NFC Divisional Playoff: San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers

This is the one playoff game this weekend that could have been interesting. With Carolina wideout Steve Smith at 60% by his own admission, or at least doubtful, it takes steam out of this match-up. Smith is the conscious and fighting spirit of that football team. Although the league’s #2 defense is intact, this team peaked a few weeks ago.

Cam Newton is going into his first NFL playoff game.

Cam Newton is going into his first NFL playoff game.

Cam Newton can’t play sporadic and expect the defense to keep him in a playoff game until he finds his accuracy. Sure they won 10-9 in Candlestick but that really woke the Niners up for this one. In that previous game Vernon Davis left injured, Michael Crabtree didn’t play, and Aldon Smith was just coming back and rounding into shape. Colin Kaepernick is coming off of a third career playoff win and they haven’t lost since Crabtree has come back.

The best all around linebacker in the NFL. Last year's Taylor Blitz Defensive Player of the Year: Navorro Bowman

The best all around linebacker in the NFL. Last year’s Taylor Blitz Defensive Player of the Year: Navorro Bowman

One element of this game is the threat of the pass from the Tight End position. Vernon Davis has the speed to pull Luke Kuechely deep where he has to play the run honestly. Consequently Greg Olsen doesn’t do the same and Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman will creep up and shut down the run.

So watch for Frank Gore to have a good day and San Francisco to dominate the time of possession. The Niners win 26-13 today.

Even when I think back to Cam Newton’s National Championship performance against Oregon. His play that day wasn’t transcendent. Stars have to come out when the games get big like this. Weaknesses are magnified and without Smith 100%, he has to play above a pedestrian performance. He has to be a star for them to win. Just can’t see that in his first playoff game.

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NFL Week 8: NFC South- Shipyards

Doug Martin exploded onto the NFL scene last Thursday night.

When viewing the vessels of a shipyard, we see units that are being built initially or those that are retooling for an endeavor that requires additional equipment. In some instances like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the ability to navigate choppy waters has become easier with the addition of a new outboard engine in the form of rookie RB Doug Martin. Up until last week’s game against Minnesota, the offense was rudderless depending on a passing game that moved the ball in fits and starts. Bouyed by Doug Martin’ dynamic performance (135 yd rushing / 79 yds rec.) their offense rolled throughout in a dominating 36-17 performance. http://www.nfl.com/voting/players-air-and-ground/2012/REG/8?module=HP11_content_stream_voting_fedex#playerId:0ap2000000085516

In their last two games, Martin has gained 336 yards of total offense and scored 3 touchdowns. Something was discovered 3 weeks ago during the team’s bye week. Head Coach Greg Schiano must have been hit in the head and mistaken his young running back for Ray Rice, whom he coached in college. In that time he has turned to his rookie runner more and the team has averaged 34 points per game ever since as compared to 20.5 over the first four weeks. Undoubtedly the game is slowing for Martin who has adjusted to the speed of the NFL. With back to back games coming against the struggling Raiders and Chargers, who just lost to Cleveland (seriously?), this team could be 5-4 and winners of 3 out of 4 before they take on Carolina and Atlanta in pivotal divisional match-ups. If any of you have been following the feud between the Bucs and Atlanta, you will not want to miss that game.

Before we go there, lets take a look at the standings:

South Division

W

L

T

PCT

PF

PA

HOME

ROAD

DIV

CONF

STRK

LAST5

Atlanta Falcons Falcons 7 0 0 1.000 201 130 3-0 4-0 1-0 3-0 W7 5-0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Buccaneers 3 4 0 .429 184 153 2-2 1-2 1-1 2-4 W1 2-3
New Orleans Saints Saints 2 5 0 .286 190 216 1-2 1-3 1-1 1-3 L1 2-3
Carolina Panthers Panthers 1 6 0 .143 128 167 1-3 0-3 1-2 1-6 L5 0-5

Leaving the shipyard and headed for uncharted waters sail the Atlanta Falcons. What has been interesting over the last two months is how few want to recognize them as the best team in the NFC or the NFL for that matter. The key to becoming a champion in the NFL is winning the close games. Especially those against lesser teams who are hard to get up for, or in last week’s match-up with the Philadelphia Eagles, a wounded dangerous team desperate for a win. Over the last few years, games of the latter category gave the Falcons problems. This time they came out with purpose and were up on the Eagles 24-7 before Andy Reid’s team knew what hit them.

Michael Turner helped the Falcons control the tempo of the game with 24 carries.

