Panthers players and coaches had a rare opportunity to spend their Sunday watching their division competition live. Those who tuned in saw the reigning NFC South champion Saints continue to round into shape while the head coach of the one division team not in the playoffs last season – the Buccaneers – got all bent out of shape. The Falcons for their part slipped further down the pecking order with another last-second setback.
SAINTS: Not long ago, New Orleans was staring at the real possibility of an 0-2 start despite two home games to open. Now the Saints are atop the division at 3-1 after pulling out a Week 2 game against the Browns and a Week 3 trip to Atlanta before pulling away in impressive fashion this past Sunday against a Giants team headed to Charlotte this weekend.
And by the way, this week when the Saints host Washington on Monday Night Football will mark the return of running back Mark Ingram – who rushed for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns last season – from a four-game suspension. It only feels to the Giants like those were Alvin Kamara's numbers Sunday; the second-year back instead "settled" for 134 rushing yards with three touchdowns and 47 receiving yards in a 33-18 victory.
That's a pretty dangerous running game for an offense poised to feature the NFL's all-time leading passer. Drew Brees needs 201 passing yards Monday to increase his total to 71,941 yards and pass Peyton Manning as the league's career leader.
BUCCANEERS: It's even harder to believe now than it was at the time that Tampa actually opened the season with a 48-40 victory in New Orleans. The Buccaneers followed that up with an impressive victory over the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles but began to backslide in Week 3.
Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't have quite enough Fitzmagic to overcome a Fitztragic first half in a 30-27 loss to the Steelers, then it all came crashing down Sunday in Chicago. The Bears rolled to a 48-10 romp that saw Fitzpatrick replaced by Jameis Winston in the former starter's first game back from a three-game suspension.
A despondent Dirk Koetter said after the game, "We should fire everybody that was on that field today, starting with me." The head coach then demoted Fitzpatrick on Monday, announcing that Winston will start when the Buccaneers return from their bye and visit the Falcons. A defense that's giving up a league-high 34.8 points per game might be in even more need of an intervention.
FALCONS: The Falcons remain a talented and dangerous team (just ask the Panthers), but either them or their Week 5 opponent is in danger of falling into a deep hole in the early going. Coming off their third last-second loss of the season, 1-3 Atlanta will visit 1-2-1 Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The Falcons do have a top-heavy schedule, with the first quarter of it netting only a home victory over the Panthers in a game that nearly slipped away. This past Sunday saw Atlanta fall 37-36 to the visiting Bengals on A.J. Green's sliding 13-yard touchdown reception with seven seconds left. Atlanta fell at home the previous week in overtime, 43-37 to the Saints on Brees' second touchdown run of all things. Atlanta opened the season with a heartbreaking loss at the Eagles.
All is not lost for a Falcons team that could get running back Devonta Freeman back this week from a knee injury and that faces just one opponent above .500 the next five weeks. However, three of those five games are on the road starting with the Steelers.