Tuesday October 14th, 2014

Bengals fans don’t have to like it, but the Carolina Panthers and all who pledge allegiance to them should be darn thankful for that ugly tie they received Sunday in Cincinnati. That Mike Nugent shank of a 36-yard field goal try at the end of overtime is the gift that’s keeping the entire NFC South from sinking to .500 or below after six weeks of the regular season.  

Then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of time. Because none of the trends are pointing upward in the dreadful NFC South, the worst division in football. 

It’s not difficult to identify the epicenter of the disaster zone in the division: it’s on defense, where as one former NFL head coach recently noted to me, “nobody can stop anybody. I mean anybody.’’   

• Week 6 coverage hub | Fantasy Fast Forward: Week 6 takeaways

Alas, that is not hyperbole, because the statistics are hide-your-eyes ugly. With Week 6 in the books and mid-October having arrived, the four defenses in the NFC South rank as follows in points allowed: Tampa Bay dead last at 34 per game; Atlanta 29th at 28.3; New Orleans 28th at 28.2, and Carolina 24th at 26.2. Nine teams are averaging at least 6.0 yards allowed per play this season, and four of them reside in the NFC South, led by the Falcons’ league-worst 6.2 yards, with the Bucs and Panthers tied at 6.1, and the Saints at 6.0.   

Is it any wonder the NFC South is the NFL’s only division that features four teams that have been outscored on balance this season, and owns the fewest combined victories (8-14-1) and the lowest winning percentage (.370)? Week 6 was the NFC South’s first winless week (0-2-1, with the Saints on their bye), but it has already endured two other 1-3 weeks, and is one of only two divisions that have yet to post a winning week (joining the tepid AFC South in that dubious distinction).  

First-place Carolina (3-2-1) is the only team to post a winning streak this year (it started the season 2-0, beating the Bucs and Lions), and Tampa Bay’s Week 4 upset at Pittsburgh represents the division’s only non-conference victory of 2014 (it’s 1-5-1 against the AFC overall). On the road, the Saints and Falcons are both 0-3, with the division playing .208 ball as a whole away from home (2-9-1).  

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The NFC South has long been known for its remarkable balance, with no repeat champions in the division’s first 12 seasons and an even three division titles apiece for the Saints, Falcons, Bucs and Panthers. But this is ridiculous, in an across-the-board-bad sort of way. And things got this desperate on defense seemingly overnight. Carolina ranked second in points allowed last season at 15.5, and third in yards surrendered at 302.1, while going 12-4 and winning the division for the first time since 2008. New Orleans’ defensive improvement was one of the stories of the year last season, with the 11-5 wild-card qualifying Saints finishing second in yards allowed (301.3) behind only Super Bowl champion Seattle, and fourth in points (19.5) overall.   

But that was then, and this is now. And if there are four more tortured coaching souls this season than the NFC South defensive coordinator club of Rob Ryan (Saints), Mike Nolan (Falcons), Leslie Frazier (Bucs) and Sean McDermott (Panthers), I don’t know who’d they be.   

“Our defense didn’t get anything done,’’ Bucs first-year head coach Lovie Smith said Sunday, in massive understatement, after visiting Baltimore scored 28 first-quarter points en route to a 48-17 lambasting of Tampa Bay. The Ravens scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, and points on their first six. And the game didn’t even register as the Bucs’ defensive low-point in 2014, with that coming on that Thursday night in Week 3, when Tampa Bay trailed 56-0 at Atlanta in the third quarter, before rallying to lose by a mere seven touchdowns.  

Week 7 doesn’t figure to improve the mood in the NFC South either. The shell-shocked Bucs can lick their wounds on their bye, but the other three teams all hit the road to face 4-2 teams with pretty good offensive talent: Carolina is at Green Bay, Atlanta is at Baltimore, and New Orleans is at Detroit.   

On the bright side, somebody’s got to win this division and go to the playoffs, but it’s hard to picture any of the NFC South’s clubs making a deep run in January at the moment. In terms of the sense of urgency, from the highest to the lowest, here’s our reading of where things stand defensively after six weeks in the NFC South:

• Atlanta -- So much for all that offseason talk about jacking up the toughness level in Atlanta this year. There haven’t been many Hard Knocks coming from the Falcons defense so far in 2014. You can’t shed the soft label just by talking about it. Since looking machine-like in that 56-14 destruction of Tampa Bay in Week 3, Atlanta (2-4) has dropped three in a row, giving up 41 points on the road to a Vikings team starting rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the first time, blowing a 10-point, second-half lead to lose by 10 at the Giants and getting strafed at home by Jay Cutler (career-high 381 yards passing) and the Bears in another dispiriting double-digit loss.    

Defeats on the road are one thing, but if the Falcons can’t get it done in the dome, where they have had an overwhelming advantage in the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era, a second consecutive lost season is on the way. That could spell job security issues for Smith as head coach, not to mention his entire staff. And don’t look now, but the Falcons in the next five weeks hit the road, playing at Baltimore, against Detroit in London (then their bye), at Tampa Bay and at Carolina. Atlanta doesn’t return to the Georgia Dome until Week 12 against the improved Browns.   

The Falcons’ defensive struggles are actually the least surprising in the division, because, well, they stunk on that side of the ball last year. The Falcons finished 27th in points allowed in 2013 at 27.7 per game, and they’re only giving up about a half-point more this time around. Atlanta was 27th in yards last season (379.4) and has tumbled to 31st this year, giving up 419 yards per game.     