Even more remarkable was the fact in 13 seasons, Reid’s team were 13-0 coming off of bye weeks. Although the Falcons have a 3 game lead in the division, they took this road game very serious and set the tone from the outset. Philadelphia’s big name secondary was lit up by Julio Jones who had 5 receptions for 123 yards and scored from 63 yards out. Matt Ryan was 22 for 29 for 263 yards and 3TDs and is having an MVP type season. Do you realize Matt Ryan had a career high 29 touchdown passes last year yet is on pace for 39 this season??

This was a big road win that showed how this team and coaching staff is maturing. Pundits and fans have scoffed at their early playoff exits of the last few years but this team is playing with a gritty resolve not seen in previous seasons. Last week’s game against the Eagles was the type of game the Falcons would inexplicably not show up. Exhibit A: Last year during the second half they could solidify themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, yet lost a game to the Houston Texans and were swept by the New Orleans Saints in a five week stretch. Those could have been confidence building wins yet left the team doubting itself. That doubt showed in the 24-2 ouster in the playoffs by the world champion Giants.

However this year we have Exhibit B: They held off Peyton Manning and the Broncos in a Monday night thriller 27-21. They knocked back a Washington Redskin team which is a mirror image of who they once were 24-17 and now this win. These wins against quality teams are those that have you believing in yourselves by season’s end. Especially when you can step on a team that desperately needs a win and you perform that feat on the road. Naysayers will conclude they haven’t played other top-tier teams but that isn’t the Falcons issue. Just keep winning games and building confidence for the playoffs. Food for thought?? Once upon a time, there was a Miami Dolphin team that went 14-0 in the regular season and won the Super Bowl. They only beat 3 teams that year with a winning record…so don’t listen to the idiot pundits who miss this.

Now we have to talk about Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. Looking at their record the quarterback is the first to get the blame when truth be told, Newton has given the team four 4th quarter leads this season. The fact their defense keeps letting the team down is what everyone is missing. Nevermind the frustrated press conferences of Cam Newton. Head Coach Ron Rivera may be sunk if his team gives up any more 4th quarter leads. It may be in the Panthers best interest to pick up a receiver before the trade deadline to help open up the offense. With Steve Smith (35 rec. 589 yards/ ZERO TDs) they have a good mid-range receiver. They need someone to blow the top off the defense to back the safeties back from the running game. Everyone knows the Panther offense can be defensed 20 yards and in. Once they can get a deep receiver this could open up the offense both running and passing. They still have time to right the ship…they just have some work to do.

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2012 NFC South Previews & Predictions

Second year wideout Julio Jones skies over a Ravens defensive back for a touchdown in last week’s preseason opener.

As the 2012 regular season beckons, many pundits and fans are looking for the Carolina Panthers to light up this division. There will be several young stars that will come to the fore in the toughest division in football, yet there will be one second year player who should take the league by storm. Oh you thought we meant Cam Newton?? He’ll do well but the player who is about to break out is WR Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. His play so far in the preseason along with the maturation he showed toward the end of last year. Look out his star is on the rise.

No division in football has been as competitive from top to bottom as the NFC South. Since its inception in 2002, there hasn’t been a repeat division winner and again its the only division to have every team play for the conference championship during that time. Each team can run at you physically, Atlanta with Michael Turner (1,340 yards in 2011), thunderous LeGarrette Blount (1,007 yards in 2010), former Heisman winner in Mark Ingram, and former twin thousand yard rushers DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart in Carolina. Yet with last year’s emergence of Cam Newton and 2010’s Josh Freeman (25TDs to only 6 ints), each team fields better than average quarterbacks. This is before we get to record setting Super Bowl champion Drew Brees and 3 time playoff participant QB Matt Ryan. This division is stacked on offense…

However there are several questions moving into 2012. How will the Saints fare with the suspension of Head Coach Sean Peyton?? Will their game day adjustments suffer or will the overall gameplan be inferior?? Have the Panthers made enough moves to allow Cam Newton to star again or will he have a sophomore slump?? Which team was the real Tampa Bay Buccaneers?? Was it the 10-6 2010 team that was coming on at the end of that season or last year’s 4-11 debacle that got Head Coach Raheem Morris fired??

