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Around the NFC South: Giving them Fitz


The NFL has this nifty little system where the standings rather than the rankings determine which teams advance to postseason play. But two weeks in, with the playoffs months away, it makes for an interesting exercise to try to rank the teams in the NFC South.

The Buccaneers, almost universally forecast to be the bottom feeders in a division where the other three teams made the playoffs in 2017, are the lone unbeaten. And Tampa should get some style points as well – not just for winning at New Orleans and knocking off the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles, but also for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's pretty remarkable postgame ensemble, borrowed from teammate DeSean Jackson.

Then come those three potential playoff repeaters, all at 1-1. The Falcons have a feather in their helmet in the form of a division victory over the Panthers, though they're supposedly supposed to hold at home. That's something the Saints didn't do against Tampa, which has to be the story of the week around the division.

BUCCANEERS: While Fitzpatrick's fashion statement had a flare that Cam Newton had to appreciate, on the field Fitzpatrick did something Newton hasn't done. In fact, no player in NFL history has done it.

With 402 passing yards and four touchdowns in Sunday's victory over the Eagles, Fitzpatrick became the first player to throw for 400-plus yards and four-plus touchdowns in each of the first two games of the season (Newton became the first player to throw for 400-plus yards in his first two NFL games back in 2011 but didn't have the touchdowns to match).

Fitzpatrick in theory is a fill-in, a veteran selected to start while Jameis Winston serves a three-game suspension. Now Fitzpatrick clearly has to be considered a candidate to keep the job even when Winston returns, though there's no telling what the coaching staff thinks. This week he gets a Steelers defense that yielded six touchdown passes to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes on Sunday.


SAINTS: New Orleans was the initial victim of Fitzpatrick, who lit up a Saints defense that was dominant at times last season for 417 yards in a 48-40 victory in Week 1. The Saints defense was much better in Week 2 but the team as a whole was not, needing to rally late to prevent the Browns from winning their first game since 2016. Cleveland led 12-3 after three quarters before New Orleans pulled out a 21-18 victory.

More troubling news for New Orleans is that the first two weeks were at home. Four of the next five are on the road, a stretch that starts with a trip to Atlanta on Sunday and ends with a primetime game at Minnesota. Recall, however, that the Saints actually started 0-2 last season before surprising everybody by rolling past the Panthers in Charlotte to jumpstart a special season.

Running the ball with the two-headed monster of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram keyed the Saints' success on offense last season. Kamara has been a beast so far in the passing game, but with Ingram midway through a four-game suspension, the Saints rank dead-last in the league with 52.5 rushing yards per game.

FALCONS: With the Saints slow out of the gates, Atlanta has a chance to claim victories in short order over the other two NFC South teams that reached the playoffs last season. Against the Panthers, the Falcons did what New Orleans did so well in 2017 – used the run game to keep the defense off-balance and away from quarterback Matt Ryan - the first time since 2009 that Carolina didn't sack Ryan once. The Saints have just three sacks through two games (only four teams have fewer).

The Falcons, too, will be missing their two-headed monster in the backfield with Devonta Freeman expected to miss his second consecutive game, though the Falcons didn't miss a beat with Tevin Coleman leading the way against Carolina. But all that being said, the Falcons' success this Sunday could come down to red zone efficiency just as it did in their first two games – a 4-for-4 touchdown success rate in a victory over the Panthers a week after going 1-for-5 in a narrow loss to the Eagles.