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Around the NFC South: Tight at the top


Winning a division championship is the only way NFL teams can assure themselves of a playoff spot, but all divisions are not created equal.

Right now, heading into a showdown for the top spot, the NFC South has no equal.

"It's very, very competitive," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It just keeps growing every year."

Subject to change but impressive: The Panthers, Saints and Falcons would all be playoff teams if the season ended today.

The division boasts of the last two NFC champions – the Falcons last year and the Panthers the year before - but based on tiebreakers, the Saints currently lead the way. That could change Sunday.

SAINTS: New Orleans saw its eight-game winning streak end against another division leader. The Rams took control early and maintained it throughout in a 26-20 triumph that wasn't as close as the score suggested.

The Saints defense has been more than respectable since a sluggish start to the season but returned to previous form in Los Angeles as quarterback Jared Goff racked up 354 yards through the air. More impressively the Rams handled the Saints offense, putting pressure on Drew Brees throughout. New Orleans would have really been out of it if not for another impressive performance by rookie running back Alvin Kamara.

Next up for New Orleans, of course, is the Panthers in a showdown of 8-3 teams. The Saints haven't lost at home since a Week 2 setback against the Patriots – the league's lone unbeaten away from home. The Panthers, at 5-1 away from home, have the league's second-best road mark along with the Steelers.


FALCONS: Atlanta reeled off its third consecutive victory and looked real good doing it. Wide receiver Julio Jones broke out in a big way, catching 12 balls for 253 yards and two touchdowns (including a beauty of a bomb thrown by fellow wideout Mohamed Sanu). Tevin Coleman continued to shine in the backfield in Devonta Freeman's absence, rushing for 97 yards and two scores.

The Falcons offense looked as good as it has all season, though it came against a Buccaneers unit that can be described as inconsistent at best. Starting with the Vikings this week, four of Atlanta's final five games are against teams with at least eight wins (a Tampa Bay rematch standing as the exception). The Falcons will face the Saints twice in three weeks before hosting the Panthers to wrap up the regular season.

BUCCANEERS: Tampa had won two close games in a row with backup Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, a modest string of success that ended in Atlanta. Fitzpatrick's time on the field could be ending along with it; Jameis Winston is expected to practice this week after sitting out three games with a shoulder injury and could start Sunday at the Packers.

At 4-7, the Buccaneers are virtually eliminated from the division race and the playoff race on the whole for that matter. They're still officially alive, but then again only three teams league-wide are eliminated with five games to go – the Browns, 49ers and Giants.

View the top photos from Carolina's win against the Jets by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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