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Around the NFC South: Saints march ahead


The Panthers weren't the only NFC South team to take it on the chin, and the Saints took advantage.

Losses by Carolina and Atlanta opened the door for the Saints to grab sole possession of first place in the division at 4-2, though the Panthers (4-3) and Falcons (3-3) are still knocking on the door. New Orleans started the season 0-2 but has reeled off four consecutive victories. Tampa Bay, on the opposite end of the spectrum, once was 2-1 but has since dropped three straight heading into Sunday's game against the Panthers.

The Buccaneers, Falcons and Panthers have lost eight straight games between them.

SAINTS: How do you explain the resurgence of the Saints defense?

The offense has long been a threat but has more often than not been let down by the defense. The defense ranked dead last in the league after two weeks but following a 26-17 victory in Green Bay, the unit has yielded a total of 30 points over the course of three of the Saints' four victories. The exception: Detroit scored 38 points in Week 6 but had a defensive touchdown and a special teams touchdown mixed in. The Saints scored 52, with their defense finding the end zone three times.

The unit no doubt got a huge helping hand from the absence of Aaron Rodgers, who missed his first of many games with a broken collarbone (incidentally, Rodgers could return from injured reserve in Week 15…against the Panthers). Up next for the Saints is a home game against the Bears – another matchup that could help their defense keep rolling.

FALCONS: Atlanta looked like the class of the division after a 3-0 start, but narrow victories over the Bears and Lions early gave way to narrow losses to the Bills and Dolphins before a not-so-narrow setback Sunday night.

In a rematch of Super Bowl LI, the Falcons were the ones in need of a comeback but came up quite short. In a 23-0 hole at New England, the Falcons did avoid a shutout with Julio Jones' first touchdown reception of the season and Atlanta's first points in six-plus quarters. The Falcons' 41 total points over the course of their three-game slide is the fewest among NFL teams that have played all three weeks – aside from the winless Browns.

When the Falcons were 2-0, Matt Ryan had gone nine consecutive games – playoffs included – without an interception. Now he has six in his last four games, even after not throwing one in New England. Maybe Ryan can turn it around Sunday against a Jets defense tied for the most touchdown passes allowed – although the Jets are actually tied with the Patriots.

BUCCANEERS: Yes, Tampa has dropped three consecutive games, but the Buccaneers are one pass completion short of being unbeaten at home. Sunday, they host the Panthers.

The Buccaneers knocked off the Bears and Giants at home during their 2-1 start, and on Thursday Night Football in Week 5 they advanced to the Patriots' 19-yard line but ran out of time in a 19-14 loss. Tampa has worked out its kicker issues since that game – parting ways with Nick Folk in favor of Patrick Murray – but the Bucs' defense hasn't traveled well, allowing the Cardinals and Bills to pile up 65 points the last two weeks.

Tampa leads the league in passing offense and is second in total offense, but the Bucs rank just 10th in scoring offense and are in the bottom four of the league in total defense and scoring defense.

View the top photos from Panthers at Bears by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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