Carolina Panthers

NFC South returns to prominence

CHARLOTTE -- They don't and will never get the credit or attention of their big-city counterparts in the East divisions, but the surprising resurgence of Atlanta and the solid play of Carolina and Tampa Bay have given rise to the NFC South again.

That preseason darling New Orleans trails those three in the standings points to a resurgence in these parts.

The NFC South is an impressive 11-5 in non-division games, trailing only the NFC East (11-4). Those are the only two divisions with no teams under .500.

"You're battle-tested in my opinion in this division," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "They're all tough."

During the preseason, many believed Atlanta would finish 4-12, and they've already matched that win total. Some weren't sure of Delhomme's return from Tommy John surgery or how the aging Tampa defense would hold together.

The one team everyone thought would thrive is New Orleans, and the Saints have had consistency issues en route to their 3-3 record heading to Charlotte on Sunday.

That's why the sudden realization that these four teams can play cracks up those involved.

Last week, Bucs coach Jon Gruden nearly snorted when asked a question about the division, since it was couched by mentioning the difficulty.

"It's amazing how people say it's a tough division," Gruden laughed. "Five weeks ago, people said that we weren't a very good division. It just goes to show you that this league is really up for grabs."

At the time, Gruden was discussing the heat of the Panthers-Bucs rivalry, perhaps the signature one in this division since 2002, but was quick to add: "If you don't have respect for Atlanta or New Orleans, they'll knock your block off."

Coach John Fox defended the competitiveness of the division, even when overall records diminish the appearance of quality.

"It's pretty on level," Fox said. "You've got three teams at 4-2 and one at 3-3. I don't see a decisive team, but it's still early. It's all very, very competitive, and it's always been very, very competitive. Even last year, you had a team at 9-7 and two teams at 7-9. That's two games difference.

"Sometimes, a lot gets read into whether a 12-4 (team) and a couple of 11-5 (teams) make it look better. But realistically, that doesn't happen a whole lot. I thought it was a competitive division a year ago and has been every year since we've been here."

When the league adopted the eight-division format in 2002, the new South started with a bang, going 25-14-1 in non-division games, best in the league. They hovered within a game of .500 the next three years, and bottomed out the last two (17-23 in 2006 and 15-25 in 2007) as teams took turns having problems. Carolina and Atlanta in particular struggled the past two years with quarterback issues -- the Falcons overcoming the Michael Vick disaster and the Panthers struggling without Delhomme.

Through it all, the division boasts more appearances in conference championship games (five, or each year other than 2006) than any other. Each team's had its turn, with the Panthers going twice in 2003 and 2005.

"You just don't know," Delhomme said. "For the most part, besides a few special teams in certain areas, its kind of a mix and match every year. No one gave Atlanta a chance this year, and here they are playing great football. Tampa's the defending champs. New Orleans started off rough last year, but they probably finished the season better than anyone else.

"So, you've just got to come out and play good football."

With the Bucs rolling with Jeff Garcia, Delhomme healthy again, Drew Brees piloting the league's best passing game and Matt Ryan impressing in early returns in Atlanta, the division once again looks stout.

"If you had to say there is a surprise team (in our division), most people would say it's Atlanta," Fox said. "They made some good acquisitions. Year-to-year, it's obvious the prognosticators can't figure it out. They make their predictions, but they are probably more wrong than right. It's hard to predict which 12 teams are in the playoffs. People very seldom get that right. Every year, you never know."

• NOTES: Starting right tackle Jeff Otah and center Ryan Kalil were declared doubtful for Sunday's game because of ankle injuries. Neither practiced Thursday or Friday after going on a limited basis Wednesday. They'll be replaced by Jeremy Bridges and Geoff Hangartner.

Wide receiver D.J. Hackett (MCL sprain) is listed as out for this week, while running back Jonathan Stewart (illness) and linebacker Adam Seward (hamstring) are questionable.

Be sure to visit heraldonline.com for Herald reporter Darin Gantt's Panthers blog, new weekly podcast and a Panthers notebook.

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