an MRI on Monday after injuring his shoulder in the game and not returning. It appeared to be the same right shoulder Moore separated in Week 4 at Minnesota, an injury that kept him sidelined for seven games. Moore entered Sunday's game already dealing with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot. He played 41 snaps against the Saints before suffering the injury.

Cornerback Josh Wilson (hamstring) and safety Dwight Lowery (shoulder) also were banged up in the game, although Lowery returned. Javier Arenas played a season-high 30 snaps with Wilson sidelined.

Falcons coach Mike Smith didn't have many details to share about the injured players.

"Everybody's dealing with injuries this time of the season," Smith said. "Unfortunately, we had a couple of guys that left the game. ... We will continue to go through our preparations and hopefully get all the guys that are healthy out on the field."

Smith could provide an injury update during his news conference at 2:30 p.m. today.
NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees wasn't good enough when it mattered most.

Neither was Jimmy Graham. And neither was the New Orleans Saints' offensive line.

The Saints' offense hasn't been their biggest problem throughout this entire wayward season. But it needed to be the solution, led by franchise players such as Brees and Graham. Instead, they came up small Sunday in the biggest game of the season to date -- a 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that eliminated them from playoff contention.

The Saints (6-9) had a total of 78 yards in the first half against a Falcons defense that came into the game ranked 32nd in the NFL in yards allowed.

Then they rallied, only to turn the ball over three times in the fourth quarter, including a controversial fumble by Graham and a killer interception by Brees with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by just six points.

"It's about as bad a feeling as you could ever have as a quarterback," Brees flatly admitted when asked about that pick, which followed a disturbing season-long trend.

Brees has been very good at times this season. He's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and a 69.6 completion percentage -- good for seventh in NFL history. But those game-killing turnovers have crept up time and again, usually when he's trying to force things in close games.

"Yeah, that's been frustrating and disappointing," said Brees, who now has 14 interceptions and three lost fumbles, including one on a sack on the final play Sunday that was returned 86 yards for an exclamation-point touchdown by the Falcons.

"We could very easily look back and say there were many, many games where we had chances in the end, and we were not able to capitalize," Brees said. "And I'd say in every season, the difference between you being a 12-4, 11-5 team and a team that's just middle of the pack, 8-8, is just so fine. It's that fine line, 'Did you win some of those close games or did you lose them?'

"Fortunately, in the past, I feel like we've won a lot of those games. Unfortunately, this year we have not."

The Saints' sluggish start was just as disturbing as the finish Sunday.

New Orleans was gifted a quick 7-0 lead when Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram. But then the offense started sleepwalking for the better part of three quarters.

As coach Sean Payton pointed out afterward, that was especially disappointing, as the Saints' defense stepped up and played fairly well.

"We thought it was going to be a high-scoring matchup, but it ended up being different, and we weren't able to make enough plays on offense," Payton said.

Brees wound up sacked a stunning five times by a Falcons defense that had also ranked last in the NFL in sacks heading into Sunday. That was a season-high for both teams.

The Saints' run game went nowhere all day (15 carries for 45 yards by the running backs). Brees couldn't connect with Graham, whose performance was every bit as disappointing.

Graham, who did not appear in the locker room for interviews, caught just one pass for three yards through three quarters, despite being targeted five times. And his fumble -- even if it did occur after he crossed the goal line -- was still a fumble.

We are used to seeing Graham look like a man among boys and outmuscle defenders for tough catches (as he did on his too-little, too-late touchdown in the fourth quarter).

It's hard to say whether Graham's early-season shoulder injury is still bugging him, given he was still playing at a high level for a while after he got hurt. But the Saints need more from him than what they've gotten over the past month.

Brees, who turns 36 next month, was asked if getting older makes him wonder if he's running out of chances to win more Super Bowls.

"Well, I think that's stating the obvious. I'm not getting younger -- none of us are," Brees said. "But I'm not thinking about anything other than the opportunity that's right before you from season to season. I feel like all of the pieces are in place here to do that."

That statement seems a bit optimistic after the way this season just unfolded. But for the Saints to have any chance of that coming true, they'll need to rely most on Brees and Graham to be their two biggest game-changing weapons.

They'll need more than what they got Sunday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scrambled for four yards on the second play of Sunday's 17-13 victory over Cleveland. He went 15 yards off right tackle on the third play off the read-option.

If you were wondering about his back, which was fractured in two places 12 days earlier when he was involved in a two-vehicle crash on the way to Bank of America Stadium, that answered your question.

He's fine.

"I was just trying to take what the defense gave me with the scramble and the read," Newton said. "And I tried to get down as much as possible."

