METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton said he doesn't think opponents can really glean anything valuable from seeing the zoomed-in look of his play-calling sheet during ESPN's "Monday Night Football" broadcast. But the New Orleans Saints coach clearly wasn't a fan of the network's decision to do so.

Payton
Payton
"Pretty soon they'll be in our bench area helping out with the play calls," cracked Payton, who said the access of cameras and microphones seems to increase every year. "I don't think there's much to it. There's a lot of terminology. But I am kind of surprised it showed up on the TV screen. … I wouldn't put it on if I was ESPN."

When asked if there's anything he could use from an opponents' play sheet, Payton said, "There'd be nothing to really do with it. You look at their terminology. There's nothing that it's really giving you. ... It's 50 different names of plays, they're not numbered in any particular order."

Payton said the bigger concern for all teams around the NFL is how much the quarterback's cadence gets picked up with microphones now on guards or centers for nationally-televised broadcasts.

"That's significant. That topic, we would have a database now. … Shoot Peyton Manning's doing a commercial because of it," Payton said -- referencing Manning's famous "Omaha! Omaha!" call. "That's much more significant than what we're discussing, in regards to get-offs … the tempo of a cadence, how it sounds, when a play's changed. That's different now. That's something we're adjusting with, everyone has to."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he thinks every quarterback "kind of has their own spin" on their cadence at the line and does something a little bit different.

"But at the end of the day, you change it up," Brees said. "You don't give ‘em the same thing every time."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Perhaps it was a hint. At least an indication.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was adamant on Wednesday he wasn't ready to name his starting quarterback for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.

Newton
Newton
He still wants a few more days to evaluate if Cam Newton, eight days removed from suffering two small fractures in his lower back in a two-vehicle crash, is healthy enough to start.

He said how Newton looks on Thursday after a successful return to practice on Wednesday will be big.

So Rivera is playing his options close to the vest, knowing Derek Anderson is more than capable as the starter if called upon for a second straight week.

When asked if Newton will start if he looks ready to go, he gave one of his patented "we'll sees."

The hint might have come when Rivera said this felt like Week 2 when the Panthers were preparing for Detroit.

Newton sat out the opener against Tampa Bay, recovering from fractured ribs suffered during the preseason. He returned to practice full the following Wednesday and started against the Lions.

He was effective, too, despite not being allowed to run at will. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 100.2. He handled being sacked four times.

He also ran four times for 19 yards.

If this feels like Week 2, Newton will start.

The difference is, Rivera said on the Monday of the Detroit game that Newton was ready to roll, barring a setback. He hasn't been quite that bold this week.

But Newton showed no signs on Wednesday of a player who'd been through the trauma of a car accident. He sprinted arguably faster than he has all season from the field where the team stretched to the adjacent field where the first drill took place.

He made moves running the read option that looked more like a player trying to convince those watching he was ready than one showing off.

He showed no signs of being in pain.

Anderson might be the safe play at this point, but the Panthers (5-8-1) aren't in a position of needing to be safe with two games remaining and the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said Newton's passes were "coming out with a lot of fire." Tight end Greg Olsen said Newton looked normal throwing the ball.

Rivera was impressed that Newton had a lot of zip on a couple of 60-yard passes that weren't completed.

It's been a tough season for the Panthers on and off the field. Their record isn't nearly what they had hoped.

That they have a chance to make the playoffs if they can win their final two games and New Orleans loses once is amazing.

Newton, unless he suffers a setback over the next two days, should play because he gives Carolina the best chance to turn a tough season potentially into a memorable one.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Todd McShay's first Insider mock draft Insider is out and it has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers making a big splash with the first overall pick.

McShay has the Bucs taking Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. That's one pick ahead of where he has Tennessee taking Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. So it looks like the early assumption by McShay is that the top two quarterbacks will go at the very top of the draft.

