NFC South living up to its reputation as most unpredictable division in football

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By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network

Just three weeks into the NFL season, the NFC South has reminded us yet again that it's the most unpredictable division in football. Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002 and the current divisions were assembled, there has not been a single back-to-back NFC South champion. Every other division in the league has had that happen, even the notoriously fickle NFC East.

Take the Thursday night game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the latest example of the Bizarro World that is the NFC South. The Falcons were a miserable 4-12 muddle last season and hosted the Buccaneers, a popular sleeper-team pick this season. One team was run out of the Georgia Dome after a 56-14 shellacking, and it wasn't the home team.

The Carolina Panthers have a chance to become the first repeat champs, sitting at 2-0 in the young season, and even that is something of a surprise.

The Panthers' offseason involved a lot of departures and not a lot of acquisitions. The team's star left tackle, Jordan Gross, retired shortly after the season and the vaunted defense had to replace both its starting safeties and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who also started all 16 games. Most worrying of all for Panthers fans, Carolina let go of its top three wide receivers from last season, headlined by the release of the most important player in franchise history, Steve Smith.

Carolina addressed the paucity of receivers by drafting 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin in the first round and signing veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Even still, Carolina's main receiving threat could very well be its tight end, which is a good thing if his name is Jimmy Graham, but a little disconcerting when it's Greg Olsen.

Nonetheless, the Panthers enter Week 3 at 2-0 because of what got them to the playoffs last year, their defense. Carolina has been downright impossible to run the ball against and tough as hell to throw on. Against Detroit, the Panthers recovered two of the three fumbles they forced, sacked and intercepted Matt Stafford once and gave up just seven points.

On offense, the key word for Carolina has been reliability. According to sportingcharts.com, Olsen, Benjamin, Cotchery and Avant have combined for 36 catches this season and only two drops, both from the rookie. The sample size on Cam Newton is just one game, as he missed Week 1 with a cracked rib, but if he can be as effective as he was against the Lions (completing 22 of 34 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown), the hoopla made about Carolina's offseason will be soon forgotten.

When ESPN had their NFC reporters predict the division champions three days before the season started, 15 of the 16 reporters chose the Saints to win the NFC South. The Saints are currently 0-2 after losing to the Cleveland Browns last week. Both losses came as the visitor in the opposing team's home opener and the Saints lost by a combined five points in those two games, but they were still games they should have won.

If the Panthers rely on their defense but have question marks surrounding their offense, the Saints are the inverse of that. A lack of putting points on the board is not why New Orleans has been losing. Drew Brees is still the quarterback and Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston are still catching his passes. Even the run game had been a revelation through the first two weeks, with Mark Ingram finally showing why he was the first running back taken in the 2011 draft.

The problem is on the other side of the ball. In Week 1 against Atlanta, New Orleans could only muster one measly 3-yard sack and forced no turnovers, while Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards and three touchdowns. Falcons running backs Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers combined for 86 yards and a touchdown on just 18 carries.

In Cleveland, the Saints again couldn't force an interception or a fumble. On the Browns' game-winning drive, the Saints gave up a 10-yard pass on a 4th-and-6 and left Andrew Hawkins wide open for a 28-yard catch to put the Browns on the 11-yard line, giving them a chip shot field goal to win the game. It's troublesome for a team that just spent $54 million on a safety to be so nonexistent against the pass.

There's good news and bad news for the Saints. The good news is that they have a chance to right the ship when they finally play in front of their fans against an imploding Minnesota Vikings team without Adrian Peterson. The bad news is that Ingram will likely be out a month after breaking a bone in his hand, and even though it's a little early for must-win games, the Saints certainly cannot afford losing this one.

The Falcons have already reached half of their total number of wins from last season, despite it being partly due to some serious home cooking. The Falcons have won both their games in the Georgia Dome but suffered an ugly 24-10 loss in Cincinnati. It's a microcosm of what the Falcons have been for a while now. Since Matt Ryan was drafted in 2008, Atlanta has won 79 percent of the regular season home games in which Ryan played, but only 49 percent of road games.

Knowing this, it's pretty cruel for the Falcons that they only play seven games in the Georgia Dome this season because they have the dubious honor of being the designated home team in the London game.

If the Falcons want to achieve a turnaround season and keep the NFC South different-champion streak going, Ryan will need to be as effective outside of the comforts of the dome as he is inside. In his two home games this season, Ryan has thrown six touchdowns to no interceptions and averaged a quarterback rating of over 142. In his lone road game, Ryan threw three picks and had a QBR just south of 49.

The Falcons don't have a defense capable of winning games when Ryan struggles, so it's something the seven-year veteran will have to correct and quickly. The Falcons' next two games are on the road against two struggling teams in the Vikings and the New York Giants, good opportunities for Ryan to get his road legs.

For the second offseason in a row, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were seen as a team that could be a surprise and compete for a playoff spot. For the second season in a row, the Buccaneers are a dumpster fire. If the NFC South is the Twilight Zone, then the Bucs are the old man who wanted nothing more than to be alone with his books only to break his glasses when he finally got his wish.

Everything was looking good for the Buccaneers heading into the season. They hired coach Lovie Smith, who took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006, and signed quarterback Josh McCown after five very solid starting performances with the Bears last season.

They followed what made McCown successful in Chicago by drafting 6-foot-5 receiver Mike Evans to pair with 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson, hoping to replicate the Bears' Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery tandem. The Bucs also traded for five-time All-Pro guard Logan Mankins and, with the return of running back Doug Martin, there was a lot of optimism with what this team could do.

Three weeks in, Tampa Bay is 0-3 and already ravaged by injuries. Martin lasted one game before sustaining a knee injury that caused him to miss time. Rookie second-round tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins hurt his ankle in Week 1 as well and didn't play against the Falcons. Indeed, in that game McCown sprained the thumb on his throwing hand and could potentially miss multiple games. The biggest injury is that of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who broke his hand in Week 2 and had to sit out Week 3.

It doesn't get much easier for Tampa Bay before its Week 7 bye week, with two road games against Pittsburgh and New Orleans and then a home matchup against Baltimore.

If the Buccaneers can somehow re-motivate themselves after the embarrassing primetime loss to the Falcons and avoid any more significant injuries, there's more than enough football left to be played to avoid a disastrous season.

And if the history of the NFC South is any indication, maybe Tampa Bay could even still win the division.


Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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