Division race just leaving starting blocks


They say you can throw out the win-loss records when division rivals clash.

While that's mostly true, you certainly can't throw out the records after division rivals clash.

In the 10 NFC South matchups last season in which one team entered the game with a better record than the other, the team with the worse record won half the time.

On the other hand, in the Panthers' 18 NFL seasons – the last 11 in the NFC South and the first seven in the NFC West – the division champion has at the least been tied for the best division record.

"They can get right back in it with a win," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said about Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons. "It's a division game, and we always say they count as two, so right now we feel like we're 2-0 in the division. Now playing Atlanta for the first time, we want to dominate and get this win."

Carolina is officially 1-0 in the division thanks to last Thursday's victory at Tampa Bay, but Munnerlyn has a point. Division games might not be doubly as important as non-division games, but they do carry more weight.

"I think those games always count just a little bit extra because there's so much movement in the division when you play each other," said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, whose Falcons (2-5 overall) are 1-1 in the division. "We know that going into it and they know it coming into it, so we're preparing ourselves for a 60-minute football game."

Even with the Panthers' three-game winning streak, some have written off the possibility of Carolina (4-3) rallying to catch New Orleans (6-1) for the division crown. First off, in the simplest of terms, the Panthers have already moved themselves into position where they control their own destiny. All other things being equal, sweeping the Saints would leave the teams with identical records but would give the tiebreaker to Carolina.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the Panthers are still very much in the race because the bulk of the division schedule is still to be played.

The Panthers certainly have shown themselves capable of winning division games, having won three of their last four NFC South matchups dating back to 2012. And given the overwhelming track record of NFC South teams with the best division record winning the division, let's say the Panthers keep things going this week and beyond and end up with the best record in NFC South games.

If the Panthers were to finish 5-1 in the division and the Saints were to finish 4-2, the teams would be in a virtual dead heat for the crown based on their current overall records.

So it doesn't take an NFC South historian to tell you that the division race isn't settled. Instead, it's just getting under way.

"This is a new division for me, but it's a division game," first-year safety Mike Mitchell said. "Everybody is talking about it. We've got to win it. We know how important it is."

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