Are the Carolina Panthers the most dangerous team in the NFC?

Carolina PanthersAnybody catch the Panthers’ 38-23 win over the Buccaneers on Monday night? If you didn’t, you missed ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew waxing poetically about how Carolina could wind up being the No. 1 seed in the NFC. (Seriously, I know it’s their job to create storylines but I thought the trio of Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski were going to fall out of the booth trying to make love to the Panthers.)

Carolina’s win over NFC South Division rival Tampa Bay was impressive. They ran the ball extremely well (like, 299 yards well) against one of the best defenses in the NFC, Steve Smith made big plays and for the most part, the defense was solid.

But before we even remotely toy with the idea that the Panthers will leapfrog the New York Giants in the NFC, maybe we should slow down and take dose of reality.

Yes, the Panthers’ win over the Bucs to capture first place in the NFC South was imposing and dare I say, dominant. But NFC South teams are now 0-10 on the road against other NFC South teams, so while Carolina’s victory was a nice statement, it wasn’t necessarily shock.

Tampa has often struggled on the road throughout this season. If it weren’t for double-digit come from behind wins against Kansas City and Detroit, the Bucs would be 7-6 right now. They’re currently allowing close to 24 points a game on the road this year, compared to just 12.6 at home. For as good as Monte Kiffin’s defense has looked this season, it’s simply been a different unit on the road than it has been at home.

But let’s get back to Carolina. The Panthers are currently atop the exciting NFC South at 10-3 and are home against the Broncos this Sunday, then at the Giants and at the Saints to end the year. Those are three winnable games, but a daunting final stretch to say the least. Assuming they can beat the Broncos this week (which won’t be easy coming off a short week and with Denver trying to clinch the AFC West), does anyone see this team beating both the Giants and Saints on the road? New Orleans might be knocked out of the playoff race by then, but they would certainly love the opportunity to play spoiler against a division rival.

The Panthers are definitely a playoff team and one that could make noise when the postseason starts. They have a veteran quarterback, an unbelievable playmaker in Smith and a running game that could shred any opponent. But let’s relax a little on the idea of them earning home field advantage throughout the postseason. The Giants are still the best team in the NFC (if not in the league) and the Bucs and Falcons still have a shot to upend Carolina in the division. And teams can look vastly different from game to game in the NFL.

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Saints find offensive balance, keep postseason hopes alive

Reggie BushNew Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton was rightfully criticized throughout the week for not maintaining enough offensive balance this season. While the Saints statistically rank as the best offense in the league, they entered Sunday’s game against the Falcons as a 6-6 team with slim playoff hopes. No offense – not even the best in the league – can win consistently if they can’t run the ball. But the Saints rushed for 184 yards and beat division rival Atlanta 29-25 on Sunday.

Their running game was essentially the key because it opened everything up for Drew Brees and the passing game. Outside of the opening drive of the first quarter and most of the third, the Falcons’ defense looked befuddled at what Payton was throwing at them. They had no answer for New Orleans’ offense and allowed Pierre Thomas to rumble for 102 yards on just 16 carries. If Payton can keep himself from going Andy Reid on everybody, the Saints are going to be tough to beat the rest of the way.

For the Falcons, their loss cannot be placed on rookie Matt Ryan (24 of 33 for 315 yards, 1 TD) and the offense. Ryan was unbelievable and got a ton of help from Roddy White (10 catches, 164 yards) and Michael Jenkins (5 catches, 69 yards), who made the rookie quarterback look good on a couple of errant passes. Outside of a rookie mistake on an interception thrown in the first quarter, Ryan was damn near perfect and constantly kept drives alive with pinpoint passes.

The Falcons really put themselves in a hole with this loss, however. At 8-5, they’re still very much alive in the playoff race, but they host a tough Buccaneers team next week and then travel to Minnesota before finishing with the hapless Rams. They’ll have to win at least two of their next three games to make the playoffs, so a win over the Saints could have gone a long way.

We’ll see what Ryan and the young Falcons are made of over these next three weeks.

Stick a fork in the Packers – they’re done

Aaron RodgersWhen the Saints blasted them 51-29 last Monday night, my writing cohort John Paulsen wrote in the comment section of my game recap that his Packers just weren’t a very good team. After watching them choke away multiple leads in a 35-31 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, I would have to agree to JP – the Packers just flat out aren’t that good this season.

The offense is fine – Aaron Rodgers threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday – but the defense is average at best. Pundits like to talk about what kind of team the Packers would be if they still had Brett Favre, but Brett had a better defense on the other side of the ball last year.