We’ll answer a few of those later in the article….as for our predictions

2012 NFC South Predictions

Atlanta Falcons 11-5 *

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7

New Orleans Saints 9-7

Carolina Panthers 6-10

Now that the Saints signed Drew Brees to a long term deal: How will he fare this season without Sean Payton?? Payton and Brees have been lethal these last several years with game plans but they will suffer with game-day adjustments. There should be a drop off this season as Interim Coach Joe Vitt can’t put his stamp on the team. In a single season lame duck situation?? Not going to be good. More important, without their spiritual leader on defense with the suspension of Jonathon Vilma, this defense will give up points by the bushel and will behind in the race to win the south. As evidenced in Saturday night’s preseason game against Houston, this defense struggled in a 34-27 shootout. The Texans marched to two easy touchdowns while the starters were out there. Don’t forget the Saints were at home. How do you think they will fare when they are on the road this year?? http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2012082554/2012/PRE3/texans@saints#tab=recap&menu=highlights

They have a murderous schedule and will lose tie breaker advantages during the weeks of 12-15 where they face San Francisco, who beat them in last year’s playoffs. Then they face a stronger Atlanta Falcons team on the road, then travel to play the World Champion Giants in the cold, then come home to face a resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. Even though Tampa had a down year in 2011, they only lost 27-16 in New Orleans and defeated the Saints in the Superdome in 2010. At full strength with Coach Peyton, Jonathon Vilma on defense, the Saints would be in good shape against these ball clubs but with a coaching staff trying to keep the ship steady?? These are four losses waiting to happen and all to NFC teams. This is after they would have played the Packers at Lambeau in week 4, and the Philadelphia Eagle in week 9.  Too many in conference losses will doom the Saints this year.

Super Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Has there been a more electrifying rookie quarterback in NFL history than Cam Newton?? The Chancellor can only think of one and that was Dan Marino’s 1983 season. Yet a closer look and Newton broke the rookie record in week 1 with 422 yards against the Cardinals, rushed for 706 yards and 14 TDs (another record), while completing 60% of his passes for 4,021 yards (another record) and 21TDs. All as a rookie?? Yikes! That dwarfs Marino’s 20TD passes and didn’t start for Shula’s Dolphins until week 6 and was no threat with only 45 yards rushing. What is he going to do for an encore??

Once upon a time Tim Tebow was given the nod over Newton at the University of Florida. My how the tables have turned as the Panthers defeated Tebow and the Jets 17-12 last night in pre-season action.

The question is did they do enough to move up in the competitive NFC South?? They still have the “Cash & Carry” backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart, who just signed an extension last week. Ageless Steve Smith revitalized his career with Newton’s emergence and may have a running partner in WR Louis Murphy who scored in last night’s game.  On offense the answer is yes, but on defense they haven’t done enough. They did get LB Thomas Davis back but they have to keep their fingers crossed he doesn’t injure his knee for a fourth time. They need all the help they can get on a defense that was 28th last year and finished 25th against the run. In this division that last stat will be what they need to improve and the draft only brought one lineman in 4th rounder Frank Alexander. New leaders have to emerge for the Panthers to make a  move up… that can happen in 2013. The problem is it’s still 2012 so they’ll improve just a few wins on offense as a team.

Former Boise St running back Doug Martin should rush for 1,200 yards for Tampa this season.

Now a team that will be the surprise winner in this division is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year this team dropped to 30th in the NFL in rushing and brought unnecessary heat on QB Josh Freeman. Team brass addressed that with 1st round selection RB Doug Martin out of Boise St. With the rushing attack under performing it also kept the Buccaneers defense from resting. In 2011 this was a run first, pass second team that went 10-6. Josh Freeman had the second lowest touchdown to interception ratio, 25TDs to just 6 interceptions, to a record setting Tom Brady. With the acquisition of WR Vincent Jackson from the San Diego Chargers to go along with TE Kellen Winslow Jr, WR Mike Williams and WR Arrelios Benn, this team has some big targets.

Speaking of Tom Brady, the Buccaneer defense made his life miserable in pre-season action Friday night. The Bucs pass rush harassed him all night and made him throw a pick six in a 30-28 win. Brady played into the 3rd quarter (unheard of in pre-season) and New England needed 2 4th quarter touchdowns to make the score close. One of the differences was the efficient play of Freeman and Doug Martin, who rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries and sat out more than half the game. This talent who has been a Taylor Blitz Time favorite https://taylorblitztimes.com/2011/08/02/2011-heisman-campaign-doug-martin-of-boise-st/ will tilt the balance of power for them from a tactical standpoint all year. They should return to form and match the 10-6 record of 2010. They’ll be ready to make a serious move in 2013.

However 2012 will belong to the Atlanta Falcons. They have built for this season for the last four and this is the year for the payoff. TE Tony Gonzalez can’t go forever and RB Michael Turner is about to turn 30. When the Falcons lost in last year’s wildcard to the New York Giants, it marked the second season in a row their season ended at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champions. As a matter of fact, if you include the 2009 NFC Divisional playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, 3 of the last 4 seasons has ended at the hands of the eventual NFC Champion. Its time for their maturation and ascend to a Super Bowl themselves. Head Coach Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have to prove they can win a playoff game. They are primed as a team talent wise to make a move.

