Who's No. 2 in the NFC South?

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
10:57
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Brees-Newton-FreemanGetty Images, US PresswireWill it be Drew Brees, Cam Newton or Josh Freeman that elevates his team to NFC South No. 2?
Unless Mike Smith gives Roddy White his Twitter password back, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t going to say it.

And Larry Bird isn't participating in 3-point competitions these days. So I’ll take it upon myself to ask the most relevant question in the NFC South right now:

Who’s playing for second place?

Let’s not worry about hurting feelings here. The Falcons are going to run away with the division, unless it suddenly is discovered they’ve been running a four-year bounty program and there are mass suspensions.

Everyone else is playing for second place, which might be the most open race in the NFL right now. Take a look at the NFC South standings. After the Falcons at 6-0, you’ve got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 2-3, and the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers each at 1-4.

Does anybody really want second place? From the looks of things, nobody is stepping forward to claim it.

I know there are small pockets in Louisiana (and parts of Alabama and Mississippi) and the Carolinas that think the Saints and Panthers can come off their bye weeks, make a huge run and get into the playoffs. Tampa Bay fans have learned to aim low, but there might be even a few of them who think the Bucs can go on a run.

What makes anyone think the Bucs, Saints or Panthers still can make the playoffs? Certainly nothing we’ve seen so far this season.

I strongly doubt we’ll see two NFC South teams in the playoffs this season. But, going back to the original question, someone has to finish second.

Let’s take a look at each of the candidates and then take a look at their odds of finishing second in the division:

Carolina: Back in the preseason, I picked the Panthers to finish third in the division, but I thought they had a chance to go something like 9-7 and maybe even slip into the playoffs. In the back of my mind, I even thought there was a chance the Panthers could leap the Saints or Falcons.

After all, they had quarterback Cam Newton coming off a wonderful rookie season. They had injured guys such as Thomas Davis, Jon Beason and Ron Edwards coming back on defense, and they used a first-round pick on linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers already had a good offense, and any improvement on defense, theoretically, would make them a good team.

As it turns out, the Panthers are a bad team. The defense is no better. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who some thought would be a head coach after last season, probably will be coaching tight ends somewhere next season. The Panthers have no rhyme or reason on offense. They’ve got $80 million tied up in running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, but they’re letting them be rag dolls as they take hits when Newton fakes to them on the read option. Speaking of Newton, the Panthers long ago should have made a decision on whether they want him to be a running back or a real quarterback. They still haven’t decided.

Bottom line: I give the Panthers a 25 percent chance of finishing second in the NFC South and a zero percent chance of getting to the playoffs. This team might have more individual talent than New Orleans or Tampa Bay, but it’s starting to look as dysfunctional as the 2010 squad coached by John Fox. Even people in the building aren’t showing much optimism the Panthers can turn things around.

New Orleans: Nobody said it would be easy because we all knew the Saints were encountering something never seen before. They had their head coach (Sean Payton), assistant head coach (Joe Vitt) and general manager (Mickey Loomis) suspended in the bounty drama. They were supposed to have some players suspended as well, but we have yet to see that due to the appeals process.

Still, I thought the Saints could win the division or at least finish second to the Falcons and make the playoffs. I thought any team with Drew Brees at quarterback automatically set the low end of the bar at .500, and I thought Steve Spagnuolo’s defense might lead to some improvement on that side of the ball.

None of that has happened, and the Saints started 0-4 before finally pulling one off against San Diego.

Bottom line: I give the Saints a 35 percent chance of finishing second in the NFC South and a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs. They are coming off the San Diego win and a bye, and they do play Tampa Bay on Sunday. They also get Vitt back as their head coach after the Tampa Bay game, so there is at least a glimmer of hope for the Saints -- but it’s a small one.

Tampa Bay: No NFC South team entered the season with fewer expectations surrounding it. At best, the hope was the Bucs would be better with Greg Schiano replacing Raheem Morris as the head coach. The Bucs are better. They already have won two games (and at least been competitive in their others), and that’s a lot better than last season, when they lost their final 10 games, most of them very badly.

Sure, there have been some valleys. Until Sunday’s victory against Kansas City, it didn’t look like the Bucs had any idea of what they wanted to be on offense, and that symptom could return when they face better teams.

Bottom line: I give the Bucs a 40 percent chance of finishing second in the NFC South and a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs. That really has little to do with the fact the Bucs have one more win than the Panthers and Saints at this point. It’s based on one simple fact: Outside of the Falcons, the Bucs are the only team that has shown improvement since the preseason. That’s why, among this group, they’re the ones who still could realize more upside this season.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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