5 Dogs, 1 Bone, and a Cat: Strength of NFC South Trouble for Panthers

Jennette GrayContributor IMay 14, 2009

CHICAGO - JANUARY 15:  Quarterback Jake Delhomme #17 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates a touchdown agaisnt the Chicago Bears in the NFC Divisional playoff game at Soldier Field on January 15, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Mysteries are unfolding in the NFC South.  And, that could spell either success or failure for the Carolina Panthers in 2009.

The Atlanta Falcons gave them a run for their money last year with a rookie quarterback and a new head coach.  Now, they’ve scored a coup:  they went out and got Tony Gonzalez. 

Arguably one of the best tight ends in the game, Gonzalez could be a death blow to the Panthers who’ve always had difficulty defending the middle of the field. 

Think back. One of the ways former Falcons’ quarterback Mike Vick was able to be effective against Carolina was with the short pass to then Falcons’ tight end Alge Crumpler.

The Panthers will be looking to neutralize the Falcons’ add-on by implementing a defensive scheme that utilizes defensive ends that match Julius Peppers’ speed and agility.  But judging from the prospects they’ve brought in, they’ll be sacrificing size in doing so.

Then, there’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They could be the wild card of the NFC South.  They could legitimately spoil the playoff chances for both the Falcons and the Panthers.

While much of the attention is being given to first-time head coach Raheem Morris, it should be on the battle for quarterback.

“There’s 5 dogs and 1 bone…”  That’s how Morris described the battle to NFL Network. 

If one of those hounds can prove itself to be the alpha-male—before the preseason—it could spell the difference between the Buccaneers losing two games to the Panthers or splitting the series.  The same goes for their series with the Falcons.

If the Panthers want to assure themselves of a spot in the playoffs, they can’t afford to split the series with Tampa Bay or lose two games to them.

Historically speaking, it’s a foregone conclusion that Carolina will most likely lose at least one of the games against Atlanta.  And, in reviewing the Panthers’ 2009 season schedule there’s a good likelihood for at least three more loses.

There’s no way the Panthers can lose six games and get into the playoffs.  Not in the NFC.

Sure, the Philadelphia Eagles did it last year.  So did the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals. 

But, both the Cardinals and Vikings won their divisions.   And the Eagles had a tie that helped them land in a higher overall position among NFC teams.

Plus, none of those teams lost six conference games.  The games the Panthers would most likely lose would be to intra-conference teams.

And, the odds are the Panthers won’t clinch the division.

The NFC South is one of the strongest divisions in the NFC.  Last year, 3 of its 4 teams placed in the top 7 in the NFC.  2009 should be more of the same.

The NFC South is also one of the more competitive divisions.  These four teams know each other like quadruplets split at birth.

Even when a team is self-destructing in the NFC South, they can generally count on winning at least two divisional games.

This isn’t a good thing when it comes to the Panthers’ march towards the playoffs. 

It presents the opportunity for dilution of their record.  Even a team like the Saints with visible exploitable weaknesses, can be a threat. 

And threats put teams on the sidelines.