Next up: NFC North

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NFL Week 3 South: Early Season Pivotal Points

Roddy White about to be greeted by the Tampa secondary.

Inside Our NFL rolls on. The NFL has had it’s share of rivalries. Teams that just couldnt’ stand each other and brought out the worst in their opponent. The newest NFL hatefest is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. We’re not sure if it began with General Manager Rich McKay moving from the Buccaneers to the Falcons in 2003, but we do know it’s intense. Last week these two renewed affiliations and played another slugfest this past weekend. One where the Atlanta Falcons were called for encroachment, grabbed Tampa’s QB Josh Freeman’s leg and the young quarterback bucked like a bronco to free himself.  Nearly stepping on a couple of strewn about arms of would be defenders. One where Bucs QB Freeman was sacked, the next series his Buccaneers retaliated with an eight man all out blitz at the line of scrimmage that nearly knocked Matty “Ice” Ryan into next week. What did they do for an encore when they knocked him groggy?? Sent another for one of the most vicious sacks seen in years. In which three players arrived at the same time forcing a fumble and knocking Ryan’s helmet off. Quite simply, the Bucs outhit Atlanta for a 16-13 win.

These young Bucks (pun intended) are growing up before our very eyes. They narrowly missed the playoffs going 10-6 last year yet have started this season slowly on the offensive side of the ball. Right now Josh Freeman has completed 67.9 % of his passes yet has thrown 2TDs v. 4 interceptions. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/tam/2011.htm  He’ll have to improve on the his TD to Int ratio, in fact he was second to Tom Brady with the lowest interception ratio last year. With LeGarrette Blount and this young defense, they are playing close to the vest affairs, having scored 60 points while allowing 60. Yet should pad their 2-1 record hosting Indy, traveling to San Francisco, before an important early season divisional matchup with the New Orleans Saints. The division lead should be on the line….speaking of which, lets take a look.

NFC SOUTH W L T PCT HOME ROAD DIV CONF PF PA DIFF STRK
Tampa Bay 2 1 0 .667 1-1-0 1-0-0 1-0-0 2-1-0 60 60 0 Won 2
New Orleans 2 1 0 .667 2-0-0 0-1-0 0-0-0 1-1-0 104 88 +16 Won 2
Carolina 1 2 0 .333 1-1-0 0-1-0 0-0-0 0-2-0 60 68 -8 Won 1
Atlanta 1 2 0 .333 1-0-0 0-2-0 0-1-0 1-2-0 60 77 -17 Lost 1

Right now the Atlanta Falcons should be concerned since they are 1 miraculous comeback from  being 0-3. Now those first 3 opponents were 11-5, 10-6, and 10-6 last year respectively, yet it’s against top competition where you measure yourself. Of course it’s still early in the season but they’re being gashed on the ground. They have given up 336 yards rushing so far to opposing teams and at least 1 TD in every game. They need a defensive leader to emerge. Yes, John Abraham is good for 10-12 sacks a season (this year 2) but these defensive linemen either have to get off more blocks or their run as division champs could be in jeopardy. Especially with the “Runnin’ Carolinas” comin to town in 3 weeks. Before that they travel cross country to Seattle then come home to a rematch with the defending Super Bowl Champion Packers. Careful Atlanta this season could get away from you quick. Get back to the run.

Jonathon Stewart in a preseason game. Back when Carolina was running with regularity

Sorry kids, but last week the Cam Newton experience, was rained out last week against Jacksonville although they got their first win. What has been surprising in these first two weeks is the Panthers haven’t been able to run the football. Stewart is averaging 3.9 yards per carry to Williams’ 2.3, and did you know each hasn’t rushed for more than 100 yards this season. That’s not acceptable!! They’re not supposed to stand and watch Newton! Go keep the defenses honest. Right now it’s all about Steve Smith and the Hurricane tight end connection Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey in the passing game. They have 16,12, and 9 receptions respecively…couple that with 13 checkdown receptions by Stewart and Newton is distributing his passes well. Just in time because quick passing to TEs is what Ron Rivera needs when his team visits Chicago and Mr. Urlacher this Sunday. Think Greg Olsen will be fired up?? Commit to the run on the Bears or Briggs and Urlacher will make life miserable for Newton this week. Afterward they host the Saints…Stewart and Williams need to find a groove.

