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Previewing this weekend's NFC South games

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We preview the NFC South matchups this week, and their awful defenses -- and come to the conclusion that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't been eliminated from contention. Not completely.

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Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know the NFC South is really, really bad at defense? I mean not just "eh they're all kind of incompetent" bad. But "wow what the hell is going on here" bad. The Bucs' defense isn't an outlier in this division, it's par for the course. If we look at Football Outsiders' 2014 defensive rankings the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rank 30th, the Atlanta Falcons rank 31st and the New Orleans Saints rank 32nd. And the Carolina Panthers? 28th. Only the Cleveland Browns break up that string of awful.

And that while last year, only the Falcons defense could truly be described as bad. The Panthers had a dominant defense, the Saints a pretty good one, and even the Bucs' defense was at least mediocre. Only Atlanta has been stable throughout.

And this weekend, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a bye week, the other three teams get to take on some really explosive offenses. Oh boy.

New Orleans Saints (2-3) at Detroit Lions (4-2)

The Lions are the bet defense in football. At least by Football Outsiders' reckoning. That's not something I would have guessed, but it's true: firing Jim Schwartz really did wonders for this group, and its ridiculously talented by inconsistently performing defensive front.

Meanwhile, the hiring of Jim Caldwell hasn't done wonders for good old Matt Stafford and his monstrous arm, but the run-less Lions offense has at least become a consistent enough force to basically win week in, week out. I see no reason why they won't take it to the Saints in their own home this week. Especially so given the fact that the Saints probably won't have Jimmy Graham to throw the ball to. That should put Drew Brees in a real bind: this is not the Bucs defense he's facing, after all.

Carolina Panthers (3-2-1) at Green Bay Packers (4-2)

The only good team in the NFC South takes on one of the best teams in the NFL. Oddly enough, the Panthers' limited success this season has mostly been driven by their offense, while their defense has plummeted to the depths of every other team in the division. And now they get to take on Aaron Rodgers and company. I'm sure that's going to go well.

The one thing that could save them: the Packers don't have a clue how to handle the read-option. I don't know what it is about Dom Capers, but it seems like his brain freezes against teams that have even a residual understanding of one of the most basic plays in college football. And the Panthers last week rediscovered the magic that is Cam Newton's feet. It didn't get them much more than a tie because lol defense, but there's no reason why they can't just dominate Capers' defense on the ground this week.

So hey, this should be a fun shootout. I still say the Panthers lose in the end.

Atlanta Falcons (2-4) at Baltimore Ravens (4-2)

Hey, the two teams that blew out the Buccaneers are taking on each other. I wonder: will it make the Bucs look better or worse if the Ravens destroy the Falcons? Would a close game make the Bucs look more or less competent?

Regardless, I really can't see the Falcons winning this game. Not only have they been bad this season, the Ravens are a particularly bad matchup for them. With a quality pass rush that should overwhelm a horrid Falcons line, and a running game that should destroy one of the softest defenses in the NFL, Baltimore is the clear favorite in this matchup.

They aren't completely hopeless, though. Their defense is horrid (worse than the Bucs' defense, by Football Outsiders' estimation), but their offense is really good. Antone Smith is a miracle-worker who manages to run in a long touchdown every. single. game, while Julio Jones continues to dominate the passing game. And Matt Ryan really has gotten better every single season.

The season's not over yet

Reviewing this slate of games, one thing is pretty clear: the NFC South is a really bad division this season, in spite of the presence of (at least) three franchise quarterbacks. And this defensive disaster gives the Bucs a tiny, tiny window into the playoffs: because while they're in a horrible position, it's not like these other teams are going to dominate their opponents the rest of the season.

In fact, if these games go the way I think they go, the end of this week will see the Bucs in fourth place at 1-5. Just one game out of second place with the Saints at 2-4 and the Falcons at 2-5, and two-and-a-half games out of first place with the Panthers at 3-3-1.

I mean, the Bucs are almost certainly going to screw that up again. But there's still a tiny, tiny ray of hope.

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