The getting down part was perhaps the scariest. Known more for his head-first drives at the end of runs, Newton has spent time recently practicing the slide.

Judging by the awkward way he went down at the end of his first couple of runs, he needs more work.

And when Newton needed the extra yards, as he did on a third-and-10 scramble on which he gained 11, he still went head first.

While it wasn't graceful, his play was inspiring to teammates.

"He played with his heart on his sleeve," running back Jonathan Stewart said.

Newton and Stewart connected for the winning touchdown with 7:07 remaining. Newton scrambled to keep the play alive, then found Stewart wide open in the end zone for the 9-yard catch.

That Newton kept his focus downfield looking for a receiver instead of running for whatever he could was perhaps the best thing he did all day.

"He created an opportunity for us," coach Ron Rivera said.

That's why Rivera went with Newton and his back injury over a fully healthy Derek Anderson, who led Carolina to a 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay a week earlier. Newton's ability to run -- he had 63 yards on 12 carries -- brings an added dimension to the offense.

But it was Newton's heart, not his legs, which most were talking about afterwards.

"For a guy to have a broken back, basically, and run around and do the things he did ... it's amazing," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "But nothing he does any more surprises me."

Rivera said Newton's effort "speaks to who he is and his toughness."

"But also what he means to his teammates," Rivera said. "Just the fact that every day he came out -- Wednesday, Thursday, Friday -- and the way his teammates rallied around him and worked with him, that was extraordinary."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Bob Leverone/AP PhotoQuarterback Cam Newton returned to his starting role Sunday, leading the Panthers to a 17-13 win against the Browns.
Twelve days ago, Newton felt lucky to be alive. He was in a nearby hospital with visions of his 1998 pickup truck, on its side with the roof smashed in, fresh in his mind.

Newton called the time since then "somewhat tiring" because of all he had to do in terms of rehabilitation and extra work to come back.

"I can remember family members and loved ones at the hospital and they would not turn [the TV] to ESPN," Newton recalled of the hours after the crash. "They would not turn to any news channel. I was like, 'Do people know?'

"Then I saw the [news] helicopter. It was like, 'OK, it's a big deal.'"

Newton's ordeal was big when it happened. It was big this week when questions arose about him coming back.

The two early runs let the world, and perhaps Newton, know everything was all right.

"I'm on a [pedestal] each and every day whether I want to be or not," Newton said. "So whether I do good things, people are going to be affected and I just want to use mine in a positive light to encourage the next person.

"Whether a child, a male, female, what have you, that's what we are on this earth for -- to make people better."

Newton made the Panthers better on this day. Beyond his running, he completed 18 of 31 pass attempts for 201 yards and a touchdown.

"He was the Cam Newton that we know," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "That's just a testament to him. Cam's a tough, tough guy. Hat's off to him."
TAMPA, Fla. – All season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been downplaying the fact they don’t have an offensive coordinator.

But after Sunday’s 20-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers, quarterback Josh McCown admitted the lack of a coordinator has been detrimental. The Bucs managed only 109 yards of offense and didn’t get near the end zone.

“There are no excuses," McCown said. “But there’s a reason why 31 other teams have an offensive coordinator. It does matter. It does make a difference. We’ve done the best we could to pull ourselves out of it. Everybody has fought and fought hard, but we just haven’t been good enough to get ourselves out of it."

It’s refreshing that someone finally has spoken out about the coordinator situation. Tampa Bay’s offense has appeared to be in disarray most of the season. It’s no coincidence that Jeff Tedford, who was hired to be the offensive coordinator, has been missing. Tedford had heart surgery at the end of the preseason.

He took a leave of absence and eventually he and the Bucs agreed to part ways in early December. Tedford since has taken a job as a head coach in the Canadian Football League. Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo has called the plays all season with input from the rest of the offensive staff.

“It’s not an excuse, but we lost a coordinator at the start of the season," McCown said. “We’ve fought all through that for 16 weeks now. Just that, in and of itself, can help a team. Just an extra guy working with those guys. We don’t make excuses, but there are things we can point to and say just that alone may help us improve."

Coach Lovie Smith didn’t want to talk about Tedford, saying he was ready to return to coaching two months ago.

“I’m not even going to go down that road anymore," Smith said. “We need help on the offensive side. We have needed help for a while. I’m not talking about coaching; I’m just talking about our play overall."
NEW ORLEANS -- It was crazy to think the Atlanta Falcons could rely on the defense in a must-win game on the road against a quarterback the caliber of Drew Brees.

