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Around the NFC South: Division daze

Posted Oct 31, 2017

Saints still lead the way heading into the first Sunday of the season featuring multiple NFC South matchups.

This is somewhat of a common sense stat, but it is a timely one to note: In the 15-year history of the NFC South, only once has the division champion not finished with the best record in division games.

After the first eight weeks of the season featured just two division games (both featuring the Panthers), this week will bring two more with the Panthers hosting the Falcons and the Saints hosting the Buccaneers. Weeks 10 and 11 will be devoid of division games, then the final six weeks of the season will all have at least one NFC South showdown, including division doubleheaders each of the final two weeks.

New Orleans (5-2) currently paces the division just ahead of Carolina (4-3) based on the Saints' victory over the Panthers in Week 3.

SAINTS: A week after the Panthers made mistakes too big to overcome against the Bears, the Saints did just enough to overcome their errors against Chicago. Two fourth-quarter fumbles by running back Mark Ingram opened the door for the Bears to rally, but a Saints defense that has surprised for more than a month now held up as New Orleans claimed a fifth consecutive victory.

The Saints' trade of Adrian Peterson to the Cardinals has empowered both Ingram and rookie running back Alvin Kamara, who both reached the end zone in the 20-15 victory. Drew Brees didn't throw a touchdown pass but threw for 299 yards and didn't throw an interception against a stingy defense.

When the Saints showed up at Bank of America Stadium in Week 3, they were worst in the league in total defense and on a historic pace. Now they're a respectable 20th in total defense and stand among 12 teams allowing fewer than 21 points per game.

FALCONS: After starting 3-0, Atlanta was in danger of dropping a fourth consecutive game before rallying in the rain at the Jets. Matt Ryan's turnover troubles continued but this time in the form of fumbles in slippery conditions, but he slipped a touchdown pass into Mohamed Sanu in the fourth quarter to forge a lead the Falcons never relinquished in a 25-20 triumph.

The turnover situation could tell the tale this week in Charlotte. The Panthers' three takeaways against the Buccaneers allowed them to escape the cellar in the league statistics, a spot now occupied by the Falcons, who have just four takeaways all season. The Panthers are fourth-worst in the NFL with a minus-7 turnover differential; the Falcons are sixth-worst at minus-5.

BUCCANEERS: While New Orleans is surging headed into Week 9, Tampa Bay is sinking, now turning its attention from a must-win situation against the Panthers that didn't work out to a must-win situation at the Saints.

We've all seen teams scale seemingly insurmountable mountains before – like the 4-8-1 Panthers in 2014 that rallied to win the division – but it's impossible to imagine the Buccaneers bouncing back unless they knock off New Orleans on Sunday. A loss, and Tampa would be 2-6 looking up at the Saints at 6-2 – frankly the reverse of what some forecast in the preseason and even two weeks into the season.

Jameis Winston does have a history, though, of performing well away from home against division foes. He's 4-2 as a starter in such situations (as opposed to 4-9 on the road against non-division opponents).