Carolina Panthers

Is the NFC South the NFL’s best division? Here’s how it stacks up after midseason

The Carolina Panthers beat their NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but how will they fare the rest of the way against the toughest division in the NFL?
The Carolina Panthers beat their NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but how will they fare the rest of the way against the toughest division in the NFL? AP

One division in the NFL features three teams that rank in the top-10 for yards per game, points per game, yards per play, passing yards per game, completion percentage and passer rating.

That same division is the only one in the NFL to feature three teams with at least a .500 record, and is the NFL’s only division in which all four teams have reached the Super Bowl in the past 15 years.

The NFC South is so far the league’s most competitive division this season, with three teams vying for one of the conference’s six playoff spots.

New Orleans so far looks like one of the two best teams in the NFL, with its only loss coming at the hands of divisional foe Tampa Bay - at one point the top offense in the league.

Not to be forgotten is Carolina, which has pivoted from the mostly defensive-minded team we’re used to seeing and is carving out a balanced offensive attack.

Then there’s Atlanta, which was forced to overcome a bevy of season-ending injuries on the defensive side of the ball but clawed its way back to .500 with a three-game winning streak and just signed coveted defensive end Bruce Irvin as reinforcement.

Could the Saints run away with the division, having shown few weaknesses through eight games? Or could both Carolina and Atlanta earn playoff spots as Wild Card teams? With half of the season in the books, here’s how the NFC South’s teams stack up:

New Orleans Saints (7-1)

Remaining schedule: at Cincinnati, vs Philadelphia, vs Atlanta, at Dallas, at Tampa Bay, at Carolina, vs Pittsburgh, vs Carolina

What has gone well: Drew Brees is aging like a Napa County wine in his 18th season, leading the league in quarterback rating and completion percentage. Wide receiver Michael Thomas has caught nearly 87 percent of his targets in what’s shaping up to be a career year, while New Orleans’ league-best run defense has forced opponents to move the ball through the air.

NFC South (2)
The Carolina Panthers must play the New Orleans Saints in two of their final three games of the season. Jeff Siner

What needs work: It’s a good thing New Orleans’ run defense is stellar this season because its pass defense ranks 31st in the NFL. Offensively, its 3.9 yards per rush average hasn’t hurt much but is a far cry from the league-leading 4.7 yards per carry mark it posted last season.

Bottom line: After dethroning the Los Angeles Rams in Week 9, the Saints took over as the team to beat in the NFC and could likely finish the season 14-2 or 15-1 thanks to a favorable schedule.

Carolina Panthers (6-3)

Remaining schedule: at Detroit, vs Seattle, at Tampa Bay, at Cleveland, vs New Orleans, vs Atlanta, at New Orleans

What has gone well: Christian McCaffrey has solidified his three-down-back status on the strength of his versatility in the run and passing games. Cam Newton has flourished in Norv Turner’s system, which utilizes quick passes to playmakers who can make things happen after the catch.

What needs work: Consistency, consistency, consistency. The Panthers steamrolled the NFL’s top-ranked defense, scored 35 first-half points only to give up 21 unanswered, and allowed 52 points in prime time. And that was just the last two weeks. Their pass rush needs to be more effective, especially with five remaining games against pass-heavy opponents.

Bottom line: Week 10’s blowout loss to Pittsburgh dampened Carolina’s outlook, but its season will come down to three NFC South games in as many weeks to close the season — including two against New Orleans.

Atlanta Falcons (4-4)

Remaining schedule: at Cleveland, vs Dallas, at New Orleans, vs Baltimore, at Green Bay, vs Arizona, at Carolina, at Tampa Bay

What has gone well: The Falcons are who they’ve been for the past several years, a pass-first team with plenty of weapons. Matt Ryan is completing a career-high 71 percent of his passes, Julio Jones is nearly on pace for a 2,000-yards season and rookie Calvin Ridley is second in the NFL in receiving touchdowns through eight games.

NFC South (3)
The Carolina Panthers will look to avenge an early-season loss to the Atlanta Falcons when they face off again in Week 16. Jeff Haynes AP

What needs work: Ryan has taken way too many hits and is on pace to tie a career high in sacks. Atlanta ranks 28th in the NFL in rushing while its defense, decimated by injuries, has been largely ineffective against both the run and the pass.

Bottom line: Atlanta beat two of the league’s bottom-feeders in Weeks 6 and 7 but pulled off a surprising victory against Washington to remain a Wild Card threat in a clustered conference.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-5)

Remaining schedule: vs Washington, at New York Giants, vs San Francisco, vs Carolina, vs New Orleans, at Baltimore, at Dallas, vs Atlanta

What has gone well: We’ve all seen “Fitzmagic” at work. Tampa Bay throws and throws and throws the ball, ranks second in the league in yards per game and leads the NFL in passing yards per game.

NFC South (4)
The Carolina Panthers travel to Tampa Bay in Week 13 for their second game of the season against the Buccaneers. David T. Foster III

What needs work: There are too many facets of the Bucs’ game to pick. They’re 30th in the league in rushing yards per game and passing yards allowed per game, last in turnover differential, 26th in sacks and 12th in sacks allowed.

Bottom line: Even if we pretend that anything is possible, Tampa Bay is still the clear bottom-dweller in the NFC South. With a difficult five-game stretch to end the season, that’s probably not going to change. The Bucs’ coaches are more firmly in the hot seat than Tampa Bay is in the postseason at this point.

Marcel Louis-Jacques, 704-358-5015: @Marcel_LJ