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NFC South: Which will be the last team standing?

As an assistant coach with San Diego in 2008, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was part of a Chargers team that made the playoffs by winning the AFC West with an 8-8 record.

History could repeat this year in the NFC South, where the first team to eight wins might claim the division – a scenario that Panthers safety Roman Harper recently described as being “the prettiest of the ugly.”

The two teams in the lead for that dubious crown will be on display Thursday night when the Panthers (3-4-1) and New Orleans Saints (3-4) meet at sold-out Bank of America Stadium.

The last time these teams met on Dec. 22, 2013, the Panthers clinched a playoff berth with a 17-13 victory. Carolina won the division with a 12-4 record, and the Saints grabbed a wild-card berth at 11-5.

“You’ve got a couple of teams that are trying to find their way,” NFL Network analyst and former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. “They’re not as good on defense as they were last year. So that’s why they each have three wins.”

And no NFC South team has been any good on defense.

Despite the arrival of former defensive-minded Bears coach Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay (1-6) has the league’s worst defense, giving up 409.9 yards and 31.9 points a game.

Atlanta (2-6) is only slightly better, allowing 408.8 yards and 27.6 points, and the Saints are 28th in total defense.

The Panthers were ranked near the bottom of the league defensively before showing signs of life in last week’s 13-9 loss to Seattle. Still, it’s been a big drop-off for a Carolina defense that ranked No. 2 last season in yards and points allowed.

“They’re a different team. They’re hanging on for their lives,” Mariucci said of the Panthers. “And the Saints, too. I thought they would be very good and their defense is really disappointing. (Defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan really turned that defense around last year. This year, not so much.”

Panthers free safety Thomas DeCoud, who spent six seasons with the Falcons, said porous defenses have been the rule in the NFC South this year.

“As a division, people have been scoring a lot of points and defenses in this division haven’t been able to stop people,” DeCoud said. “We picked up our slack this past week. We’ve just got to keep the momentum up and we’ll be the team that catches fire.”

A winning streak by an NFC South would be as rare as a defensive stop.

Carolina is the only team in the division to win two games in a row. But the Panthers have gone 1-4-1 since winning their first two games, against Tampa Bay and Detroit.

Rivera says his team needs to keep “plugging along” like the 2008 Chargers, who got hot late in the season after Rivera replaced Ted Cottrell as San Diego’s defensive coordinator.

The Chargers won their final four regular-season games to win the AFC West, then knocked off a 12-win, Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis team in the wild-card round before bowing out the next week against Pittsburgh.

“We started getting guys healthy. We started getting guys back on the football field one week at a time,” Rivera said. “I thought the job that Norv Turner did that year was tremendous because of all the injuries and all the things that we went through as a team. I think everybody’s just got to understand this is one game at a time. We play who’s healthy, and we play to the best of their abilities.”

The Panthers’ running backs have been hit hard by injuries this season. With DeAngelo Williams returning from a high ankle sprain against the Saints, Thursday will mark the first time since Week 1 that Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been in the lineup together.

But the Panthers are still dealing with injuries to their offensive line, where they will be without three-fifths of their starting line against the Saints. A pair of undrafted rookies – guard Andrew Norwell and tackle David Foucault – will start on the left side and will try to protect Cam Newton’s blind side.

And as well as rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin has played, Mariucci said he still doesn’t understand why the Panthers parted ways with franchise receiving leader Steve Smith and the three other leading receivers from 2013.

“I was a little surprised where this team went in the offseason,” he said. “Losing Cam’s top four weapons on offense (in) the receiving corps shocked me a little bit.”

After the arrival of Lovie Smith and several free agents, the Bucs were a trendy pick to win the NFC South, a division in which there’s never been a repeat champion.

But the Bucs were sellers at this week’s trade deadline, dealing safety Mark Barron to St. Louis and backup linebacker Jonathan Casillas to New England.

Atlanta is coming off a meltdown of epic proportion last week in London. The Falcons blew a 21-point halftime lead – matching the biggest in team history – in falling to Detroit 22-21 at Wembley Stadium.

“Atlanta and Tampa have been finding ways to lose football games,” said Fox color analyst Ronde Barber, a former Tampa Bay defensive back.

Barber, who has called three of the Panthers’ games, believes the division is a two-horse race between the Saints and Panthers, whose Week 6 tie with Cincinnati could loom large in late December.

“I think Carolina can get to eight wins, and if they get to eight they’re probably in,” Barber said. “Whoever else is going to win this division is going to have to get to nine wins. I think New Orleans is the only (other) team that can get there.”

The Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record in 2010, and hosted the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the wild-card round. Seattle won 41-36, eliminating the 11-win Saints.

Harper, who signed with the Panthers in March, was a starter on that Saints team.

“I’ve lost to a 7-9 Seattle team. I’ve seen it. I’ve been on both sides of it,” Harper said. “Anything can happen. It’s not early. But it’s definitely time. Playoff teams are made in November and December.”

Given their struggles, tight end Greg Olsen said the Panthers are fortunate to still be playing for first place.

“That is the reality, that we are still in the running. But that won’t matter if we don’t play better. If we don’t play better, we won’t be in the running,” Olsen said. “We’ve got eight weeks to go. If we play better and win these games, it will all take care of itself like it did last year.”

With each subsequent winless weekend in the NFC South, last year feels like a long time ago in a division that defense forgot.

“This division, I think we’re going to beat each other up,” Rivera said. “It’s almost going to be a game of attrition – who survives at the end of the year?”

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