This was a Panthers team that couldn’t move the ball against Oakland three weeks ago, struggled to beat the Lions and then was waxed last Sunday in Atlanta. Yet they were able to rack up 130 yards on the ground and 35 points despite losing the time of possession battle 37:52 to 22:08. It’s amazing how ineffective the Green Bay front seven has been this year after being one of the bright spots in 2007.

Mathematically the Packers are still in the playoff hunt (they could still even win their pathetic division), but how could you like this team’s chances of making a run over the next four weeks? Offensively they can hang with most opponents, but defensively they consistently get gashed on the ground.

Conversely, this was a massive victory for the Panthers. That catch by Steve Smith to set up the eventual game-winning touchdown was unreal. To go into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers in Green Bay in late November is impressive. Unfortunately for them the Bucs won, but they’ll have their shot to revenge a Week 6 loss to Tampa next Monday night in Carolina. Winner takes sole possession of first place in arguably the most exciting division in the NFL – the NFC South.

NFL Week 13 Primer

Jason CampbellSunday’s Best: Giants (10-1) at Redskins (7-4), 1:00 PM ET FOX
The game of the week is a toss up between this matchup and Steelers at Patriots. But I’ll go with a divisional rivalry any day of the week, although Pittsburgh-New England should be just as good. The Cowboys’ victory over the Seahawks on Thanksgiving put a lot of pressure on the Skins to keep pace in the NFC Wild Card race. A win over the G-Men would keep Washington in the thick of things with Dallas, Carolina, Tampa and Atlanta for the Wild Card, while a loss wouldn’t push them out of things, but it certainly would be detrimental. One thing about the Redskins is that they play to the level of their competition. One week they’re losing to the Rams and allowing the Browns to hang with them, the next they’re crushing the Cowboys and Eagles on the road. But the Giants have been one of the best road teams over the last couple years and soundly beat the first place Cardinals last week in Arizona. The G-Men have proven that they’re the best team in the league, but they’re going to have their hands full against a physical Washington team in desperate need of a victory.

Upset Watch: Panthers (8-3) at Packers (5-6), 1:00 PM ET FOX
My pick of the Lions over the Buccaneers last week proved to be a disaster despite Detroit jumping out to a 17-0 lead. Considering the Packers are 3-point favorites, this technically doesn’t count as an upset and less you factor in the records. The Pack were embarrassed last Monday night by New Orleans, but the Panthers haven’t played well in weeks. Jake Delhomme has struggled in the first half of Carolina’s past three games and the once stout Panther defense is coming off a game in which they surrendered 45 points to the Falcons. This is a nice matchup for a struggling Green Bay defense, but they must stop the run. Carolina loves to pound the ball on the ground and if they’re successful, the play action pass opens up with Delhomme and Steve Smith. But if the Packers can sell out to stop the run, their secondary is good enough to at least contain Smith and limit him from making big plays. Aaron Rodgers should have relative success working the ball up the field against an average Carolina secondary, although Ryan Grant must keep them balanced offensively for Green Bay to notch a win and keep their playoff hopes alive.

Matt CasselIntriguing Matchup: Steelers (8-3) at Patriots (7-4), 4:15 PM ET CBS
Could this be a potential playoff preview? Matt Cassel has the Patriots’ offense back on track, but they’ll be tested Sunday against one of the best defenses in the league. It’s doubtful Cassel will be able to throw for over 400 yards for the third connective game, which means Bill Belichick must get his running game going or else Dick Lambeau can dial up plenty of blitzes to get the young signal caller out of rhythm. A win is so important for both teams. A victory for Pittsburgh would keep the Steelers at least one-game above Baltimore in the division, while the Pats need a win to keep pace with the Jets in the AFC East. This should be one of the most physical matchups of the week and I’m willing to bet it will be a low scoring affair.

Other Notable Games:
Broncos (6-5) at Jets (8-3), 4:15 PM ET CBS
The Jets are now the talk of the league after they upset the Titans last week, while Denver looks to put its embarrassing loss to the Raiders behind them.

Bears (6-5) at Vikings (6-5), 8:15 PM ET
First place in the NFC North is on the line Sunday night. Since they beat the Vikes earlier this season, Chicago would capture the tiebreaker between these two teams if they can come away with a victory.

Saints (6-5) at Buccaneers (8-3), 1:00 PM ET
A win for New Orleans and we can officially welcome them back to the NFC playoff party. But a loss would essentially put the Saints out of their misery.

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