That's entirely possible and the Bucs may be choosing between Mariota and Winston. But I also think there's a chance the Bucs could go in another direction. Mariota has played in a spread offense and I don't see the Bucs changing to a spread offense. Winston has had some off-field issues and that could scare the Bucs away.

I can see Tampa Bay trading out of the top spot (assuming that's where the Bucs end up) for someone that's sold on one of the two quarterbacks. The Bucs have a huge need for a pass-rusher and McShay has five defensive ends going in his top-10 picks.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith made clear his feelings about providing injury updates on top receiver Julio Jones, who continues to recover from a hip injury.

Jones
Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Steelers, did not practice Wednesday. Smith said Monday he wasn't going to engage in a "Julio watch" and reiterated his stance following today's practice.

"We'll make a decision on 10:30 [Central time] on Sunday morning, when we put in our inactives," Smith said. "And that will be the last time I'm going to talk about Julio."

All indications are Jones will be ready to go Sunday, no matter how the practice situation unfolds this week. The Falcons no doubt rested Jones against the Steelers knowing how crucial it would be to have him back for the Saints in Week 16. A loss in New Orleans means the 5-9 Falcons would be eliminated from the NFC South race and playoff contention.

Four other Falcons sat out Wednesday's practice, along with Jones: Roddy White (knee), Harry Douglas (foot), Jon Asamoah (back), and William Moore (foot). Cornerback Josh Wilson (hand) was limited.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a hip injury, was not on the field for the start of Wednesday's practice.

Jones
Coach Mike Smith said he anticipates having Jones back to face the Saints this Sunday. All indications are Jones is progressing well and will indeed suit up, barring any last-minute setbacks.

Also absent from the start of Wednesday's practice were receiver Roddy White (undisclosed), safety William Moore (foot), and right guard Jon Asamoah (back). Receiver Harry Douglas (foot) was on the field catching passes without a helmet.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Roman Harper put his arm around one of his young defensive backfield mates as he does on almost a daily basis and offered some sound veteran advice.

"You might want to think about taking that apron off," the Carolina Panthers strong safety said with a smile.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsRoman Harper leads Carolina in interceptions, but the Panthers say he's been just as valuable off the field.
OK, so this won’t help the Panthers beat the Cleveland Browns this Sunday and stay alive for the NFC South title.

Harper was just making sure the player didn’t leave his Monday night charity event for children in need, an event in which more than a dozen teammates such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin worked as waiters, looking like the hired help.

Harper, 32, loves being the senior citizen of Carolina’s revamped secondary. With two rookies (cornerback Bene' Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston) and a third-year cornerback (Josh Norman) starting around him, he likens himself to Bill Russell when the NBA Hall of Famer was a player-coach for the Boston Celtics in the late 1960s.

Harper even has Russell’s familiar peppered-gray hair that makes him look older than he is.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he wished he had a player like Harper, signed in March as a free agent from New Orleans, four years ago.

"You watch him put his arm around the young safeties and say things to them about how to do things," Rivera said. "It’s been great to watch veteran leadership."

Harper is the only member of the secondary left that started in Week 1. He’s played his best football of the season -- maybe the past two or three -- the last month. He had his 17th-career sack, the most by a defensive back since he joined the league in 2006, in Sunday’s 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay. He has a team-best three interceptions.

He has helped turn a secondary that at midseason was one of the weakest positions into a strength, a big reason the Panthers have won two straight.

But Harper’s value goes beyond what he does on the field. It’s his willingness to share his experiences and knowledge, in life as well as football.

"[Rivera] probably didn’t want me four years ago," Harper said. "I probably was a little more selfish as a player. Now I try to be completely selfless. I try to do whatever is best for this team.

"I look at Tre, I look at Bene'. They don’t know what they’re doing half the time. They’re just going out playing ball. What I’m here for is help show this team how to win and be a professional."

Harper does it in a way that isn’t intimidating.

"He’s not going to be a parent to you, over-coach you, but he’s always there when you need him," Benwikere said. "He’s always there to answer any question you need, to show you the ropes.