Then something unexpected happened Sunday. The Falcons found a way to generate a consistent pass rush. They came up with key third-down stops. They made coming up with turnovers look routine in their 30-14 win.

Yes, the league's worst defense in terms of total yards allowed helped the 6-9 Falcons sweep their nemesis, the New Orleans Saints (6-9), and pave the way for what would be an improbable NFC South title with a win over first-place Carolina (6-8-1) next Sunday. The Falcons could become the first NFL team to go undefeated in their division despite having a losing record.

[+] EnlargeKemal Ishmael
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisKemal Ishmael, left, kept Atlanta in control in the fourth quarter by stripping the ball from Jimmy Graham at the goal line.
"That was huge," quarterback Matt Ryan said of the defensive effort. "Our defense played an unbelievable game going against Drew Brees, who's a great quarterback and capable of making plays at any time. But I'm so proud of the effort they gave and the way they executed out there. They were the reason we got it done today."

The Falcons intercepted Brees twice and sacked him five times -- their most sacks in a game this season. They also forced two fumbles, including a jaw-dropping strip and recovery by safety Kemal Ishmael that changed the complexion of the game.

On the fourth-quarter play, Ishmael and rookie safety Dez Southward stood up Saints tight end Jimmy Graham near the goal line after Graham snagged a 12-yard catch. But Ishmael never gave up on the play until he came up with the ball. It kept the Saints, who were trailing 20-7, from coming up with a quick score to start the quarter.

"There was no doubt in my mind it was a fumble," Ishmael said. "It felt good, man. Coach talked about going into this week playing with no regrets; put everything on the line."

The officials reviewed the play, and the ruling was upheld. Referee John Parry explained the call in a pool report.

"We spent the full 60 seconds, and we looked at every [replay] angle," Parry said. "We primarily focused on the angle that was -- I wouldn't say exactly -- but was pretty close to being down on the goal line to try to determine if it was either a score and/or a catch-fumble recovery by Atlanta. There was nothing clear and indisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field. If we would have ruled score, it probably would have stayed a score. If we ruled catch-fumble, recovered Atlanta, nothing enough to change it."

Cornerback Robert McClain made the other key defensive stop in the fourth quarter when he intercepted a Brees pass intended for Nick Toon with 2:35 left and the Falcons clinging to a 20-14 lead. It helped set up Matt Bryant's 32-yard field goal that gave the Falcons just enough breathing space.

"It was about time for me to make a play because I had been around the ball the entire game," McClain said. "Brees, he's going to pick his poison out there. I just felt like I was able to break underneath the receiver and make a play on the ball. I was just happy Brees threw the ball where I was able to catch it."

The Falcons also shut down Saints running back Mark Ingram, holding him to 38 rushing yards on 13 carries. They limited Graham to six catches for 53 yards, although he scored one touchdown. Defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux (sack), Corey Peters (sack), Ra'Shede Hageman (sack, tackle for loss), and Osi Umenyiora (86-yard touchdown off fumble recovery) all made big plays.

The Falcons even survived a slew of injuries on defense, including a shoulder injury that knocked strong safety William Moore from the game and a hamstring pull that shelved nickelback Josh Wilson. Free safety Dwight Lowery exited with a shoulder injury, too, but returned and even had a sack.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan rotated a lot of bodies and kept intense pressure on Brees, which was something he didn't do when the teams met in the season opener.

"We think that we are playing with a lot more consistency," head coach Mike Smith said. "We are playing with a lot of confidence. I believe that we are attacking much better over the last two weeks in terms of defending the run. That, in turn, allows us to transfer into our pass rush. I think that we have done a very good job. The coaching staff put together a very good plan. Mike [Nolan] and his staff did a great job."

Now, the Falcons have to find a way to sustain that defensive effort as they approach their most important game of the season. It's win or go home against the Panthers next Sunday.

Yes, the Falcons already are in the midst of their playoffs.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They've won only six games -- at least three less than any other division leader. Their quarterback is playing with two broken bones in his back, which he suffered in a scary automobile accident 12 days ago. One of their best defensive players has been at home since before the third game, while awaiting a 2015 trial for domestic violence.

Yet come Sunday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) will play the Falcons (6-9) for the NFC South title and a home playoff game.

"Like I said a few weeks ago, it'll make for a nice made-for-TV movie if we go ahead all the way through to the big dance," fullback Mike Tolbert said after Sunday's 17-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns gave Carolina three straight wins and the division lead.

"It's going to be fun to see what happens."

Yes, Tolbert was referring to the Super Bowl.

It sounds crazy to mention Panthers and anything "super" in the same breath. This is a team that four weeks ago was given up for dead at 3-8-1. Tight end Greg Olsen admitted after a 31-13 loss at Minnesota, "Right now, we're not very good."

