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A Baleful Glare Around The NFC South

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In honor of Columbus Day, I'm going to evoke the spirit of the great explorer Christopher Columbus and pretend to be pioneering a new feature at The Falcoholic, but in reality I'll just be re-discovering something many people have already done. Take that, long-dead Columbus!

Basically, we're going to take a look around the NFC South and see what our competition is up to. As you know, the 4-1 Falcons currently lead the division. Behind them, in order, are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New Orleans Saints, an Arkansas-based Pop Warner team, an elderly care facility touch football squad, a guy taking a football to the groin and the Carolina Panthers.

In case you missed the most important part of the preceding paragraph, I'll reiterate: 4-1 Falcons.

For now, join me after the jump and we'll look at the other teams audaciously challenging for the NFC South crown.....and also the Panthers.

Tampa Bay Bucs, 3-1

Raise your hand if you thought the Bucs would have such an excellent record after four games. For those of you who raised your hands, please stop lying.

This record is a bit of an illusion, but make no mistake, the Bucs are a team on the rise. Josh Freeman hasn't put up eye-popping numbers at quarterback thus far this season, but he's beginning to limit his mistakes and make the most of his cannon arm. The team has taken great pains to surround him with talent at receiver (Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn) and running back, where Cadillac Williams will soon be supplanted by a deep stable that includes Earnest Graham, LaGarette Blount and Kareem Huggins.

As is the case with the Falcons, defense is keeping them in games. They're second in the NFL to the 4-1 Falcons with nine picks and have 10 sacks, lending a big-play air to the defense that was sorely lacking the last couple of years. They're managing to mostly limit the damage, though they're doing so against some offensively inept teams (Browns, Bengals, Panthers). The Steelers beat the crap out of them by a 38-13 margin.

So what's in store for the Bucs? I expect a regression to the mean before long, and these Bucs probably won't win more than 7-8 games. That would represent a significant leap forward for this football team, especially if they can eke out a couple of wins against clearly superior competition. I'm interested to see how they play the 4-1 Falcons.

New Orleans Saints, 3-2

The Saints' fanbase appears split between people who are pulling a Bender and those who are convinced the Saints' problems stem from nothing more than the most fixable of issues. Injuries are a popular meme right now for Saints' fans and probably will be for the national media, which is kind of hilarious considering the number of "WUT'S WRONG WITH FAILCONS?!?!?!" articles we had to deal with last year with equally or more severe injury problems.

On paper, this is still a team performing well. They do have a winning record, they've hung on for some tough wins and Drew Brees & Co. are still looking very good statistically. I will admit that they've been hit hard by injuries at running back, where they've lost Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush for multiple weeks, and in the secondary. But there's something lurking under the surface here.

Sean Payton has been known as an offensive genius since his days with the Dallas Cowboys, but he seems off in 2010. Plays where he might have aggressively punished a defense have been replaced with meek little runs or short passes, and even Saints fans will tell you there's been little consistency in the way plays are called. Think it's frustrating when Mike Mularkey pounds it with Michael Turner three times in a row for the 4-1 Falcons? The Saints watched Chris Ivory gut the Cardinals defense and decided to turn it over to Drew Brees, who at one point whiffed on three straight passes in the red zone.

Getting back injured plays will undoubtedly help. They still have too much talent to miss the playoffs, and penciling them in for any less than 10 wins would be a mistake. There's a fire missing here, though, and it's fair to wonder if they're the automatic NFC South champions many of us assumed they would be.

Carolina Panthers, 0-5

All you need to know about the current state of affairs in Pantherland is how desperately John Fox is trying to save his job.

From there, everything else kind of falls into place. Yanking Matt Moore so early in the season for a clearly overwhelmed Jimmy Clausen? That sure does reek of desperation. The Panthers have two of the best running backs in the NFL and some nice defensive pieces, and all they have to show for is an excruciatingly bad season.

I respect Panthers fans and it's hard to watch them deal with this. Sure, we knew they'd be a bad team, but abysmal? No. Fox has checked out mentally, according to writer James the Aussie, and until he's fired the Panthers probably aren't going to right the ship. The playcalling has made Mike Mularkey and Sean Payton look like geniuses, the offensive line is scrabbling and their second best receiver is something called a David Gettis. At this point, it would be a minor miracle if they won six games.

Honestly, the Panthers might be better off starting Tony Pike at quarterback.

Division Predictions, Week 5

Falcons: 11-5
Saints: 10-6
Bucs: 7-9
Panthers 4-12