"He definitely talked to me about experiences he’s been through. It’s been a nice ride just learning from him."

Boston leaned on Harper for advice often during offseason workouts when a sports hernia kept him from participating.

"Roman has meant the world to me," he said. "It’s kind of hard to say the world when you have family, but in this football world Roman has really helped me to become a man, understand the game and life."

This season has been a learning experience for Harper as well. He feels more like the player that made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010 than the one that played in only nine games and started only five last season with the Saints.

"I look at myself on tape, I look fresh, I look young, I look rejuvenated compared to how I was a player the past few years,’’ Harper said. "I really like who I am as a player right now

"I’m playing smart, very instinctive, still flying around making plays."

He’s also offering advice, from football to fashion faux pas.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the big topics following the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was the status of outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, who was benched in the game just days after he complained about his snaps.

Falcons coach Mike Smith called the benching a "coach's decision." Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan followed up Tuesday by talking about his message to Massaquoi in this particular circumstance.

Massaquoi
"Just being frank with him, as I told Massaquoi just the other day -- and I'm not divulging anything that's secret between the two of us -- but he was playing well, he got hurt (against) Detroit, he came back injured, he hasn't played since, now all of sudden he's well again," Nolan explained. "That's fine, but now you have to practice that way so we can see that you're well, and get back on the field. And if it's the reps that you're concerned about, in practice, you know, there are scout-team reps to be taken all the time, so you can jump in on anything you want to say, 'Look, I'm well. And here's what I can do.'

"And I think Mass will do that. At least I'm hopeful he will. He's got something to offer. Last year, I thought he was one of our most improved defensive players. Matter of fact, he might have been the most improved defensive player. And last year, it showed late in the year. And we're obviously late in the year right now. So if he can do that, it would be great. But he didn't have the injury a year ago that he had this year that held him out for a month. ... Like I said, he's just got to show up."

Massaquoi injured his right foot during the Falcons' 22-21 loss to the Lions in London back in Week 8. He said his foot didn't really feel back to normal until before the Green Bay game in Week 14, but he played just seven snaps against the Packers. The lack of playing time led to him voicing his displeasure for the second time this season.

"As you see and I see and I know, if I get 40 snaps and I get into a groove and rhythm, I’m able to change the dynamics of the game," Massaquoi told ESPN.com last week.

It remains unclear whether Massaquoi's words led to his benching against the Steelers, and the coaching staff would never make that public.

Moving forward, it's fair to wonder if Massaquoi will be utilized in Sunday's crucial road game in New Orleans. A loss to the Saints would knock the 5-9 Falcons out of playoff contention.

Massaquoi, who has two sacks and six quarterback hits this season, played 26 of 75 defensive snaps when the Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in the season opener.

Nolan was asked if Massaquoi can help the defense get after Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

"If he's playing at his top level, yeah," Nolan said. "But again, there's something to do before we just say, 'Hey, you look good. Go in.' You have to do some things in practice so we can see."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made it to Bank of America on Tuesday this time.

Exactly a week after suffering two small fractures in his lower back when his 1998 pickup truck rolled in a two-vehicle accident on the way to the stadium, Newton was in for treatment to get him ready for his possible return on Sunday against Cleveland.

Newton spent time on the underwater treadmill and was scheduled to throw.

Afterwards, Newton began delivering Christmas cheer with what he called on Twitter his #SantaCam Surprise Sleigh. His elves, according to this picture he tweeted, were backup quarterback/wide receiver Joe Webb and rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin.



Coach Ron Rivera said on Monday that Newton's status for Cleveland would depend largely on the quarterback's ability to protect himself from further harm. By that he meant Newton had to show the ability to escape pressure and keep a play alive.

Rivera said he would like to make a decision as early in the week as possible on whether Newton or backup Derek Anderson, who led Carolina (5-8-1) to a 19-17 victory against Tampa Bay on Sunday, will start.

He said Newton's status ultimately will come down to what he observes in practice from Newton, as well as what the team doctors and trainers tell him.

