- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2007

New England, Indianapolis, Seattle and San Diego have won their divisions again. Yawn. Dallas was a co-favorite to win the NFC East, while Pittsburgh’s prominence in the AFC North isn’t a real surprise. And Brett Favre simply willed Green Bay to dominance in the NFC North.

But how about that wacky NFC South?

The defending champions started 0-4. The division’s only team to finish at least .500 in 2005 and 2006 has to beat two division winners to avoid a losing season. The biggest drawing card is in prison. And last year’s last-place team just clinched a hard-to-fathom first-to-last-to-first triple play.

Last year’s surprise winner, New Orleans (7-7), is trying to make history by joining the Chargers as the only teams to lose their first four games and make the playoffs. The Saints are trying to do so with top runner Deuce McAllister long gone and Reggie Bush also on the shelf. The Saints are better than foes Philadelphia and Chicago, but they also need Minnesota (8-6) to lose to Washington or Denver or the New York Giants (9-5) to lose to Buffalo and New England to have a shot at their first consecutive postseasons since 1992.

Carolina was a Super Bowl dark horse after going 5-1 in the division last season and reaching the 2005 NFC Championship game. However, when quarterback Jake Delhomme suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 3 as the Panthers improved to 2-1, their 2007 season might as well have been history.

Coach John Fox, whose job could be safe despite the 6-8 record with Dallas and Tampa Bay still to play, coaxed out victories over New Orleans and Arizona in Weeks 5 and 6. But in the ensuing five straight losses, David Carr showed why he bombed in Houston and fellow quarterback Vinny Testaverde began to play like the 44-year-old that he is. Don’t think that last week’s upset of Seattle was the start of a turnaround. With no passing game apart from ace wideout Steve Smith, opposing defenses have clogged the box and kept the running game in check. And the long-feared pass rush has just 19 sacks.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s season was over when the investigation into dogfighting on quarterback Michael Vick’s property in Surry County, Va., began in April. He later pleaded guilty and was indefinitely suspended by the NFL in August as a precursor to his 23-month prison sentence.

Without his biggest weapon, rookie coach Bobby Petrino produced little offense before bolting for Arkansas last week. The Falcons (3-10) are better on defense, but key performers Keith Brooking, John Abraham and Lawyer Milloy will all be at least 30 next season. That’s also true of running back Warrick Dunn, tight end Alge Crumpler and offensive linemen Todd McClure and Kynan Forney.

Age is also a factor in Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers (9-5) lost No. 1 running back Cadillac Williams in October but have risen from the 4-12 disaster that was their 2006 season thanks to new quarterback Jeff Garcia (37) and receivers Joey Galloway (36), linebacker Derrick Brooks (34) and cornerback Ronde Barber (32). The Buccaneers have the NFC’s best defense, and Garcia makes enough plays for them to be able to scare any opponent they’ll meet in January. They’ll worry about their age later.