The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't played their final game of the first quarter of the season yet, but the rest of the NFC South has. This means it's the perfect time to review the first quarter in the NFC South. Let's go through it team by team.
Even though the Atlanta Falcons are 2-2, they look ready to collapse right now. They started the season with a bad loss to Chicago, which doesn't look too bad. They then followed it up with a close win against Philadelphia, which was pretty impressive until the Eagles started 1-3 and didn't quite look like a Dream Team. Then they lost to the Bucs in a game that should not have been as close as it was, but yesterday took the cake. The Falcons almost blew a three score lead against a team led by Tarvaris Jackson. It took a horribly managed two-minute drill and a missed field goal to hand them the win.
The problem with the Falcons is many-fold. For one, their offensive line suddenly looks terrible. For two, their defense cannot pressure any quarterback except Michael Vick. For three, Michael Turner and the running game in general is lacking the sustaining element that made them good last year.
To be honest, Matt Ryan has not played horribly. I never thought he was a real star quarterback, but he's a solid performer who will make the needed throws and can win games for a team. But he can't do that when he's constantly under pressure and his wide receivers (especially Roddy White) are dropping balls. Julio Jones is becoming a good deep threat, but still struggles as a route runner in my opinion. Tony Gonzalez is still amazing, but lacks the speed to do much damage.
And on defense, it isn't much better. The Falcons added Ray Edwards, but they really can't get a pass rush going against anyone who isn't named Michael Vick. The linebackers aren't special, and Dunta Robinson really isn't as good as his contract thinks he is. Each year many teams that made the playoffs the previous season miss out, and the Falcons look like one of those teams right now.
These Panthers are just 1-3, but they are no longer an easy out. They were easily the worst team in the NFL last year, but they have given every one of their opponents this year a very good fight - and they even won one game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Rookie phenom Cam Newton is showing why he was the first overall pick. He has looked terrific through four games, completing 59.5% of his passes for a stunning 8.5 yards per attempt. He has thrown for five touchdowns and five interceptions, but has also added four touchdowns on the ground. Add to that 33 rushing attempts for 133 yards. Cam Newton has made some boneheaded plays at times, but he's also looked like a superstar. There are good reasons to be scared of the rookie.
The Panthers defense, on the other hand, has not looked as good. It was supposed to be the strength of the team, but the Panthers have been depleted by injuries. LBs Thomas Davis and Jon Beason are both out for the year, as is DT Ron Edwards. In fact, the entire team has been hit hard by injuries. The Panthers aren't a good team yet, but they aren't an easy team to beat either, and the future seems bright for them.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have looked predictably good on offense. They were struggling a little in that aspect last year, but the addition of Darren Sproles and the continued evolution of Jimmy Graham fixed that.
Darren Sproles has been ridiculous so far this year. 15 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown, 26 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown and 10 combined kick and punt returns for 358 yards and a touchdown. He's the player Reggie Bush never was. And Jimmy Graham is the player Jeremy Shockey never was: 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns already. This offense has only gotten better, despite Mark Ingram not really doing much.
The defense has looked like a ruin at times, though. Blown coverages and missed tackles have shown up throughout every game, although playing against the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans will do that to a team. Still, that defense looked like it was playing the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs a little too often to be comfortable with them.
Overall, though, the New Orleans Saints are currently the best team in the division. They have the best quarterback, the best offense and a defense that does enough to keep up with teams. In addition, they currently lead the division at 3-1 and have a pretty weak schedule over the coming four weeks.
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to win this division, they have to win tomorrow night. While the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers could both still challenge for the division title, they don't look like they'll be in it for the long haul. Instead, the Bucs and Saints seem to be the two teams most fit to fight it out down the stretch. Right now the Saints look like the better team, and they have a much weaker schedule as well. But the Saints and Bucs will match up twice over the next month: on October 16 and on November 6. Those two games could decide the fate of the division.