This is the first installment in a series that myself and fellow Carolina Panthers community leader and NFC South community leader Matt Gilmartin will be putting together every week for the rest of the regular season.
In these articles, we hope to bring the playoff picture into perspective for NFC South fans as well as NFL fans as a whole.
The NFC South has turned out to be one of the best divisions in the league this year and currently has no team under .500. With that being said, the last six weeks in the NFC South will go a long way towards determining the look of the NFC side of the bracket come playoff time.
1) Carolina..........8-2 (2-1).....@ Atlanta
2) Tampa Bay......7-3 (2-1).....@ Detroit
3) Atlanta............6-4 (1-2).....v. Carolina
4) New Orleans...5-5 (1-2)......v. Green Bay
Week 12 will be an important week in the division, as can be seen by the marquee matchup of the week between the Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers have used an inspired rushing attack combined with a gritty defense to win four straight and achieve an 8-2 record on the season to put them atop the standings in the NFC South.
The Falcons have taken the league by surprise, led by rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and free-agent acquisition Michael Turner in the backfield. Picked to finish in the NFC South cellar for the second year in a row since the Michael Vick fiasco, the Falcons have shown a vast improvement under new head coach Mike Smith.
In their first meeting this year, the Panthers handed the Falcons a 24-9 defeat and kept them out of the end zone. Ryan had an average day at best, and the Panthers' run defense kept Turner in check, holding him to 56 yards on the day. Since that Week Four matchup, Turner has been held to less than 55 yards just once—Week Six against Chicago.
Turner’s ability to create yards and find holes has gone a long way towards helping Ryan shoulder some of the offensive burden for the Falcons.
The Panthers' defense was able to sack Ryan twice in their first meeting, but after some problems earlier in the season with protection, the Falcons' offensive line has not allowed a sack in the team’s last two games.
However, that could be a product of the fact that Atlanta's previous two opponents, the Broncos and Saints, have poor defenses that don't get many sacks.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had his best game of the season in the teams’ first meeting, completing 20-of-29 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns on his way to a 124.8 quarterback rating.
The dynamic rushing duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for over 100 yards and Stewart scored the game’s opening touchdown.
The Falcons have continued to grow as a team and continue to look like polar opposites of the team that finished last in the NFC South last year. After winning four of five, though, they suffered a setback at home last week against Denver. The team had consistency issues and ultimately wound up losing 24-20 for their first home loss of the season.
The Panthers are coming off of a two-game stretch through which many thought they would cruise. That was anything but the case, however, as Delhomme struggled, albeit in winning fashion. Coming off of their bye week, the Panthers beat the Raiders 17-6, then held on for a 31-22 win last week over the winless Detroit Lions.
The Panthers' rushing attack has more than overshadowed Delhomme’s inconsistencies, however, with Williams and Stewart combining for 411 yards and four touchdowns in those two victories.
Sunday’s game is sure to be a battle as the Panthers look to hold on to first place. Second place Tampa Bay holds the tie breaker against Carolina, at least until the teams meet again on Dec. 8 on Monday Night Football.
Atlanta is two games out of first in the division but is tied with Dallas and Washington for the second wild card spot.
Not to mention the fact that these two are bitter rivals separated only by about a five- hour stretch of Interstate-85. This one should be a dandy, and will shed light as to any potential long-term problem with Delhomme’s play.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a less-pressing task at hand Sunday, as they head to Detroit to face the Lions. The Lions, at 0-10, are in danger of becoming the first team to go winless during the course of a season since the 1976 Tampa Bay Bucs.
The Bucs, at 7-3, should be cautious, however. The Lions are starting to show a little bit of a spark with Daunte Culpepper under center. The veteran was a big reason why the Lions were able to stay with the Panthers last week, and his plunge in the fourth quarter nearly tied the game.
Culpepper’s ability to get the ball to Calvin Johnson is much better than Dan Orlovsky’s was, and his experience speaks volumes for the struggling Lions.
Tampa Bay will also be without leading rusher Earnest Graham, who was placed on the injured reserve this week following an ankle injury in the first quarter of their win over the Vikings last Sunday.
Warrick Dunn will take over most of the touches and Cadillac Williams, returning from a knee injury last year, will likely see some playing time at the position as well.
With Graham out, the Bucs will need to have a big game and a big final few games from Jeff Garcia. Garcia has done well since regaining his starting job from Brian Greise after a quarterback controversy in the beginning of the year.
Tampa Bay currently holds the No. 1 wild card spot in the NFC, and they will continue to as long as they keep winning. With a game this week against a struggling opponent while the division leading Panthers have a tough matchup in Atlanta, they could find themselves at the top of the NFC South come Sunday night.
Much like the Panthers, the Buccaneers will have the Lions in a final "tune-up" game before they hit a rough patch in their schedule. After Sunday, the Bucs will play all three NFC South opponents in a row; at home against the Saints, then traveling to Carolina for Monday Night Football, and then to Atlanta on a short week.
This game could be their last chance to fine-tune their game plan before they enter do-or-die time.
The New Orleans Saints will try to win back-to-back games for the first time this season on Sunday when they host the Green Bay Packers. The Saints are at 5-5 on the year, despite having the top offense in the league.
Their problems rest mostly on the shoulders of the defense, who have been picked apart time and time again. In fact, in four of the five Saints losses, the offense has scored 20 or more points.
The Packers are also at 5-5, but their performance thus far has them in the thick of the NFC North division race. The Packers join the Bears and Vikings in a three-way tie atop the division.
Coming off of a 37-3 stomping of the Bears, the Packers will have a full head of steam coming into New Orleans and will be fighting for the hopes of their season in the first year of the Aaron Rodgers era.
Rodgers has been a big factor in the Packers' season, as he has a quarterback rating of over 100 in all five of the Packers' wins, but in just one of Green Bay's losses. He has thrown five of his six interceptions on the year in losing efforts.
To Rodgers’ credit, however, the Packers have had a hard time establishing the run. Starting running back Ryan Grant has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark twice this year, adding pressure to Rodgers and the offensive line.
The Saints will need to find a rhythm if they are going to have any hope of reaching the postseason this year. They are currently three games behind the Panthers for the division lead and one game behind the Cowboys, Redskins, and Falcons for the wild card.
Drew Brees has done more than the team could have asked, and is the main reason the Saints are at 5-5. He leads the NFL in passing yards at 3,251 and has 18 touchdowns to accompany them.
Pierre Thomas will look to repeat and surpass his 88-yard performance from last week, and combined with Deuce McAllister will lead a rushing attack that will need to be successful to take some pressure off of Brees.
If the Saints can find a productive balance to their already high-powered offense and can force some turnovers on defense and hold opponents in check, they could be candidates for a late-season push.