Time for a look at the top Friday morning headlines from around the division:
Coach Mike Smith said Jacquizz Rodgers has shown he has what it takes to be a feature back. This could be the week that actually happens. The Falcons gradually have increased Rodgers’ playing time. Starter Michael Turner has been limited in practice because of an elbow injury.
Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy caused a stir this week when he said the Panthers are better than Atlanta. The Falcons seem to be taking the comments in stride. Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said, "What else is he going to say at this point? They haven’t won many games."
As Carolina gets ready to host Atlanta, it’s worth looking back at Cam Newton’s crucial fumble in the Week 4 meeting between the Panthers and Falcons. If Newton didn’t fumble, Carolina would have been 2-2 and had some momentum. It’s at least worth wondering if the season would have gone differently for the Panthers if they had come away with a big win in the Georgia Dome. If Newton hadn't fumbled, maybe the Panthers wouldn't be 3-9. Maybe Marty Hurney still would be the general manager and maybe coach Ron Rivera's job would be secure.
Speaking of plays that could have changed the outcome of the first meeting between Atlanta and Carolina, safety Haruki Nakamura reflects on not getting to Roddy White in time to break up a pass that set up the game-winning field goal.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Bradley Handwerger points out that the current Saints are similar to the 2007 and ’08 editions. They’re not playing well in the fourth quarter, and that’s why they’re 5-7. If you want evidence, look no further than quarterback Drew Brees. His fourth-quarter passer rating this year is 53.8. Last season it was 93.7.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin went out of his way to explain defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s comment that said it’s easier to prepare for Brees than Washington’s Robert Griffin III. I think it’s pretty obvious that Pierre-Paul wasn’t slighting Brees. He simply was pointing out that Griffin’s running ability is a unique challenge for a defense. But coaches and players are going to use anything close to a perceived slight as motivation.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Bucs will gather their Super Bowl team for a 10-year celebration on Sunday. But defensive back Ronde Barber won’t be able to take part in all the festivities because he’s the only member of that team still playing. Barber, 37, told Martin Fennelly he’ll stop playing as soon as he declines. There hasn’t been any decline yet, and I think the Bucs gladly would welcome Barber back for one more season.
At 6-6, the Bucs need a strong finish to reach the playoffs. But Gary Shelton points out Tampa Bay’s December history often has been less than stellar. This team might be different though. If the Bucs can re-establish running back Doug Martin and get quarterback Josh Freeman back on the path he was on before losing the past two games, a playoff berth is possible if the Bucs add three or four more wins. Even missing the playoffs with a 9-7 or 8-8 record would be a successful season for a team that was 4-12 last season.