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Why the NFC South Has Been the NFL’s Weirdest Division

What if I told you the Saints’ defense wasn’t a liability and the preseason darling Buccaneers were in last place?

Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The NFC South has been the least predictable division in football for 15 years, since the league realigned divisions in 2002. In a seven-season stretch between 2003 and 2009, the division’s last-place finisher won the division the following season six times. That anarchy generally evened out between 2010 and 2016, but this year, the division is as unpredictable as ever. The preseason darling Bucs lost to the Panthers on Sunday and have fallen off the face of the earth on offense despite adding two supposedly game-changing weapons in the offseason. Meanwhile, the mercurial Panthers have perhaps the least consistent offense in football, but have somehow picked up five wins, including one in Foxborough. The Falcons barely beat the Jets on Sunday, and the team’s Super Bowl hangover is quickly becoming a Super Bowl migraine. And finally, after years of taking an NBA All-Star Game approach to defense, the Saints finally look like serious contenders, picking up their fifth straight win against the Bears this week. Halfway through the season, let’s take stock of whatever is going on in the NFC South.

First Place: New Orleans Saints (5-2)

The Saints’ offense has never been an issue. Under Sean Payton, the question surrounding the team has been whether its colander-like defense would light another year of incredible Drew Brees production on fire. After three seasons in which the Saints finished 31st, 32nd, and 31st in defensive DVOA, they’ve now clawed their way into the top half of the league in the same metric. Shockingly, New Orleans entered Sunday sixth in passing defense by DVOA.

That ranking will likely go up after Sunday’s 20-12 win over Chicago. A victory over the doormat Bears doesn’t tell us a ton about their season, but it’s the team’s fifth win in a row after decisive takedowns of the Packers, Lions, Dolphins, and Panthers. Drew Brees threw for 299 yards while completing 82.1 percent of his passes. He didn’t have a touchdown or a pick, but Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined to rush 26 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns. If his production continues, Ingram will be flirting with a 1,000-yard season. Kamara looked so strong early this year that the Saints said goodbye to veteran running back Adrian Peterson. The ability to rely less on the 38-year-old Brees and more on a two-headed backfield will be critical for the team late in the season.

The Saints don’t need an elite defense to be a playoff threat—they just need a competent one. That’s especially true given their schedule in the second half of the season. Following what should be an easy win against Tampa Bay next week, the Saints will face the Bills, Redskins, and Rams, all of which could be playoff teams. That stretch will tell us a lot about whether the Saints are really a contender or if they’re just pretending, and it’s just the beginning of a difficult path to securing a division title.

Second Place: Carolina Panthers (5-3)

The Panthers’ season has been up and down, to say the least. They almost beat the Eagles, they almost lost to the Bills, they defeated the Patriots in New England, and they lost to Chicago (by 14 points!).

Carolina’s strange season appeared to normalize on Sunday as the team beat the Bucs, 17-3, but like the team’s 5-3 record, there was a suspicious air to it. The Panthers were up by only seven until Cam Newton hit Kelvin Benjamin for a 25-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Newton completed 18 of 32 passes for 154 yards with a touchdown and a pick, a concerningly mediocre line considering the Bucs got almost no pressure on him. Carolina entered this season planning for Newton to take fewer hits (he was in the top 10 of most-sacked QBs last season) and run a more dynamic offense. The front half of that plan worked on Sunday—Newton didn’t take a hit when he dropped back to pass, never mind a sack—yet no Panthers receiver cracked 50 yards, and no running back broke 35 yards as Newton was once again Carolina’s leading rusher. Something is deeply wrong with Carolina’s offense.

Third Place: Atlanta Falcons (4-3)

Nobody doubts Atlanta’s talent. The questions Falcons players were forced to answer (or rather, refused to answer) all offseason were about their resolve after the crushing Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, and whether the stench of defeat would linger into this season. The Falcons had a chance to exorcise their demons in New England last week, but it turned out the demons were ready for them. This week, Atlanta had the perfect opportunity to get back on track against the overperforming Jets.

But it didn’t go as smoothly as planned. The Falcons barely eked out a 25-20 victory against New York on Sunday, a hollow win for a team that counts itself as among the best in the league. They didn’t grab the lead until the fourth quarter and could have been blown out if the Jets didn’t pull a series of extremely Jets-like plays late, such as a muffed punt that gave Atlanta the ball on the Jets’ 13-yard line. (Atlanta mustered only a field goal after the turnover.) Barely beating one of the most talent-devoid rosters in the league to end a three-game losing streak is not exactly something to be proud of. Atlanta is 4-3, but sits in third place in its division. It might be nearing time for Falcons fans to hit the panic button.

Fourth Place: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5)

The Bucs were a preseason NFC dark horse after they added deep-threat receiver DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard, the rookie tight end out of Alabama, in the offseason. Combined with quarterback Jameis Winston—who looked poised to ascend into his prime—top-shelf receiver Mike Evans, and a Hard Knocks bump to back it up, the Bucs offered a compelling case to be the breakout team of the year. When the team destroyed the Bears in Week 2, that claim was bolstered and caused some people (cough) to completely overreact.

But now, eight weeks into the season, the Bucs are a bottom-feeder. Winston, despite entering Sunday averaging 22 completions on 35 attempts with two touchdowns and one interception per game, wasn’t able to string together consistent drives even before he sprained his AC joint in his throwing shoulder against Arizona in Week 6. He reinjured that shoulder last week against Buffalo and bruised the deltoid muscle in his throwing arm. But it’s not just Winston: The Buccaneers’ entire offense has been a major disappointment this season. Jackson, Howard, and Evans are all underperforming relative to preseason expectations, and the Bucs entered Sunday ranked 29th in rushing yards per game with their tandem of Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers. This unit mustered only three points against the Panthers on Sunday, an embarrassment that would have been unimaginable before the start of the season.

As disappointing as the offense has been, Tampa Bay’s defense and special teams are primarily the reason for team’s decline. The Bucs’ disastrous kicking situation was well-publicized when Roberto Aguayo—the 2016 second-round draft pick—was cut on Hard Knocks, but on the season, the Bucs have converted just 64.3 percent of their kicks, which is a completion percentage you want from your quarterback, not your kickers. Worse still, the Bucs entered Sunday dead last in defensive DVOA. They are also last in the league with seven sacks, and they’re the only team left with a total in the single digits. To put that in context, six players entered Sunday with more sacks than the Bucs’ entire defensive unit. The team logged zero sacks against the Panthers on Sunday and didn’t even manage a quarterback hit against Newton. In short, the Bucs can’t score points on offense, can’t score points on special teams, and have no pass rushing ability—or you know, basic football competence. Only in football’s Upside Down division does it makes sense for the team with the most hype to be sitting in last place.