After being the league’s worst division last season and getting a team into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record, the NFC South can make a compelling case for most improved division in the league. Back-to-back champions Carolina are 8-0, the Falcons started strongly under new head coach Dan Quinn, the Saints are figuring out their new identity, and Jameis Winston has given the Buccaneers a new lease of life. So who can win the division?
by Edd Hodsdon
The 8-0 Panthers have surprised everyone this season. Quarterback Cam Newton is playing at an MVP level despite not having much of a supporting cast and losing his number one receiver before the season even began. Carolina has the league’s best rushing offense thanks to a healthy Johnathan Stewart and an underrated offensive line that was cobbled together in free agency. The Panthers also have the best defense in the division. Stud linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have once again been arguably the league’s best tandem. The young secondary has improved, led by corner Josh Norman, whose four interceptions are tied for second in the league. But the most surprising thing about the Panthers? How they have handled playoff calibre opponents. Half of Carolina’s wins have come against playoff contenders in Philadelphia, Seattle, Indianapolis and Green Bay. The Panthers have essentially secured home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs, and are a proven contender for the top seed. Carolina’s remaining schedule is also one of the easiest in the league. Just one of Carolina’s remaining opponents has a winning record; the Atlanta Falcons – whom Carolina will play twice – haven’t looked like true contenders over the past few weeks. With none of their remaining opponents looking likely to spoil Carolina’s party, could the Panthers go 16-0?
by Tom Parry-Jones
With three defeats in their last four games, the Atlanta Falcons look a far cry from the team that started the season winning five straight. But when you consider that the last two games have been lost by a total of four points, you start to realise that it won’t take much to get them back on track. Only two of the teams the Falcons have left to play have winning records, but one of those is the as-yet-unbeaten Carolina Panthers, who the Falcons have to play twice in the last four weeks of the season. While the prospect of playing an unbeaten team is never appetising, it presents an opportunity for the Falcons to claw back the losses they suffered to fellow division rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints, and also strike a blow to Carolina’s hopes of completing a perfect season. Atlanta’s best hopes of a successful end to the season lie with their offensive trio of QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones and RB Devonta Freeman, all of whom are in the top four in the league in terms of yards gained in their respective positions; Jones even leads the league in receiving yards with 1,029 after 9 games, while Freeman has the most rushing TDs with 9. However, their defense is very much a walking contradiction. While the Falcons have one of the best rush defenses in the league, conceding only 88.9 yards per game on the ground, they’ve also given up the second-most rushing TDs (11); meanwhile, they’re in the bottom half for passing yards given up yet somehow they’ve only conceded 11 passing TDs, tied with the Panthers for 8th best in the league. But perhaps the biggest advantage the Falcons have is that they’re currently on their bye week. Coming off two straight losses, the bye will give them a chance to regroup, focus on what they do well and work on the things they’ve done badly. And even if they don’t win the division, they’re still a strong contender for one of the wildcard spots in the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints
by David Venables
After their dreadful start to the season, the Saints have hauled themselves into the race for the NFC wildcard playoff places. Though it may be too little, too late, for them to win the NFC South, here is a case as to why they can at least make the heir apparent Panthers rest uneasy. First off, Drew Brees has looked like his old, dangerous self coming over a torn shoulder labrum earlier in the season. His 7 touchdown, 1 interception game against the Giants in Week 8 was the peak of his season to date, and he carried that form over into the narrow loss against the Buccaneers last weekend. He is being helped by the likes of Brandin Cooks and Josh Hill finally gaining some separation, but it’s fair to say that he helps them more than they help him. Secondly, streetwise head coach Sean Payton has been here before. He has been to the playoffs as head coach of the Saints as many times as the other three coaches in the division (Lovie Smith, Ron Rivera and Dan Quinn) have combined. Payton may have been inwardly accepting that the division is lost due to the Panthers seemingly insurmountable lead at the top, but if any NFC team can squeak into the playoffs under the radar, safe money would be on the Saints. If the Rob Ryan defense can tighten up and not force Brees to play in shoot-outs week in and week out, then the Saints have the firepower and experience to trouble any team in 2015.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
by Gur Samuel
At 5 wins behind the division-leading Panthers, it might be optimistic to suggest that the Bucs still have a chance to win the division, but stranger things have happened; and besides, optimism comes naturally to Bucs fans – as you might expect from the followers of the team with the lowest all-time winning percentage of all 32 teams. So why should Bucs fans be optimistic at this stage in the season? Two names: Jameis Winston, and Dirk Koetter. Winston is legitimately looking like the real deal, unafraid to aggressively take shots down the field but unquestionably learning to take what the defensive will give him and play it safe when needed. Koetter, meanwhile, has been a revelation at offensive co-ordinator for the most part, using multiple schemes and looks from his offense to attack every part of the field. The truth is, the Bucs could be looking at 7-2 rather than 4-5 right now. The Texans game was lost thanks to three missed kicks and a missed extra point but the now-cut kicker Kyle Brindza. The Washington game was lost due to some defensive prudishness, and some dropped passes resulting in drives ending in 3 points rather than 7. The Giants game was again lost thanks to many, many dropped passes. Well, Kyle Brindza has since been replaced. The defense has shored up since that Washington game, redeeming an otherwise bad defensive game with some clutch turnovers against the Falcons and then a staunch performance against the Cowboys yesterday. The drops, well, they’re still there, but they’re correctable; and if they get corrected? This team has much more talent than many people give them credit for, and while the defense is still very much a work in progress, between Famous Jameis commanding the offense on the field and Dirk Koetter controlling it from the booth, this team is ripe to make a late-season surge that could well see the Bucs – currently the #8 seed for the playoffs – sneak into the postseason.