Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:
Road trip ending: It hasn’t drawn a lot of attention, and part of that is because the opponents weren’t marquee teams, but the Saints wrap up a series of three straight road games Sunday at Tampa Bay. They’ve won at Jacksonville and Carolina. If they can do the same against the Bucs, it will be a major accomplishment. Winning on the road is a big deal in the NFL. If the Saints can get this one, they’ll be 3-1 on the road (they lost the opener at Green Bay) and they have a bunch of home games coming up.
Next man up? Injuries are starting to catch up to Tampa Bay. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle) and running back LeGarrette Blount appear likely to miss Sunday’s game. Tampa Bay is still in the middle of building through a youth movement, and that means this team doesn’t have a lot of depth. Frank Okam and Da'Quan Bowers will rotate in McCoy’s spot, but there will be a drop-off. The drop-off will be even more apparent at running back. Earnest Graham is a competent role player as a third-down back and fullback. But he’ll be asked to take on Blount’s role as the feature back, and Graham no longer has the tools to handle that job. It's hindsight, but there's no doubt the Bucs should have invested the money in the offseason to find a quality backup for Blount.
The corner is in reach. It’s become very obvious the Carolina Panthers are a team on the rise. They’ve lost a series of close games and rookie quarterback Cam Newton has made them very competitive. The Panthers are 1-4, but you can sense they’re close to turning the corner. A win this week would be a major stride, and it’s not out of the question. Atlanta is very talented, but the Falcons are struggling. If Carolina can come out of this with a win, it could be a catalyst for a strong second half of the season.
Must win? The Falcons have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments. But you look at their roster and it’s not hard to imagine them snapping their slump at any time and going on a strong run that could put them in the playoffs. If that’s going to happen, the Falcons need to win this game. They’re 2-3. If they fall to 2-4, they might be in a hole that’s too deep to escape.
Critical stretch. The next few weeks could determine how Tampa Bay fares this season. The Bucs had an ugly 48-3 loss to San Francisco last week. They’re hosting a very tough New Orleans team this week. After that, the Bucs will leave Monday for London to play a “home’’ game against the Bears. They get a bye week after that, but then have to face the Saints in New Orleans. Tampa Bay is 3-2, but the Bucs haven’t played consistently well and haven’t had an impressive victory yet. If the Bucs can just keep their heads above water, and win a game or two in the next three, they’ll be very much in the playoff picture. If they don’t, they might not have a shot at the playoffs.