One of the earliest surprises of the 2015 season is how much the NFC South has rebounded from a laughable 2014, when the Carolina Panthers won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record. After a 2013 season that put two NFC South teams into the postseason, the division then earned a reputation as the worst in the NFL just a year later. Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints regressed, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earned the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the Atlanta Falcons were well on their way to getting Mike Smith fired.
Coming into this season, all four of those teams had serious concerns, from the Panthers losing wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the year to the Falcons' entirely new coaching staff. But through four weeks of play, those two teams in particular are looking dominant and every other team in the league should be on notice: the Panthers and Falcons, off to hot 4-0 starts, are for real.
Just how good is still up for debate — their schedules haven't been particularly tough and there's still three-fourths of the season left to play. But both teams have a lot going for them, and the schedule going forward seems favorable. Aside from each team playing the Indianapolis Colts and a matchup between Carolina and Seattle Seahawks, the toughest games the Panthers and Falcons have ahead of them are the head-to-head matches between the two.
Nobody really expected such strong starts for either team, and it's easy to see why.
What went wrong in 2014?
Panthers: For Carolina, the story of last season was too little, too late. The offense never really got going, and the defensive side of the ball was a mess for much of the year. That same defense, led by Ron Rivera, was expected to be a strength of the team, as it is now. That wasn't the case until the Panthers closed out the season on a four-game winning streak, taking the division at 7-8-1 and a spot in the playoffs.
They dominated the Saints and Buccaneers in those final four games, and then went to the playoffs where they also made it past the Arizona Cardinals. The defense was excellent in that game, holding the Cardinals to just 78 yards of offense. But again, the Panthers could easily have missed the playoffs entirely after they followed up a rare tie with a six-game losing skid.
Falcons: Atlanta went from having one of the most effective offenses in the NFL in 2012 to a complete collapse in 2013. After that, there were those who thought Mike Smith would be able to pick up the pieces and field a competent team, and those who felt that the team desperately needed a change. It turns out the latter were right, and Smith's Falcons were completely lost last year.
Despite having three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan throwing to a playmaker like Julio Jones, the Falcons rarely aired it out and instead kept the same, predictable offense that couldn't move the ball. Not winning games with those weapons on offense may be the biggest reason Smith was eventually fired. It didn't help that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan implemented a defense that the players didn't like and that resulted in one of the worst pass rushes in the league.
Why should they be struggling this year?
Panthers: The obvious answer is that their No. 1 wideout was lost for the season with an injury. Without Benjamin, quarterback Cam Newton is working with Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown as his starting receivers, with rookie Devin Funchess and journeyman Jerricho Cotchery backing them up. At the running back position, Jonathan Stewart is starting after DeAngelo Williams left in free agency and the only reliable weapon to speak of is tight end Greg Olsen.
Then there's linebacker Luke Kuechly — a player with the best claim to the title of top inside linebacker in the league. Kuechly sustained a concussion in Carolina's first game and hasn't played since.
Falcons: Unlike Newton, Ryan had some big-name players to work with in Julio Jones and Roddy White coming into the year, but the rest of his team has consistently let him down over the years. The running game has been an afterthought at best while the defense has consistently ranked in the bottom of the league.
Atlanta's defense surrendered a league-high 398.3 yards per game last year and faced a lot of uncertainty this season with a first-time head coach and new coordinators. Plus, the defense was giving unproven players like Ricardo Allen, Ra'Shede Hageman and Vic Beasley prominent roles. They were not expected to hit the ground running as they have.
How are they so good?
Panthers: Somehow, someway, Newton is making it work with Ginn, Brown and Olsen on offense. He's playing great football, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions, and also has a pair of rushing touchdowns. His rushing yardage is just shy of Stewart, the starting running back. Ginn, a player who was written off as a factor on offense years ago, has 12 receptions for 206 yards and three touchdowns. On offense, Newton is simply doing a lot with a little. If you replace him with another less skilled quarterback, the Panthers could easily be 0-4 instead of 4-0.
On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Josh Norman is playing out of his mind. The fourth-year cornerback leads the NFL with four interceptions, including two pick-sixes:
Norman is on his way to a massive payday at some point this offseason, and the Panthers will likely be more than happy to give him a truckload of money after his play this year. He's energized Rivera's defense and got them playing to their potential right out of the gate as opposed to late in the season.
Falcons: For Atlanta, bringing in Dan Quinn has worked exactly as they hoped it would. Quinn, a rookie head coach with a defensive background, has completely reworked the defense. It's not among the elite defenses of the NFL, but they're creating turnovers and they're getting the quarterback. Desmond Trufant looks like one of the NFL's top cornerbacks, and the defensive line is getting pressure all on its own.
There's also the fact that Kyle Shanahan has made the offense dynamic and unpredictable. The Falcons are being creative with the ball, and Jones is playing as well as he ever has. Jones had a modest 38 receiving yards in Week 4, but he put up totals of 141, 135 and 164 the previous three games. Running back Devonta Freeman is the big surprise, coming on strong with 252 yards and seven touchdowns already this season. When rookie Tevin Coleman is healthy as well, the Falcons' ground game will be a force to be reckoned with.
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Maybe the Buccaneers aren't great because rookie Jameis Winston struggling, and the Saints have a long way to go — though hey managed their first win in Week 4 and Drew Brees is always a player who can put them in a position to win. But the Falcons and the Panthers are the here to stay. Both teams are playoff contenders, and they seem to have a relatively easy road the playoffs. Mark their two December head-to-head games on your calendars.