By Ted Fleming
The bye week is upon the Carolina Panthers as well as the New Orleans Saints and the degree of disappointment for the NFC South rivals is as profound as their won loss record. They play in a Division that was supposed to be one of the more competitive in the NFL, but to paraphrase poet Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men has hit a snag.”
Here is a look at the four teams in the NFC South, where each team has been and where they are going.
The Falcons sit atop the South pretty much as expected only they were not supposed to be on the verge of putting it away so soon. Matt Ryan is enjoying yet another solid regular season leading Atlanta to a positive points differential of 55, which ranks behind the defensive juggernaut in Chicago (78) and the scoring machine from San Francisco (81) in the NFC.
The Falcons can put up points in their own right averaging 29.6 ppg, which is 6th in the entire league, so their 5-0 record is no fluke although their schedule has played to their advantage. If the early part of 2012 is any indication, they could run the table to go unbeaten because the teams expected to give them trouble are having some issues of their own.
In any event, Atlanta will likely be the only playoff team to come out of the South because the three other teams behind them may have done irreparable damage to their chances.
The Panthers and Saints got to their respective 1-4 records by different paths. Carolina was coming off a 6-10 record with high hopes for 2012, and despite Commissioner Roger Goodell dropping a mountain worth of penalties on their heads for the so-called “Bounty Gate,” New Orleans still had quarterback Drew Brees and the nucleus of the club that went 13-3 a year ago.
The Saints go first here because, if anyone knows how to put his team in the end zone, it is Drew Brees. His offense is seventh in the NFL thus far, only the numbers are a bit misleading. The leader of Who Dat Nation has struggled in clutch situations and because his defense is 29th out of 32 teams, he has had to play a lot of catch-up football or needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat in late game situations.
The clearest indicator of why the Saints are three games under .500 at this juncture is that they are a minus-13 in points differential. Last year they outscored their opponents by a whopping 208. Enough said.
Meanwhile the Panthers have had all sorts of issues with injuries, lack of consistency and a general malaise that seems to be slowly slipping into the clubhouse. As much as they want to distance themselves from any notion that the season is already lost, the offense would have to turn into the Saints for things to turn around in a hurry.
Second year quarterback Cam Newton has struggled and that has been the biggest key to a 1-4 record. They have scored just over 18 points a game, 26th in the league, compared to the high powered offense that put up 406 points, an average of 25.4.
On the flip side the defense is much improved and the Panthers gave the Falcons fits in a near upset and did well in a loss to the Seahawks last weekend. Had things panned out in those two games, Carolina would be 3-2 and very much in play for a postseason shot as many had expected entering the year.
The Buccaneers were expected to be a last place club, not because they are a bad team but rather because they are rebuilding and it looks like they are ahead of schedule despite being 1-3. The playoffs are still a year or two down the road, however, right now they have the ability to be a spoiler for those trying to make it there.
OVERVIEW: Barring a major collapse and falling back to the pack, the Falcons are positioned to be the runaway winner of the division. The Saints still possess the ability to string a large number of wins together so counting them out would be a big mistake. The Panthers need to overcome key injuries and get Cam Newton back on track to break even at 8-8 which would still be an improvement over 2011. The Buccaneers have a new coach with a new philosophy and need to improve their defense, but can be a thorn in the side of teams the rest of the way.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.