NFL Playoff Picture 2011: NFC South Includes Three Contenders In Saints, Bucs, Falcons

Written by SB Nation's Ryan Van Bibber.

The road to the NFC South title was supposed to go through Atlanta. Following a humbling loss to the Packers in the playoffs last year, Atlanta made a blockbuster draft day trade, swapping a sizable chuck of their future to move up and draft Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones with the first pick. New Orleans, just a year removed from winning it all, retooled their high octane offense, swapping out Reggie Bush for Darren Sproles and first-round pick Mark Ingram. It made their running game an even more dynamic part of an explosive offense, centered around quarterback Drew Brees.

Tampa Bay entered the season expecting a great leap forward from quarterback Josh Freeman, after showing real promise in his rookie year. Carolina made the biggest change of all, drafting Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick. Most definitely an entertainer, Newton promises to make the Panthers' offense the most exciting in the division. No surprise then that this is the most schizophrenic division in the NFL. Unfortunately, the three teams at the top have failed to dominate opponents the way each envisioned leading up to the season. 

Here's how the NFC South looks heading into Week 9:

1. New Orleans, 5-3

2. Tampa Bay, 4-3

3. Atlanta, 4-3

4. Carolina, 2-6

Defense is the biggest flaw for each of these teams; each one has glaring weaknesses within the unit. The dog fight between the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers should be among the more entertaining division races of the season's second half. 

New Orleans leads now simply because both Atlanta and Tampa Bay had the week off. A lopsided loss to the St. Louis Rams, previously winless, sowed the seeds of doubt among the Saints and their true believers. The Saints figure to get a wild card berth because they can still score points by the bunch and they have the savviest group of coaches in the division, a group of leaders quite capable of disguising the team's flaws. 

Tampa Bay probably has to wait another year. Despite a talented young quarterback, they just don't have the kind of offensive skills players the Falcons and Saints do. Their defense ranks among the bottom the third of the league, which will make those division battles even tougher, especially with such a weak pass rush. 

Keep a close eye on the Panthers. Despite winning just two games, they've only lost by more than a touchdown twice. Ron Rivera's team will spoil playoff hopes for more than one team before the season ends; mark it. A good draft and smart offseason moves should put them in the mix for the division title next year. 

Predicted Division Winner: A Week 10 game between the Falcons and the Saints could go a long way toward deciding the winner but we'll take Atlanta. The Falcons look dialed in after winning two straight, including one against the Lions, in pretty convincing fashion. Julio Jones should be back in action this week against the Colts and really hitting his stride the week after this one. 

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