Looking Ahead: The Race For The NFC South

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC South has a well-established reputation for being one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. For a significant stretch, it seemed like every year a different team claimed the division crown. And, on more than one occasion, such teams would go from worst to first in the span of that single season of play. The team with this year's inside track appears to be the New Orleans Saints, who are off to a 3-0 start, at least a 2-game lead on their nearest rival (including the Carolina Panthers), and a 2-0 record in the division already. Meanwhile, Atlanta has somewhat surprisingly stumbled out of the gate, despite having a lot of great pieces in place. Tampa Bay is already mired in a currently winless season faced with contemplating a QB change. And, of course, as we all know, the Panthers have once again gotten off to their typical slow start, as well. However, looking ahead, a real race could soon emerge within the division again, especially given how the schedules work out for each team in contention. It was a slow Friday afternoon (and the Panthers are on a bye week), so I thought I'd break out the crystal ball and play a few "what if" scenarios with that in mind. For anyone who's interested, here are a few things I noticed...

First and foremost, I think everyone recognizes that the Carolina Panthers are entering a "make or break" portion of their schedule. Assuming the bye week gives us a chance to recharge, get healthy, and come back focused from the blowout win against the New York Giants, that could actually make the games at Arizona, at Minnesota, against Saint Louis, and at Tampa Bay much more winnable. Does that mean we can legitimately expect to win all those games just based on one shutout performance against another winless team like the struggling Giants? Probably not. But can we expect to go 3-1 or, at worst, 2-2 in that stretch? Maybe. That would potentially put us back in contention at 4-3 or 3-4, hopefully with a division win against the hapless Bucs with an opportunity to control our own destiny in future division games against Atlanta and New Orleans.

Now, compare that situation to the division-leading Saints during that same timeframe. New Orleans has a potentially brutal schedule coming up. They'll host the 3-0 Miami Dolphins, followed by an away game at the currently 3-0 Chicago Bears, followed by another away game at the currently undefeated 3-0 New England Patriots. It slows down a little for them after that with a bye week, and then a somewhat safer home game against the Buffalo Bills (who, as the Panthers can attest aren't necessarily a "safe" win). The bottom line is that New Orleans will certainly be challenged during that same period of time. So far, they've demonstrated themselves to be a tougher team than Carolina (at least in grinding out wins). But, for argument's sake, let's say they run into some trouble and go 2-2 in that same timespan. That would put them at 5-2 overall...and, while still leading the wouldn't be by a comfortable margin. In addition, they won't have played Carolina yet. So, if the Panthers can build momentum during this same part of the schedule while staying within striking distance of the Saints, those two games in the latter half of the season could become HUGE. Keep in mind, I'm not saying it'll happen. But, the possibility is there for Carolina to challenge them if they buckle down now and chart a collision course in December.

So what about Atlanta? The media all but assumed the Falcons would run away with the NFC South. And, they certainly put a lot of pieces together (at least on paper) which had some pundits projecting them to make a run at the Superbowl, or at least move deep into the playoffs before running afoul of stronger teams like Seattle, San Francisco, or (at this point) even Chicago. Atlanta's schedule is kind of interesting during this same period. At 1-2, much like the Panthers, they need to dig themselves out of a hole. This same span of games will see them host 3-0 New England and the New York Jets before getting their bye week. They then follow that with a division game against Tampa Bay before traveling out to Arizona. As you can see, there are some winnable games in there for them. However, if they don't rediscover their mojo, New England could knock them back a step before they regain their footing. In that scenario, the Falcons could be looking at 3-1 or even 2-2 over that same stretch. Thus, much like the Panthers, they could claw their way back to a 4-3 or 3-4 record at the same time New Orleans is facing their uphill climb and the Panthers are (hopefully) improving as well. The sad news for Atlanta (unlike Carolina) is that they've already lost to the Saints once. So, the outcomes of the division games are even more important for them going forward. They can't afford to lose to us or Tampa Bay...much less the tiebreaker against the Saints in their rematch.

Setting those teams aside, the sole remaining rival in the NFC South is the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And, unfortunately for them, it doesn't get any better. Even if Mike Glennon can spark a difference in his team that Josh Freeman couldn't manage, they're still hosting the Arizona Cardinals, followed by a bye week in which they'll have to prepare for the fast-paced offense of Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles. Then, they get an away game at Atlanta before facing Carolina at home. If you assume that it takes Mike Glennon at least one game to get his feet wet (in terms of real NFL experience) and the Bucs fall to Arizona as he learns on the job, the Philly, Atlanta, and Carolina games could all be losses as well. So, Tampa could be looking at an 0-7 start to their season, barring any comebacks. Or, even if we're generous and assume they muscle out 2 wins, that still just gets them to 2-5, still way back in the pack to make much of a difference in the race for the division crown.

To me, that means this race really boils down to New Orleans, Atlanta, and Carolina. There's no doubt the Saints and Falcons seemingly have a lot of firepower in terms of talent. But, the young Panthers actually do, as well. And, depending on how this team continues to build chemistry and its coaching staff sorts out the best ways to use the talent on the roster, they can possibly hang in there. The real key is this next stretch of winnable games. If Carolina falters here, they'll face an even tougher set of opponents in the middle of their schedule (i.e., Atlanta, San Francisco, New England, Miami, New Orleans twice in a 3-week stretch, and then Atlanta again). In addition, two of those games (SF and NE) happen after each of our opponents are coming off their bye week to prepare for us. So, the way I see it, if Rivera and company can't put these next few games in the "win" column, they're going to fall way behind into another "out of contention" season with guys then trying to play hard in the latter weeks of the season just to save their (and Rivera's) job. If that happens, the fan base will be up in arms and calling for a coaching change all over again.

So, it's "make or break" right now. If the Panthers buckle down, they can have a successful season...even a season in which they legitimately contend for the division crown. But if they don't, and these next few games slip through their fingers just like the Seattle and Buffalo games they squandered, this team will fall back into the exact same situation in which they've languished the past two seasons...i.e., complete irrelevance by the mid to latter part of the season with a possible "strong" finish that really only gets them to 7-9 or 6-10. Nobody wants to see it play out that way. So, hopefully, the Panthers are using their bye week to build off the success of the New York game. I know a lot of folks want to downplay the importance of that 38-0 beatdown and adopt a "wait and see" mentality. But, NFL history is also replete with teams who had a defining moment when the light bulb came on and they changed their seasons for the better. For the Carolina Panthers, that time is: Right. Now.

But that's just my two cents,


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