Players return to the practice field on Wednesday to prepare for a game the Panthers must win to remain alive in the NFC South playoff chase. Carolina needs to win its final two games and hope the Saints lose against Atlanta or Tampa Bay to repeat as division champs.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he'll have a game plan ready for whichever quarterback plays.

While Shula developed a game plan, Newton continued to deliver Christmas cheer around Charlotte.

METAIRIE, La. -- If New Orleans Saints kicker Shayne Graham was on the hot seat before, it can't have cooled off much after he missed a 51-yard field goal in Monday night's 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears.

Graham
Graham
Graham appeared to stumble a bit after the kick -- but it was unclear if that affected the kick, which missed a little short and right. And holder Luke McCown didn't spin the laces around on the football. But coach Sean Payton said he'd have to look at the tape before passing any judgment.

Graham's attempt came after McCown had dropped the snap on a previous attempt -- but the Saints got a do-over because of offsetting penalties.

There was a steady rain for several hours in Chicago leading into the first quarter. But Payton said the footing "wasn't that bad really."

Graham, who later made a 25-yard field goal attempt, is now 19-of-22 on the season (plus one missed extra point). But the Saints tried out four kickers last week after Graham had missed a 42-yarder at home against the Carolina Panthers.

And Payton said it's possible to be "unhappy off the last performance" despite a steady body of work throughout the season. Ultimately, though, New Orleans stuck with Graham and Payton insisted he believed he would respond the right way.

You could also question the decision to attempt that 51-yard kick in the first place on Monday night, especially with some mild weather conditions to deal with. But the Saints appeared to have a light wind at their back. Graham had just nailed a 55-yarder going in the same direction during his last warm-up kick with at least 5 yards to spare.

QB snapshot: Matt Ryan

December, 16, 2014
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A quick observation of quarterback Matt Ryan and how he played in the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss in Week 15:

Ryan
Ryan
The aspect you have to appreciate about Ryan is how he owns up to his mistakes.

Such was the case after Sunday's game, when Ryan was uncharacteristically off in the first half. The biggest blunder was the pass he threw to Harry Douglas at the start of the second quarter that ended up right in the hands of Steelers cornerback William Gay, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

"I let it go, and certainly a decision you can't make," Ryan said. "I can't do that. It stops there."

Yes, Ryan recovered nicely by finishing the day completing 26 of 37 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns. But he missed three of his first five throws, including the interception. And his two bad passes on the Falcons' first possession stalled a drive into Steelers territory. In all fairness to Ryan, playing without Julio Jones (hip) didn't help matters.

With their playoff lives on the line, the Falcons need Ryan to play like an elite quarterback for all four quarters, not just when the team is playing from behind. He'll be challenged this week simply by the circumstances of a hostile road environment against the bitter-rival Saints. Ryan is 1-5 all time vs. Drew Brees at the Superdome.

QB snapshot: Drew Brees

December, 16, 2014
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A quick observation of quarterback Drew Brees and how he played in the New Orleans Saints' 31-15 victory in Week 15:

Brees
Suddenly Brees has become human at home and unstoppable on the road. Brees gave another outstanding performance Monday night against the Chicago Bears despite some chilly temps and a little wind and rain. He completed 18 of his first 20 passes and finished 29-of-36 for 375 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It was a calm, cool and collected performance that featured a lot of throws to tight ends and running back Pierre Thomas -- but also a few to his receivers downfield as he completed at least four passes to five different guys.

And it was a far cry from last week's disaster at home against Carolina, when Brees forced an early interception in a 41-10 loss.

"I think we responded well as a team," Brees said when asked if he was harder on himself than usual after such a spectacular loss. "We were embarrassed about what happened last week. We know we're better than that and certainly felt a great sense of urgency going into this game just knowing what's at stake and knowing what a win would do for us -- not just in the standings, but from a confidence standpoint."

