League's most competitive division not what you might think

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The Panthers were riding high before they were brought back to earth by the Buccaneers on Sunday.

Three teams in what might be the NFL's most competitive division have winning records and the squad in last place, which boasts a .500 record, might turn out being the best of the lot. None of the four teams are named Giants, Cowboys, Redskins or Eagles either.

This is the NFC South, where, from top-to-bottom, it's impossible to declare a true favorite. The NFC South is also where a surprise team could claim the division title and another might end up scooping a wild-card playoff spot -- something seemingly unfathomable a few weeks ago because three of the four teams in the NFC East seemed locks for the postseason.

Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, yes, Atlanta, are 4-2 and are tied for the division lead. New Orleans, the preseason favorite to win the division, is 3-3. While none of these teams may be as talented as those in the NFC East, Carolina and Tampa Bay boasts the types of defenses that can get each to the postseason while the Falcons and New Orleans have the offensive makeup -- particularly at quarterback -- to keep things interesting until the final weekend of the season.

"We won four games last year and we're 4-2 after we've played six," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. "We've got 10 more to go. It's wonderful to have four wins already. We've got to keep going now. We feel as if we're a pretty good team. We're 0-2 in the division. We've got to win some division games."

With that, let's break down the NFC South:

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Atlanta, 4-2

Since 2002, the team that finished last in the division won the NFC South the following year. That string seemed set to be broken by the Falcons. They tore apart the roster, front office and the coaching staff. They re-structured a poor offensive line with a rookie left tackle (Sam Baker) and a right side made up of undrafted free agents (Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo). Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was supposed to endure the rookie blues, especially behind that offensive line.

Arguably the surprise team in the NFL, Ryan has played like a veteran, coach Mike Smith has players loving to come to work and the coaching staff has been able to mask most of the team's flaws. As a result, players are making plays they might not ordinarily make and now there is a belief that they might actually have something brewing. The Falcons enter their bye week with back-to-back wins and players are hoping the reprieve doesn't interrupt momentum.

"Everybody has bought in," White said. "We're not the most talented team but if you play together as a team, as one unit, you end up getting wins. That's how we've been doing it this year."

The Falcons also have been doing it against the NFC North. They have beaten Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago. Their other victory came against Kansas City. While the victories have boosted morale, Atlanta was shredded by Carolina and Tampa Bay. Credibility will be established once they win a division game or two -- three of four which will be played in the Georgia Dome.

Carolina, 4-2

The Panthers looked like the class of the division until they got smacked, bullied and handled Sunday at Tampa Bay.

"The message doesn't change very much from my perspective," Carolina coach John Fox said. "When we win, it's pretty much 'X,' and when we lose, it's pretty much 'X.' The sky is not falling. It's not the end of the world. Really, in this league, they don't keep style points. So whether you lose by 40 or four, it still goes in as a loss."

The Panthers overcame the preseason distraction and suspension of star receiver Steve Smith, who punched teammate Ken Lucas, breaking his nose. Their two victories without Smith got them feeling pretty good about themselves. Once he returned, things were supposed to be even better. They're 2-2 (1-1 in the division) since he came back but that is more coincidence then placing blame at his competitive feet.

Consecutive wins over Atlanta and Kansas City by a combined score of 58-9 could have given the Panthers a tad too much confidence in themselves before facing the Bucs. Tampa Bay leveled any big-headedness by picking off Delhomme three times and blocking a punt for a score.

Fox's firm hand should help Carolina re-group before a potentially tough game against New Orleans on Sunday. The Panthers have the ingredients to get back on track and remain in contention. They are getting healthier along the offensive line. The defense, led by middle linebacker and emerging star Jon Beason, is playoff caliber. The running game that was stifled by the Bucs, is still good enough to beat most defenses on a consistent basis.

Tampa Bay 4-2:

Last season's division champs seem to thrive under adversity.

The re-insertion of quarterback Jeff Garcia for injured quarterback Brian Griese came after Garcia was all but exiled after a poor, injury-laden preseason and loss to New Orleans in the season-opener. When he was called upon, though, he delivered in the resounding thrashing of Carolina -- and retained his starting job, at least for another game.

Besides Garcia being at the ready, the professionalism of Tampa Bay's players has been key to their success. When injuries depleted the fullback corps, starting tailback Earnest Graham played much of Sunday's game in a three-point stance at fullback and cleared holes for tailback Warrick Dunn to go over 100 yards against a very strong Panthers' run defense. That is the type of selflessness that keeps all 53 players humble and gives coaches one less thing to worry about.

A good, young offensive line and a decent running game allow Tampa Bay to overcome any gaps in the passing game. Then there's the opportunistic defense (11 interceptions) which might boast the best secondary in the division and one of the top safety tandems in the NFL (Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson).

The Bucs will now play five consecutive non-division games, with only one, Dallas, having a winning record. The Cowboys will be without quarterback Tony Romo, who will be out for likely a month with a broken finger. Tampa is the only team in the NFC South with two divisional wins (Carolina and Atlanta) but it also is the only team in the division to lose to New Orleans.

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New Orleans, 3-3

The Saints have the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league and, in Drew Brees, have the most productive quarterback in the NFL. Turnovers, poor defense and injuries have been the reasons behind their slow start -- if it can really be called that.

The Saints' three losses have come by a total of 10 points. They are losses nonetheless.

The good news for the Saints is that the maligned defense, led by re-born middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, is playing better and more physically. Running back Reggie Bush had quieted detractors and is making things happen on special teams and the passing game as well as running the ball.

New Orleans just got back the needed between-the-tackles punch of tailback Deuce McAllister. It's also is set to re-gain the services of Pro Bowl wide receiver Marques Colston (thumb). Tight end Jeremy Shockey (sports hernia) will be back soon too. The menu is about to become full service just in time for one of the most brutal scheduling stretches of any team in the league.

The Saints play at Carolina Sunday. Then they play the Chargers in London. After a bye week, New Orleans travels to Atlanta and then to Kansas City before finally returning to the Super Dome for a Monday Night game with Green Bay.

With Atlanta winning twice as many games as it's lost and New Orleans looking up at the rest of the division, things have gone against expectations thus far in the NFC South. Most notably, it has emerged as the most competitive -- the NFC East is still the most talented -- division in the NFL.



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