A year ago, the NFC South was by far the National Football League’s sorriest division. Finishing the regular season without a single team with a winning record, there were even arguments made in proposal of changing the playoff format as the Philadelphia Eagles finished 10-6 but missed the postseason. There’s no doubt that the division, from top to bottom, was the worst in the league.
Not only did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tie for the NFL’s worst overall record (2-14), but not a single team in the conference finished with a plus-rating in terms of points scored versus points allowed. Needless to say, entering this season, expectations weren’t too high for anybody in the conference. Just a winning record would’ve been nice.
However, it seems that the tide has turned — as of now, the NFC South is the best division in the league, at least from a record standpoint. The Carolina Panthers at 6-0 are one of seven teams still holding an undefeated record, and the Atlanta Falcons aren’t too far behind at 6-2. Though the Panthers won the division a year ago with an underwhelming 7-8-1 record, the Falcons have been the real surprise so far, bouncing back from a 10-loss season a year ago.
And while Atlanta and Carolina lead the pack — and both look like playoff teams if not Super Bowl contenders — the New Orleans Saints are also within striking distance. At 4-4, it’s not unreasonable to think they could finish 9-7, which might be good enough to get them a spot as a wildcard. After all, any Drew Brees-lead team’s never out of it, even if he hasn’t been putting up typical top-notch numbers.
Going from not a single winning team to almost three doesn’t just happen over night, either. The major difference this year’s been the individual defensive effort. Besides Carolina, whose defense was decent in 2014 (21st in points allowed and tenth in yards allowed), the rest of the division might as well not have even fielded a defense. But this year has changed. The Panthers are top ten in both categories currently, and the Falcons come in the top 15.
One indicative fact of the immense improvement in just a year appears in the teams’ individual point differential. Surprisingly enough, the division failed to have a plus team last season, whereas through seven games, Carolina’s plus-52 and Atlanta’s plus 43. While the Saints lag a bit in this category — a team that traditionally has been more offense-oriented than defense — the division as a whole has tightened up on the other side of the ball. After all, the saying does go that defense wins championships.
Defense aside, the division wouldn’t be where it is without the various offensive weapons it has. First, there’s Cam Newton. He does it all for Carolina, whether it’s with his feet or his arm; the Panthers’ offense has been near impossible to slow down. And even if you do, opposing teams still need to score, also a difficulty. Just as Carolina’s defense ranks sixth in points allowed, well, the offense ranks sixth in points scored. And this offense-to-defense parity is exactly the reason why the Panthers are a real Super Bowl contender.
Then there’s the Falcons, who have been surprisingly successful considering they have a new coach in Dan Quinn and are coming off a 6-10 campaign a year ago. Though Atlanta isn’t flawless defensively — it was a bottom-five defense in 2014 — the offense makes up for any deficiencies with a solid quarterback in Matt Ryan and one of the best pass catchers in the game in Julio Jones. Whether or not Atlanta can sustain its present success, especially considering a much harder schedule in the second half, remains to be seen. But as of right now, the Falcons have the tools to finally make it back to the playoffs.
Being one of the best overall divisions isn’t always a good thing, though. Just look at the NL Central this year in the MLB — the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates probably all wished they weren’t when their seasons ended early. So as the season progresses look for each of these teams to rough each other up, and potentially pull away. However, if the first half has proven anything, it’s that as long as the Panthers and Falcons can win their non-divisional games, they should find themselves in the playoffs. Then again, crazier things have happened. Maybe we’ll see a NFC South collapse and repeat of last year.
Just know this: The sudden turn around of a conference that didn’t deserve a single playoff team a year ago didn’t happen overnight. It was a combination of offensive weapons, good coaching, and going back to defensive fundamentals.