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Around the NFC South: Saints extend edge while watching


Another wild-and-crazy week in the NFC South is in the books, but in the process the standings didn't change.

The Panthers missed an opportunity to catch the Saints atop the division but succumbed to turnovers in Washington. While New Orleans enjoyed its bye week before starting a taxing stretch of games, the bottom of the standings got a little tighter but didn't change order as the Falcons began trying to dig out of a hole while the Buccaneers continued to show signs of falling into one.

FALCONS: It's not often that going for a field goal instead of going for a fourth down can be called the gutsy move, but what happened Sunday qualifies. Facing fourth-and-2 at the Buccaneers' 39-yard line and clinging to a 31-29 lead with 1:16 to play, the Falcons trusted the 43-year-old leg of Matt Bryant.

The ageless wonder delivered, though he showed his age a bit by hurting his hamstring on the 57-yard kick that proved the difference. That's because in the latest NFC South shootout, the Buccaneers easily advanced into field goal range in the final seconds but needed a touchdown thanks to Bryant's boot. A bizarre quarterback draw/lateral play ended it with Tampa on the doorstep.

To say Atlanta had to have this one would be an understatement. Coming off a playoff appearance, the Falcons entered the game at 1-4 but escaped with hope at least and will now kick off a manageable month of games by hosting the 1-5 Giants on Monday Night Football. They'll have to do so without Bryant and running back Devonta Freeman, who has virtually been ruled out already by head coach Dan Quinn for the fifth time this season.

BUCCANEERS: Well, Tampa is keeping things entertaining, even if the Bucs haven't been able to keep their early-season success going. They've now bookended a blowout loss to the Bears with dramatic ones against first the Steelers and now the Falcons to fall to 2-3.

Jameis Winston was effective in his first start of the season, but aside from the Chicago debacle, points haven't been a problem for this team. Limiting opponents' points has been a big problem, and the day after the loss head coach Dirk Koetter tried to do something about it, firing defensive coordinator (and former Falcons head coach) Mike Smith. Linebackers coach Mark Duffner will take over in the interim.

The Bucs had high hopes for their defense after an overhaul in the offseason, but they're yielding a pretty stunning 34.6 points per game (the Falcons aren't much better at 32.0). Tampa will try to remain relevant the next two weeks with the NFC North/Ohio portion of their schedule – hosting the Browns before visiting the Bengals.

SAINTS: The Saints sat and watched from the sideline as the two teams directly behind them in the division standings tumbled. Not that long ago New Orleans looked to be set up for another slow start to a season, losing to the Bucs at home to open and getting themselves behind the eight-ball at home against the Browns the next week. But they rallied and have kept on coming, surviving that one and then putting up nearly 40 points per game while winning the next three before their bye.

The Saints' next four games are all against teams above .500, starting with trips to defenses that will test their offense (Baltimore and Minnesota). The fifth game in the stretch isn't against your garden-variety .500 team – a matchup with the reigning champion Eagles who appear to be rounding into shape.