At the outset of the season, the NFC South wasn’t supposed to look as wide open as it currently does. Back then, the Panthers were the clear-cut favorites after going 15-1 last year and rolling through the NFC playoffs en route to a Super Bowl berth. The 2016 Panthers are a far cry from the 2015 version, though, as reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton and the rest of the team have fallen to earth amid a 2-5 start. Carolina is in last place in the division, trailing two 3-4 rivals (the Buccaneers and Saints) and the 5-3 Falcons. More alarming, perhaps, is that the Panthers have already lost to all three of those clubs this year, giving them that much more ground to make up in the race.
The Falcons, led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan, superstar wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman, are 2-1 in the division and boast its only positive point differential (plus-31). They’re also facing the Buccaneers, who are 2-0 in the NFC South, on Thursday in a crucial divisional battle. A win would make the Falcons all the more difficult to catch, while a victory for the Bucs would vault Jameis Winston & Co. to .500 and keep them perfect against their closest rivals. A Falcons defeat would also cause flashbacks to last season, when the club collapsed after a 6-1 start to finish 8-8. This year’s Falcons began 4-1 and are now in danger of dropping three of four, though their fifth overall ranking in Football Outsiders’ DVOA seemingly indicates they’re for real. Nobody else in the division is even in the top 20 in that metric.
The Saints are at No. 23, but they’ve come around in the standings after an 0-3 start and will reach the .500 mark for the first time this season if they beat the lowly 49ers on Sunday. In their signature victory of the year, the Saints upset the Seahawks, 25-20, last Sunday. That was already the sixth one-score game of 2016 for the Saints, who have gone 3-3 in those contests. That’s also true of the Falcons, while the Bucs have recorded a 2-1 mark in one-score affairs and the Panthers have logged an 0-3 record.
While Atlanta and New Orleans are defensively challenged, both have tremendous offenses and top-tier quarterbacks in Ryan and Drew Brees. Conversely, Tampa Bay and Carolina haven’t done anything at an elite level this year. Barring offensive or defensive turnarounds, that would seem to put each behind the 8-ball, though Newton showed in 2015 that he’s capable of performing like an unstoppable force. Given their general decline this year, the Panthers will need Newton to resemble his 2015 self over the season’s final nine games if they’re going to win the division for the fourth straight year. If not, one of the other clubs should finally dethrone Carolina atop the NFC South.
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