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Around the NFC South: Falcons escape

Posted Sep 12, 2017

With the Panthers and Falcons opening with victories, the last two NFC champions are the super-early division leaders.

More so than any other division over the past 15 seasons, the NFC South always seems to be up for grabs.

Before the Panthers' back-to-back-to-back division titles from 2013-15, no team had captured the crown in consecutive years. On the strength of that run, the Panthers lead the way with five NFC South titles since the division was formed in 2002, but all four teams have at least three.

This season, the division again seems up for grabs and seems to have the potential to send multiple teams to the playoffs. So let's check in on the Panthers' division rivals.

FALCONS: Atlanta was able to hang on in its opener but didn't exactly calm concerns over a Super Bowl hangover. The Bears, coming off a 3-13 season with similar expectations for this season, pushed the Falcons to the brink but missed the mark on four chances from the 5-yard line in the waning seconds to fall, 23-17.

A lot of things didn't go the way the Falcons would have hoped. The offense under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian wasn't as explosive as last year's top-scoring unit, struggling to run the ball and failing to get many big chunks in the passing game aside from an 88-yard touchdown to tight end Austin. Defensively, Atlanta wasn't great on the ground, allowing 125 rushing yards.

The Falcons are, however, 1-0, though they'll need a better performance to improve to 2-0. The Packers visit Atlanta's new home for a rematch of last year's NFC Championship.

SAINTS: Every NFC South team opened on the road (or at least was scheduled to), and New Orleans' recent history of struggling away from the Superdome continued in the opener. The Vikings rolled to a 29-19 victory on Monday Night Football that wasn't as close as the score suggested.

The Saints' new-look defense struggled to contain Sam Bradford and Co., though former Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein looked like the unit's best player with 11 tackles and a forced fumble. The offense got balance from its cadre of running backs, but not in a positive way (Alvin Kamara 18 yards, Adrian Peterson 17, Mark Ingram 17), and Drew Brees was under serious duress all night. Former Panthers wideout Ted Ginn had a nice debut with four catches for 53 yards.

The early schedule does no favors to the Saints, who will host the Patriots this week before traveling to Carolina in Week 3.

BUCCANEERS: Speaking of the schedule, Hurricane Irma forced the postponement of Tampa Bay's opener at Miami, which has been rescheduled for Week 11. Because of that, the Buccaneers have already had their bye week and must play each of the next 16 weeks.

They'll host the same Bears team Sunday that put a scare in Atlanta. Coming off a 9-7 campaign, Tampa Bay has high hopes of breaking the longest playoff drought in division history. The Buccaneers last qualified for the postseason in 2007.

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