The Panthers still aren't very good. Sunday's win was perhaps uglier than the 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay the previous week. But at least now they're making the plays to win instead of to lose.

"When you don't play well, you deserve to lose," Olsen said in reference to his Nov. 30 comments. "It's very frustrating to play below what your expectations are. At that point and time, we weren't very good. We were playing like a bad team. Now we're playing like a better team. It's funny: When you play better, you win."

The Panthers still are doing bad things. They failed to score once again in the red zone on their second possession, after first-and-goal at the Cleveland 5. Quarterback Cam Newton had a bad interception when he should have thrown the ball away.

The defense gave up an 81-yard touchdown catch -- to a tight end -- because players didn't rotate quickly enough. Cornerback Josh Norman fumbled after making a spectacular interception that kept the Browns in the game.

Special teams continue to have breakdowns in terms of penalties and lengthy kick returns.

But the Panthers also are doing good things. The offense produced 209 yards rushing, for the second time in three games it has surpassed 200 yards. It has averaged 194.7 yards rushing the past four games.

The defense is giving up only an average of 13.3 points the past three games. Cleveland gained only 228 total yards, and 81 of that came on the busted play.

"You just have to win the day," Newton said after he completed 18 of 31 pass attempts for 201 yards and a touchdown and rushed 12 times for 63 yards and a touchdown. "You can't look back at what you've done. You can't look forward at what's up ahead. You just have to seize each and every moment. Carpe diem."

Again, it's not pretty. Newton admitted, "We didn't put a lot of great things out there at times."

But it is winning football, and it is similar to what the Panthers did a year ago, when the record was much prettier at 12-4.

"I'm not going to put an adjective on it," Tolbert said. "A win is a win."

The Panthers are one win from going to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.

"It's definitely not how we planned it, but it's what we're working toward," coach Ron Rivera said. "In spite of the things we have gone through, the situations and certain things we have been in, we have put ourselves in position. It all comes down to one game, and that is all we can ask for."
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons eliminated them from playoff contention:

'Feels like a funeral': The mood in the Saints' locker room was gloomy. Outside linebacker Junior Galette said he couldn't describe how he felt because he had never experienced this. Although the Saints had been up and down all season, Galette said he didn't see another disappointment coming Sunday.

"It sucks. We lost. Terrible year," Galette said. "I thought we'd be happy in the locker room right now, celebrating. Instead it feels like a funeral in here."

Offensive tackle Zach Strief said this loss didn't come down to a lack of energy like others the Saints had harped on before. But he said the execution clearly wasn't good enough.

And coach Sean Payton said the loss wasn't a head-scratcher. He said that once again, the Saints didn't consistently do the things they need to win -- although he pointed out it was a little different in that the defense played well for the most part and the offense wasn't good enough.

Falcons get last word: That funeral analogy was popular because Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis kicked off the week by saying he was hoping this game would become Atlanta's funeral. Those words obviously had an impact on the Falcons. Receiver Roddy White drew a personal foul by grabbing Lewis' face mask at one point, and after the game, White and Harry Douglas threw a few more jabs Lewis' way.

Lewis conceded afterward, saying, "They hate us, we hate them, but hats off to those guys. They came out here and fought. And they deserve to move on."

Brees on interception: Drew Brees said his interception with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by six was "about as bad a feeling as you can ever have as a quarterback."

Brees has had that feeling too many times this season. He has been very good at times, but his turnovers (14 picks, three lost fumbles) have killed the Saints in too many of these close games, which he called "frustrating and disappointing." Stay tuned for more on Brees and the offense.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Last January, when he was hired to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lovie Smith shared one of his most basic philosophies of football. He said if you play strong defense and are solid on special teams, you basically are starting out with an 8-8 record.

It sounded good at the time, but Sunday's 20-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Raymond James Stadium ran roughshod over Smith's theory.

The Bucs (2-13) played good defense -- like they've done for a good chunk of the season -- and still didn't stand a chance. Even Smith was adjusting his philosophy after the game.

"This just goes to prove you need more than an OK defense," Smith said. "Defensively, when it's a day like that, you've got to do something and try to jump start the offense. A few more takeaways or something with the special teams. When one part is that bad, you need others to step up their game even more."

Against Aaron Rodgers and a high-powered offense, the Bucs held the Packers to 10 points in the first three quarters.

"[The defense] kept us in it," Smith said. "It was a 10-3 game for a long period of time with very little offensive production. This is where we are right now. We're not always going to be down like this."

