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The Pro Football Notebook


December 27, 2010 7:37 AM

Showdown In The NFC South

AtlantaNewOrleans.jpgAtlanta hosts New Orleans tonight for Monday Night Football (8:30 ET, ESPN) in a game between two teams that I believe are the best two in the NFC. This is a very big game for the Saints, who need to win to stay alive in the NFC South, as well to avoid next week's game with Tampa Bay being must-win just to make the playoffs. For Atlanta, they have some breathing room. Even if they lose tonight, they can beat Carolina at home next week and wrap up everything from the division to the NFC's #1 seed. A home game with Carolina is an insurance policy that would make any broker green with envy.

New Orleans is the more explosive team while Atlanta the steadier and that applies on both sides of the ball. Drew Brees makes big plays, but can also be forced into mistakes. Matt Ryan is more efficient, in large part because he has a running game he can trust led by Michael Turner. The Saints can apply big defensive pressure with their linebackers, while Atlanta can steadily collapse the pocket with their front four, led by John Abraham. There's been a media bandwagon starting that's proclaimed "Matty Ice" to now be better then Drew Brees. Look, I like Ryan--any guy with an Irish last name who played his college ball at Boston College will always be all right with me--but can we not get ahead of ourselves? Brees is carrying an offense on his back and has won a Super Bowl. Ryan has a strong running game and is seeking to lead his team to his first playoff win. Let's get a little perspective--a cause that won't be aided by the fact the Falcons will win this game tonight, 28-24.

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Three teams clinched division titles on Sunday. Kansas City locked up the AFC West. They beat Tennessee 34-14 in a game that was never close. The Chiefs did their usual nice work on the ground, but Matt Cassell came up with a championship effort, going 24/34 for 314 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. The win set KC up to just win next week against Oakland...until San Diego sped up the timetable. The Chargers inexplicably no-showed in Cincinnati, failing to run the ball, failing to get the ball downfield effectively and failing to stop a passing game that was missing Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. The Charger loss ended the Western Division race.

Indianapolis got similar help in clinching the AFC South. In the early game, Jacksonville gave up four sacks to a previously impotent Washington pass rush and then David Garrard threw an inexplicably bad pass that was intercepted in overtime and set up the winning field goal. Indy took the field in Oakland knowing they could clinch. For the second straight week they ran the ball well, this time Dominic Rhodes doing the honors and from their they let the Raiders shoot themselves in the foot with ten penalties.

Philadelphia's game with Minnesota was postponed due to a blizzard, but the Eagles clinched the NFC East when the Giants completely fell apart in Green Bay. Eli Manning threw four interceptions, while Aaron Rodgers was flawless. More surprising was that New York had absolutely no running game. The Eagles won their sixth division title of the Andy Reid era.

Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Philly join New England and Chicago as teams that have clinched. Atlanta hopes to become the sixth tonight. The AFC North and NFC West will go down to the final week.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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