Speaking of the ‘Who Dat Nation” they are who we thought they were! Uh..not quite, they sit atop the NFC South  with a 2-1 record yet the only time they haven’t scored is during the writing of this article. Lost in the hoopla with the AFC’s quarterbacks in Fitzpatrick and Brady, is the fact that Brees is on pace for 5,648 yards and 48TDs so far. He has 1,059 yards passing, 9TDs to only 2 interceptions and the Saints have scored 34,30, and 40 points thus far this season. Right now he’s carrying the team on his back…er..shoulder. With their next three games on the road to Jacksonville, Carolina, and Tampa Bay, this looks like a prime spot to get Mark Ingram into the mix running the football. This is necessary to rest a defense that has 3 of it’s top 4 tacklers being defensive backs. Lift some weights frontline!!!

We will find out plenty about this division over these next three weeks…

NFL Week 2 NFC South: Will Someone Stand Up & Play Defense

Although this division has won one NFL championship in the last two years, its amazing how pedestrian this division is playing defense. With Cam Newton showcasing out of this world talent, it doesn’t bode well for the Panther’s division mates. The Saints finally showed up against Chicago but ask yourself : Was it the strength of the Saints defense or a Bears offense still searching for an identity?? Division favorite Atlanta won a shootout with the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night yet gave up 30 points for the second consecutive week. They cannot keep going at that rate and expect to win the division. A trip to Tampa to reprise last year’s bloodbath against the physical Buccaneers awaits.

NFC South Team W L T  Pct PF PA Net Pts TD Home Road Div Pct Conf Pct Non-Conf Streak Last 5
New Orleans Saints 1 1 0 .500 64 55 9 7 1-0 0-1 0-0 .000 1-1 .500 0-0 1W 1-1
Atlanta Falcons 1 1 0 .500 47 61 -14 6 1-0 0-1 0-0 .000 1-1 .500 0-0 1W 1-1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 1 0 .500 44 47 -3 5 0-1 1-0 0-0 .000 1-1 .500 0-0 1W 1-1
Carolina Panthers 0 2 0 .000 44 58 -14 5 0-1 0-1 0-0 .000 0-2 .000 0-0 2L 0-2

All that withstanding, the Buccaneers could prove to be the early season favorite if they can knock off the Falcons this Sunday. Last year these two played in the most physical game of the season.  One with so much hitting that the personal foul calls caused Roddy White of the Falcons to be pulled out for awhile by his coach and saw  Tampa QB Josh Freeman get a personal foul call after an interception. Even the cheerleaders left that December game sore. Get some nachos, beer, popcorn and get ready for this one. We promise you this will be the game to watch because these two teams hate each other. Who are we leaning toward?  Check in later this week, right Falcons Jennifer?? She’s a little biased by the way.

New Orleans is still in a state of flux after giving up a plethora of yards to the Green Bay Packers in the opener along with 42 points. The “Who Dat” nation better learn how to tackle before the Panthers and Cam Newton come to town. If you can’t bring down DeAngelo Williams and Jonathaon Stewart, you’ll hate having to bring down a 250 lbs quarter back who has set the NFL on it’s collective ear. When he first threw for 422 vs Arizona, most of us scoffed “well that was the Cardinals”.  Then the Panthers threw for over 400 yards against the defending NFL champions and now you have to say “OK Cam Newton is for real”. Others would think it’s premature, we don’t. Ever since the midway point of last year’s college season,we knew he was going pro, so you know defenses were gearing themselves for him. He had some growing pains against the Packers with 3 interceptions, but face it, he bounced back and almost tied the game in losing 31-24. So here the Panthers are, a defensive football team who now wakes up after two weeks not taking care of their end of the bargain.

Ron Rivera’s defense is the reason this team is 0-2, they didn’t know what they had on offense. Now that they do, expect more solid game plans and wins to mount up. Has there been a more dangerous 0-2 team than this one?? Face it there isn’t a lot of film on Newton and they still have Williams and Stewart to help pound the rock before we get to a rejuvenated Steve Smith.  Do you realize after 2 weeks Steve Smith has 14 rec. for 334 yards and 2 touchdowns?? He’s the wrong guy to let him start “feeling it”. If you project those numbers over a full season, that would be 112 receptions and 2,672 yards and 16 TDs. This is the wrong time for the NFC South to forget how to play defense. Seriously!! After losing a close tussel to the world champions, Carolina is licking it’s chops looking at the rest of the division and the lack of defense being played. Seriously, has an 0-2 team ever been this optimistic when looking at the rest of their schedule??