Smith's optimism is nice. But there is little basis for it from an offensive perspective. And, despite Smith's philosophy, it takes a lot more than good defense.

"To see the defense play the way they played, it's frustrating," quarterback Josh McCown said. "We have to be better than that."

It's hard to be any worse than the Bucs were on offense. They went three-and-out on their first five offensive possessions. They finished with just 109 yards of total offense. They were 4-for-14 (29 percent) on third-down conversions.

"Offensively there was nothing," McCown said.

That's not an understatement. The Bucs finished with 16 yards rushing. Standout receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were kept in check. McCown was sacked seven times.

"Who is it?" Smith said when asked what's wrong with the offense. "Who's the culprit? It's all of the above."

Smith is right. Tampa Bay's problems can be blamed on the entire offense. The play of the line has been poor all year. The running game rarely has gotten on track. And McCown (12-for-26, 147 yards) has been struggling to complete 50 percent of his passes.

"It's a combination," Smith said. "We're not playing good enough football up front, pass blocking or running. It's tough when you have less than 20 yards rushing. Of course, when you pass and you can't really protect, and quarterback-wise there's some decisions we'd like to have back. It's a combination of all right now. To blame it all on one particular area wouldn't be right."

Aside from Evans and Jackson, the Bucs need to overhaul their offense in the offseason. The defense is fine. But, as Smith has found out this season, it takes a lot more than defense to win.
NEW ORLEANS -- The biggest moment of the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons came when tight end Jimmy Graham lost a fumble at the goal line early in the fourth quarter that appeared to be a touchdown on the replay.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisFalcons strong safety Kemal Ishmael (left) strips the football from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a reception near the goal line in the second half.
The ball appeared to cross the plane before it was stripped away by Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael. But referee John Parry told a pool reporter from The Times-Picayune that he didn't see "clear and indisputable" evidence to overturn the original call.

"If we would've ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score," Parry told the pool reporter.

Coach Sean Payton and players said it appeared to them Graham scored from watching the replay on the jumbotron. Payton said it "looked pretty clear, and yet it is what it is" and it's something the Saints can't control.

"They [the officials] go back to New York with that, and it's disappointing," Payton said.

Quarterback Drew Brees said it was a huge play in the game because it took seven points off the board when the Saints could have closed within six points early in the third quarter. But he and other players said you have to be able to overcome it -- and pointed out that they managed to make a defensive stop and follow up with a score to close within 20-14 regardless.

The Saints' bigger problems occurred earlier in the game, when they scored only seven points through three quarters, and later in the game, when Brees threw a costly interception with less than three minutes remaining.

Graham was not available for comment after the game. He especially had a rough game through three-plus quarters. He caught only one pass for three yards through three quarters despite being targeted five times. Then he fumbled on that potential touchdown -- whether the fumble occurred before or after he crossed the goal line. Graham did rally with four more catches for 38 yards and a touchdown after that. But it was too little, too late.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 17-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns:
  • Olsen
    A month ago, tight end Greg Olsen stood in front of his locker after a 31-13 loss at Minnesota and said, "Right now, we're not very good." After Sunday's third straight win that put the Panthers (6-8-1) in position to play Atlanta (6-9) for the NFC South title next weekend at the Georgia Dome, Olsen's tune had changed. "When you don't play well, you deserve to lose," he said. "It's very frustrating to play below what your expectations are. At that point in time, we weren't very good. We were playing like a bad team. Now we're playing like a better team. It's funny: When you play better, you win."
  • Quarterback Cam Newton wasn't happy with the way the Bank of America Stadium crowd cheered when Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel left in the first half with a hamstring injury. "I'm a fan of his, just like a lot of people are," Newton said. "But it's a lot of things he has to learn. The only thing I can say is it was sad to see the crowd's response when he was getting hurt, man. I just think it was classless at that time. Anytime a person is hurt, you don't celebrate. I've had that done in my career. It takes the integrity out of the game."
  • Coach Ron Rivera on playing for the NFC South title: "It's definitely not how we planned it, but it's what we're working towards."
  • General manager Dave Gettleman, who has drawn a lot of heat for moves he made during the offseason, walked through the back corner of the locker room with a big smile.
  • As ugly as Sunday's win was, fullback Mike Tolbert wasn't going there. "A win is a win," he said. "We don't care how it comes. I'm not going to put an adjective on it." The Panthers, by the way, are 3-1 since Tolbert returned from injured reserve.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman stood in the locker and smiled as strong safety Roman Harper described how Norman should have protected the ball after his second-half interception that he fumbled away. "I'll be a much smarter guy in traffic next time," Norman said. "I'll have it high and tight."