- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here's a plug for the NFC South being the toughest division in pro football.
For the 12th straight year since the division was formed -- whether it's the Carolina Panthers with a victory at Atlanta or the New Orleans Saints with a win over Tampa Bay coupled with a Carolina loss -- a different team than the previous year's champ will win the division.
No other division in the NFL can make that boast.
If the Panthers (11-4) win the division, Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay each will have won it three times. Some call that parity. I call it strength.
The division also has sent three teams to the Super Bowl in that span -- Tampa Bay in 2002, Carolina 2003 and New Orleans 2009. Tampa Bay and New Orleans won.
But because the division doesn't have a dominant team that wins the division several years in a row (see AFC East: New England with 10 in 11 years), it doesn't always get credit for being tough. I'd argue it makes it tougher because you never know which team is going to win.
"It's hard," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of winning the South.
Rivera pointed out that all four teams have what they hope are franchise quarterbacks, offensive playmakers and tough, physical defenses. He expects to see struggling Tampa Bay (4-11) and Atlanta (4-11) in the mix again next year.
"This is going to be a tough division for a long time, and hopefully we can continue to compete against each other and really people will begin talking about us as one of the better divisions in the NFL," he said.
Rivera believes the lack of a dominant team keeps the division from getting the respect it deserves.
"But, at the same time, it's good that we don't have one because it stays competitive," he said.
Here's a breakdown of NFC South winners:
Atlanta: 2004, 2010, 2012.
Carolina: 2003, 2008.
New Orleans: 2006, 2009, 2011.
Tampa Bay: 2002, 2005, 2007.
"We've got four teams that can give you headaches every weekend," Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said. "There's no gimme. There's no team that has been real down.
"We were the down team the last couple of years. Look at what this team is capable of doing."
So, who will be the champion next year?
"Hopefully us," said Olsen, predicting the end of this streak if the Panthers do win this year. "Who better to do it?"