- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

Putting it bluntly, the NFC South was a joke last year. Only Tampa Bay (9-7) was over .500, and the Bucs were upset at home in the opening round of the playoffs by the Giants.

Carolina (7-9) was held under 14 points eight times, New Orleans (7-9) allowed 30 or more points six times, and Atlanta (4-12) was in chaos.

But in a year where the assumption was that both wild card spots would again be filled by NFC East teams, the NFC South has been reborn and will serve as a roadblock in the final five weeks to the Cowboys’ and Redskins’ playoff hopes.

The NFC South and AFC East are the only two divisions with every team above .500. Tampa Bay and Carolina are 8-3, Atlanta 7-4 and New Orleans 6-5.

Nine wins was enough for the title last year but may not be enough for a sniff at a playoff spot this year.

“Obviously we’re in a stronger division right now with the way Carolina and the way Tampa and the way Atlanta is playing, but that’s just the nature of our league,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “In other divisions, we might be tied for first.”

Those divisions are the NFC North and AFC West. Instead the Saints face a must-win game Sunday at Tampa Bay to stay within striking distance of not only the Bucs and Panthers, but also wild card contenders Washington, Dallas and Atlanta.

The NFC South is a division full of wild subplots. The teams are a combined 21-2 at home, 8-15 on the road. Saints quarterback Drew Brees could break the single-season passing yardage record, and New Orleans leads the league in offense. Falcons running back Michael Turner is third with 1,008 rushing yards, and Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams is sixth (883). Tampa Bay’s defense ranks fourth in the league.

Of the four teams, Atlanta is undoubtedly the surprise of the group. The Buccaneers always play great defense, and Jon Gruden came to his senses and stuck with Jeff Garcia at quarterback. Carolina’s Julius Peppers has been rejuvenated, and the Panthers can run against anybody. And New Orleans can turn any game into a track meet.

But Atlanta? The Falcons have rookies in the front office (GM Thomas Dimitroff), on the sideline (coach Mike Smith) and at quarterback (Matt Ryan). But the franchise has moved on from Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino. Ryan has a solid 88.3 passer rating to go with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Things will become clearer after next weekend’s Tampa Bay-Carolina and Atlanta-New Orleans matchups. The other remaining division contests are Saints-Bucs (Sunday), Tampa Bay-Atlanta (Week 15) and Carolina-New Orleans (Week 17).

“Is it 10 [wins to capture the division], is it 11, is it nine - it’s tough to project,” Payton said. “The next two or three weeks have always cleared things up and narrowed the field, and you’ll begin to get an idea of who’s contending and who’s not. I think that will be the case again this year.”

Said Garcia: “I don’t think it’s wrong to look at what we have in front of us these next three weeks just as long as we know where our focus has to be and on this week and this game. But we have three division opponents, and everybody is pretty tight. Any one of the four teams is capable of winning the division depending on the streak they go on.”

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