The Bucs have their bye week right now, which makes this a perfect time to look at the state of the NFC South. The Bucs at 4-3 are second in the division, being ahead of the Falcons because of their head-to-head record. Meanwhile the New Orleans Saints lead the division. The Carolina Panthers, like last year, are last in the division - but they are a lot more competitive this year, despite being just 2-5.
What's most surprising about the Panthers this season is their offense, which was abysmal last season. They couldn't get anything done with Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore at quarterback, but the addition of Cam Newton has really charged their offense, and especially Steve Smith. Smith currently leads the league in receiving with 818 yards now that he has a quarterback with the arm to use him properly.
Most impressively, Cam Newton hasn't looked like the raw quarterback he was supposed to be. Oh, yes, he has thrown 9 touchdowns - but he has also thrown for 8 and added another 7 on the ground. That's a combined 15 touchdowns - more than all but four quarterbacks in the NFL. He hasn't had much trouble picking up the Panthers' offense, and he has made a major impact in the NFL so far.
He's also the main reason the Panthers have the 5th ranked NFL offense by Football Outsiders' numbers. And while the running game is a major part of that, the Panthers don't have a run-first offense. Most plays are run from the shotgun, and it's a true spread offense. The running game works off the passing game: they're placing the offense in Cam Newton's hands, and it's working.
So why aren't they in better shape? Because they lose close games, and because their defense stinks.The defense is ranked 29th by Football Outsiders' numbers. In large part that has been caused by injuries, especially to the linebackers and defensive tackles. They are currently starting two rookie defensive tackles, both third-rounders. In addition, their star linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis have been on IR since early in the season - leaving them with the underrated James Anderson, Dan Connor, and some other guys.
But the problems run deeper than that. Despite re-signing star defensive end Charles Johnson they're unable to get much of a pass rush going, while the back seven aren't playing up to speed either. This team has an explosive offense, but the defense is a sieve - making it very hard for them to win games consistently.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the future of this team seems very bright. They have a star quarterback with incredible tools, although he obviously needs some work as well. They have both their pass and running game sorted out, despite injuries to a few key offensive linemen, specifically Jeff Otah. The defense has not been good, but it's also very young with several key players on IR who should return next year.
This isn't the Panthers' year, as their defense and inexperience at quarterback hurts them, but they will be good in the near future. Another competitive team in the NFC South, which is starting to look like it will be by far the toughest division in football.