NFC South race: Who can you trust in underwhelming division?

Back in March, I wrote a column on the NFC South that was based on a transparent premise:

I have no idea how to rank these four teams and no clue as to how the divisional race will play out.

Well, as you read this seven months later, I still don't know.

My thinking back in the spring was simple: The NFC South appeared wide open. I thought this was a division on the rise, with the arrow pointing up for three of the four teams -- and the fourth being Carolina, which demanded respect as the reigning NFC South champ. I also called the division "entertaining." I'd like to take a mulligan on that.

Through the first five weeks of the 2014 campaign, the NFC South has been subpar, unpredictable and uninspiring. It's tough to hitch your wagon to any of these inconsistent teams. It's tough to make a declarative statement on the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers or Saints.

By and large, the play has been rather gruesome. As a division, the NFC South is a pathetic 2-9 on the road thus far. That's an anemic .182 winning percentage. This division's teams are 1-4 in nonconference games.

Right now, the NFC South is the worst division in the NFL. I never saw that coming in the preseason.

On the plus side, thanks to the overwhelming underwhelmingness, there all four organizations/fan bases have genuine hope when it comes to the NFC South race. Right now, no team can be declared defunct.

Quick: First to nine wins captures the division!

This is a far cry from my preseason belief that the third-place team would go 8-8, but it's where we're at.

So which team will take a step forward? Who will take charge of the division over the next 12 weeks? How can a columnist predict the cream of such an unpredictable -- and uninspiring -- crop?

Taking a cue from the great Billy Joel, "It's a matter of trust."

Let's rank the flawed teams in the NFC South, based upon trust:

1) New Orleans Saints (2-3)

Yes, New Orleans -- despite coordinator Rob Ryan's horrible, underachieving, seemingly rudderless, often-confused defense -- leads the list of teams I trust in the NFC South. This is certainly no juggernaut, but the presence of Drew Brees and Sean Payton puts the Saints over the top. I picked them in the preseason and I will stay with the pick -- at least for now.

Remember when New Orleans would roll over opponents in the comfy confines of the Superdome? Well, the Saints needed overtime to edge the visiting Buccaneers on Sunday. Brees chucked three picks and was uncharacteristically inaccurate, but he made some big throws when it mattered. And the Saints got solid contributions from running backs Khiry Robinson (who ended the game with a beastly, tackle-breaking, 18-yard scamper in overtime) and Pierre Thomas. Despite losing Jimmy Graham to injury in the first half, New Orleans overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. The Saints have major issues. They also know how to win. And you have to believe Brees will even out his play.

Now, having said that, Ryan's defense continues to set football back. The unit can't make plays, can't get off the field -- it's wildly unreliable. Jairus Byrd's season-ending knee injury is a flat-out killer. Bottom line: New Orleans will have to outscore teams to succeed.

Many folks were talking Super Bowl for New Orleans in the preseason. Now, not so much. I had the Saints as a participant in the NFC title game. That won't happen. The defense is just too bad.

But I still trust that Brees is the straw that stirs the drink in this division.

2) Carolina Panthers (3-2)

Actually, I found Sunday's comeback win against the Chicago Bears to be incredibly impressive and telling. It shows the heart and character of this team. Carolina was sputtering, coming off brutal losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The team is a M.A.S.H. unit, decimated by injuries. The Bears have a bevy of weapons and jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first half. But the Panthers never quit. Cam Newton got comfortable in the no-huddle attack, working in tandem with tight end Greg Olsen, who notched a pair of touchdowns on the day. Given the banged-up status of the backfield, that was needed.

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This win was quite a statement, but my fear regarding Carolina stems from an overall lack of talent.

I love Kelvin Benjamin, but the Panthers don't have enough support for the rookie in the receiving corps. They never should have cut Steve Smith; outside of drafting Benjamin, they botched the position in the offseason.

I also love Luke Kuechly, having recently deemed him one of the NFL's most indispensable players. But without guys like Greg Hardy (who's been placed on the Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List) and Mike Mitchell (who left via free agency), last season's No. 2 overall defense is vulnerable.

I credit Carolina for Sunday's courageous win. But I can't eradicate the memory of this team getting crushed at home by a mediocre Pittsburgh team and embarrassed on the road by Smith and the Ravens.

There just isn't enough, on either side of the ball, around Newton and Kuechly.

3) Atlanta Falcons (2-3)

The Falcons are another M.A.S.H. unit, with injuries all over the defense and offensive line.

And just when you think the Falcons have turned the corner -- after, say, absolutely destroying Tampa in Week 3 -- they regress. Losing by 13 points at Minnesota -- with the Vikings giving a rookie quarterback his first NFL start -- was unacceptable. On Sunday, the Falcons had opportunities to beat the Giants and failed. New York made plays when it mattered. Atlanta crumbled.

Do you trust coach Mike Smith? When does he take heat for the underachievement? Smith's game management has always been questioned. Remember the fourth-down flubs against the Giants in the 2011 postseason (which, by the way, ended with Big Blue winning its most recent Lombardi Trophy)? Well, Falcons fans must've been having flashbacks on Sunday. With Atlanta down 27-20 and 4:40 remaining (plenty of time!), Smith decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 -- at his own 29-yard line. Yeah, that didn't work out too well ... This defied logic and common sense -- and it allowed the Giants to ice the game by going up by two scores.

The defense is banged-up and unreliable. The offensive line is a mess. And you can't trust the coach.

I feel bad for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-4)

I toyed with putting Tampa Bay ahead of Atlanta. Think of the weight of that statement, considering that the Falcons mauled the Bucs by 42 points just a few weeks ago. (And truthfully, the game wasn't even that close.)

Why consider such a thing? Because Mike Glennon, who made his second straight start on Sunday, provides hope to Bucs faithful. Glennon led Tampa down the field on a pulsating game-winning drive against the Steelers in Week 4 -- in hostile Heinz Field, no less. And the second-year pro played fairly well (19 of 32, 249 yards passing, two touchdowns, one pick) in the Week 5 loss at New Orleans.

Having said that, the Bucs still blew a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead Sunday. Back in Week 1, they lost at home to the Cam Newton-less Panthers. In Week 2 -- again at home -- they dropped a game to the lowly St. Louis Rams. And, of course, there was the aforementioned Thursday night embarrassment in Atlanta, in which Tampa trailed 56-0 in the third quarter.

How can you ultimately trust a team with these kinds of losses on the resume?

Fifteen penalties for 113 yards against the Saints certainly marred the potential believability. In fact, I think Sunday's game will prove to be a snapshot of Tampa's season: close, but no cigar.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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