Last season, the NFC South sent two of its teams to the playoffs. The Carolina Panthers won the division and the number two seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record. The New Orleans Saints snagged a wild card spot and the number five seed with a record of 11-5. While the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both finished 4-12, both were expected to greatly improve upon that record as they made strong offseason moves.
Now, the once-powerful NFC South division looks like one of the weakest in the NFL. The Panthers barely hold the top spot at 3-2. The Falcons and Saints lie at the number two and three spots respectively with records of 2-3. The Bucs are once again at the bottom with a record of 1-4.
Carolina is coming off a comeback win against the Chicago Bears, but are about to face the toughest schedule in the NFL. Over the next three weeks, they’ll be on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers, then return home for a matchup with the Seattle Seahawks. That’s brutal, especially for a team with essentially no running game. Right now, they’re missing their top three running backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. The offensive line has played poorly all season long and has quarterback Cam Newton looking beat up. The defense returned to top form in the second half against Chicago, but before that looked like it had the previous two weeks: bad.
The New Orleans Saints were many’s favorites to win the NFC and even the Super Bowl. Everybody knew the Saints couldn’t win on the road, but now they’re struggling to win at home as well. Thanks to a sorry defense and an under-performing offense, the Saints are uncharacteristically bad so far. Tight end Jimmy Graham hasn’t been nearly as effective in the passing game and letting go of Darren Sproles was a huge mistake. Sproles brought explosiveness to an already tough offense. Having him in the backfield, either running the ball or going out to catch a pass, kept defenses on their heels and opened up the rest of the offense. Now Sproles is in Philadelphia and looking great for the Eagles.
The Falcons were expected to rebound from a surprising 4-12 season, but many forgot just how bad Atlanta’s defense really is. Back-to-back losses to the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants should have reminded everyone of this. Quarterback Matt Ryan is trying his best to carry this team, but he can’t do it alone. The offensive line, despite drafting Texas A&M lineman Jake Matthews, is playing poorly, in part because of injuries. Julio Jones and Roddy White aren’t nearly as effective without tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired after last season.
The Bucs are just flat out bad. Everyone thought that hiring Lovie Smith as the new head coach would help turn this team around, and while he’s certainly better than Greg Schiano, he’s not exactly a great head coach. His tenure with Chicago is proof enough of that. They made some nice offseason moves, but bringing in Josh McCown, who is a career backup, to play starting quarterback was a huge error. Mike Glennon has gotten the job due to an injury to McCown, and he’s making the most of his opportunity. He is the quarterback this team needs. However, switching out QBs won’t fix this team. The offense and defense, despite complete overhaulings, are both performing horribly.
So how can these teams right the quickly sinking ships and salvage their seasons?
Carolina has to get back to Carolina football, and it starts with the defense. As they proved against Chicago, if the defense can step up and make plays, the Panthers can win, even if they’re down. If they’re able to stop the run and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the defense can get the ball back to the offense. On offense, it starts with the offensive line stepping up. Playcalling also needs to change. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula needs to change up how he runs this offense, or he’ll be shown the door by the end of the year.
New Orleans has to learn to win on the road. Drew Brees needs more help in the passing game. He can’t always throw the ball to Jimmy Graham and he can’t keep carrying the offense. On defense, the Saints have to figure out how to, at the very least, slow down opposing offenses. They need to get back to how they played defense last season. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has to do something fast if New Orleans wants to return to the postseason.
Atlanta’s defense is a complete joke. Considering how poor it has been, that means it’ll be up to Matt Ryan to carry this team. He looks up to the task. He’s having an MVP-caliber season so far. Even in the wake of poor offensive line play, Ryan is still “Matty Ice.” Imagine what he’d be able to do behind a line that actually knows how to protect.
Tampa Bay has to keep Mike Glennon in as the starting quarterback. There’s no question that they’re a better team with him at the helm as opposed to Josh McCown. They have to figure out a way to start utilizing all that talent they have on defense. At this point, it seems like the Bucs’ season is fading fast. It may be too late for them.
The NFC South, as of right now, is one of the worst divisions in football. As we head into Week 6 of the NFL season, each time is desperately looking for answers. One team has to win this division, and right now, it’s completely up in the air.