Mother Nature helped. A steady rain let up just around kickoff time, which allowed the Saints to pick on Chicago's porous pass defense.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was one completion shy of the best start of his career (19-of-21 vs. Atlanta in 2009). And he's tied with Peyton Manning for the most 300-yard, three-TD games in NFL history (46).

QB snapshot: Derek Anderson

December, 16, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A quick observation of quarterback Derek Anderson and how he played in the Carolina Panthers' 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay:

Anderson
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said it best: Anderson tends to stay in the pocket longer and go through his reads, while Cam Newton tends to pull the ball down and run sooner at the sign of trouble.

Perhaps that explains why Anderson completed 15 passes of 10 or more yards against the Buccaneers, while Newton had only seven the week before in a 41-10 victory over New Orleans. The longer the quarterback stays in the pocket, the longer the play has to develop, and the longer he gets to go through his progressions. Six of Anderson’s passes of 10 or more yards went to tight end Greg Olsen, who finished with 10 catches for 110 yards. The tight end often comes into play more the longer the quarterback stays in the pocket because he often has to block before he releases into his pattern.

Olsen had a team-high eight catches for 83 yards in Week 1, when Anderson replaced Newton against Tampa Bay.

“A guy like Derek Anderson is going to lean a lot more on his tight end, as opposed to his legs," Rivera said. “With Cam on some of those, he might have pulled it down and took off running, whereas Derek Anderson is going to stay in the pocket. That is one of the bigger differences between the two quarterbacks."

Those are differences Cleveland must prepare for with Newton's status, since he fractured two small bones in his lower back a week ago, still in question.

QB snapshot: Josh McCown

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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A quick observation of quarterback Josh McCown and how he played in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 19-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 15:

McCown
McCown was brought in to be an efficient, veteran presence. But he hasn’t been playing very efficiently lately. He had his third straight game in which he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. He completed 13 of 28 passes for 154 yards with one touchdown and one interception; he was sacked three times and lost two fumbles.

One of those fumbles was especially costly as it set up an easy Carolina touchdown that put the Panthers ahead to stay. McCown admitted to pressing too much earlier in the season. It looks like he’s doing it again in recent weeks.

If McCown was playing the type of turnover-free football he did in Chicago last year, the Bucs would have a much better record.
Join us Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. PT) for ESPN NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast, as episode No. 36 will cover the latest from the NFL.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Pat McManamon (Cleveland Browns reporter) as he talks Johnny Manziel, who was more Johnny Rotten than Johnny Football in his NFL starting debut.

Also, Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) stops by to discuss Tom Brady's slow-motion run that sent a message, while Pat Yasinskas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter) opines on whether Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota is on the Bucs’ radar should they get the No. 1 overall pick.

Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers reporter) will break down Aaron Rodgers' subpar showing in Buffalo and how it might affect not only the Pack’s shot at landing home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs but also Rodgers’ MVP candidacy. And Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals reporter) will have the latest on Ryan Lindley's shot at pulling the upset in Seattle and solidifying the Cardinals’ standing as the NFC’s top seed, while Gutierrez will break down the latest with the 49ers and Jim Harbaugh’s future.

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

The New Orleans Saints (6-8) control their own destiny in the NFC South. And they could even possibly clinch the division title this week.

 However, the Saints could also be eliminated from playoff contention this week.

Here are some of the scenarios:
  • The Saints clinch the NFC South if they win their final two games – vs. the Atlanta Falcons (5-9) in Week 16 and at Tampa Bay in Week 17.
  • The Saints clinch the NFC South if they beat the Falcons AND the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) lose one more game (either vs. Cleveland in Week 16 or at Atlanta in Week 17).
  • The Saints can still win the NFC South if they lose to Atlanta – but it would require the Saints winning in Week 17, the Panthers losing in Week 16 and the Falcons losing in Week 17.
  • The Saints can be eliminated from the playoffs this week if they lose to Atlanta and the Panthers beat Cleveland. … That means the winner of Carolina-Atlanta in Week 17 would win the division (or Carolina in the case of a tie).

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