QB Matt Ryan (Scott Cunningham/Getty)
Due to constant bumbling by the Carolina Panthers, the NFC South has long been a three-team race. In Week 13, the top two dogs separated themselves from the rest of the pack. Here is a look at how the divisional tilts shook out on Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons (10-2)
What went right? Another test, another test passed. On a sloppy field in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers gave the Falcons everything they could handle, but once again the frontrunners for the top seed in the NFC got the victory. Following a Bucs touchdown that put Tampa Bay ahead by 10 in the fourth quarter, Eric Weems ran the ensuing kickoff back for a score. The defense responded with a three-and-out, then Matt Ryan led the offense on a 10-play touchdown drive to put the Falcons ahead for good.
What went wrong? Ryan threw two interceptions, the Falcons' first turnovers of any kind in the last five games.
What question needs to be answered? There are not a lot of unanswered questions with this team. The Falcons just need to maintain their focus and win their next two games against awful teams (the Panthers and Seattle Seahawks) before what should be a classic Week 16 game against the New Orleans Saints.
New Orleans Saints (9-3)
What went right? Drew Brees became the Saints' all-time leader in passing yardage, but it was his hard count that saved the game. Down by three with under a minute to play, the Saints had a fourth-and-2 inside the Cincinnati Bengals' 5-yard line. Rather than try a field goal and send the game to overtime, Sean Payton elected to have Brees try a freeze play to get the Bengals to jump offsides. The Bengals -- being the Bengals -- obliged. Just like that, the Saints got a gift first down and scored on the next play to go ahead.
What went wrong? The Saints were penalized 11 times for 100 yards. Usually that leads to a defeat ... unless you're playing the Bengals.
What question needs to be answered? What effect, if any, will Pierre Thomas have on the offense when he returns from an ankle injury, presumably this week? His return means there is one more mouth to feed on an offense loaded with talent.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)
What went right? They had 'em. They had the Falcons right where they wanted them, but maybe they just didn't know what to do with such a big lead so late in a game. The Bucs are used to coming from behind, not putting the nail in the coffin.
What went wrong? The loss means the Bucs will need lots of help to make the playoffs. Add to that the news that CB Aqib Talib and C Jeff Faine both got put on IR and it seems like the Bucs' magic has run out.
What question needs to be answered? Do they have enough resolve left to muster a few more surprises for the doubters?
Can the Panthers get back in the mix as early as 2011? Talk in the message boards.
Michael Stolp is a graduate of Wilkes University with a degree in Communications. He grew up in Piscataway, N.J., and recently relocated to Charlotte, NC. To follow his personal blog, click here.