Big plays are killing the Falcons, especially on third down. Chicago had five gains of at least 20 yards on Sunday, and those pass plays went for 197 yards total, including a 74-yard non-scoring bomb from Cutler to an inexplicably wide-open receiver Alshon Jeffery. That bevy of big-gainers pretty much accounted for the Bears 478-287 advantage over Atlanta in terms of total yards.    

Atlanta’s talent level on defense just isn’t up to snuff, and there’s not much the Falcons can do to change that in midseason. There’s speculation that Smith, a former Jaguars defensive coordinator, might take over the defensive play-calling from Nolan, but that could prove to be only a cosmetic move and reek of panic. Then again, with the schedule the Falcons face in the next month or so, it might be time for some unadulterated panic in Atlanta.

• Tampa Bay -- Trust me when I say I’ve seen some bad Bucs football in my time. I grew up an expansion-era Bucs fan in St. Petersburg, and I covered the team for six seasons in the first half of the ‘90s, just before Tony Dungy turned things around. So I know futility when I see it, and you can put this year’s 1-5 start in Tampa Bay right there alongside just about anything that happened in the franchise’s bumbling Creamsicle-colored era.  

Consider this: There are still five teams this season that have given up 104 points or fewer, the same total the Bucs allowed in just two of their games, the 56-point mugging at Atlanta and last Sunday’s 48-point surrender against the Ravens. There’s a Tampa Two for you.   

And that doesn’t even include Tampa Bay blowing a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead to lose in overtime at New Orleans in Week 5, falling to the Derek Anderson-quarterbacked Panthers at home in Week 1 and the Austin Davis-led Rams at home in Week 2.  

The Bucs weren’t great defensively last season, but they weren’t remotely this bad. Tampa Bay was 17th overall in yards allowed at 348, and 22nd in scoring at 24.3 points per game. This year the Bucs have bottomed out, ranking last in yards (422.8) and points (34), putting them on pace to give up 544 points and 6,765 yards. That would beat the NFL record of 533 points allowed by the 1981 Colts, and rank third behind the 2012 Saints and 1981 Colts for the most yards ever surrendered.

Good thing Lovie Smith is a defensive-oriented head coach or Tampa Bay might really be in trouble. All of this after the Bucs had a widely well-reviewed defensive haul in free agency, and followed up with a draft that looked promising. The Bucs made what was thought to be a solid hire in Smith, and his presence would presumably add stability and experience and help young defensive bookend pieces like defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David become the stars of an on-the-come Tampa Bay defense.   

Yeah, not so much. After two weeks of at least being competitive against the likes of the Steelers and Saints, the Bucs fell back off the cliff against the Ravens, with Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco picking Tampa Bay apart in the first half like he was in the midst of a pleasant Friday walkthrough. Afterward, the Bucs took a vote and decided it’s a pretty good time for a bye week.

• Carolina -- Don’t forget, the Panthers are your hot team in the NFC South, what with that big second-half comeback victory at home against the Bears in Week 5 and then the weirdness of the tie in Cincinnati. A two-week mark of 1-0-1 may not sound all that great, but consider that the Panthers have taken the field six times this season, and walked off losers only twice. That’s something to build on if you’re Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. 

In between his team’s 2-0 start and the most recent two weeks, however, it was ugly for Rivera, a former defensive coordinator with the Bears and Chargers. The Panthers got abused at home by the Steelers 37-19 in Week 3, and were treated even more rudely by Baltimore on the road in Week 4, losing 38-10. That’s 75-29 if you’re scoring at home, and over the span of those two games, Carolina gave up points on 12 out of a mind-boggling 16 drives by its opponents.  

Even against the Bears and Bengals, the Panthers allowed 24 and 37 points, respectively, and that means Carolina is averaging the same 34 points allowed over its past four game as the Bucs are for their entire six-game season. Compare that to just 21 points surrendered in the Panthers’ first two games combined, and the drop-off has been precipitous. All of last season, Carolina’s No. 2 ranked defense gave up more than 24 points in a game just once, and 31 points was the most the Panthers allowed.   

No defense is supposed to be a one-man team, but it’s impossible to ignore the difference in Carolina since defensive end and leading pass-rusher Greg Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list while his domestic violence case is adjudicated. Hardy has been off the roster for four games, and the Panthers are averaging 34 points and 442 yards allowed in that span, dropping them from a top-five ranking defensively to 26th (392.5 yards per game). The Bengals dented Carolina for 513 yards of offense in five quarters on Sunday, the second-most the Panthers have ever allowed.    

“It would be asinine for me to sit up here and say this loss has no impact on us,’’ Rivera said Monday, via ESPN.com. “But at the same time it is the next-man mentality.’’  

Maybe. But Carolina’s defense without Hardy is missing its most difference-making player, and that has led to the Panthers repeatedly allowing big chunks of yardage, with Cincinnati getting an 89-yard Giovani Bernard touchdown run against Carolina -- the longest run in the NFL this season -- and gaining at least five yards on 35 of 75 snaps (46.6 percent) against the Panthers.  

Soon enough, Carolina fans might look back on that tie in Cincy as the good old days, because the schedule remains challenging over the next month. The Panthers are in the midst of a run of five consecutive games against 2013 playoff teams, with the final four being at Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans and at Philadelphia. Carolina’s 3-2-1 record may sound like a countdown, but it’s looking better all the time.

• New Orleans -- Has anyone gone from beloved fan favorite to embattled and under fire quicker than Rob Ryan in N’awlins? At this rate, the Saints’ all-too-recognizable second-year defensive coordinator might have to cut his hair just as a precautionary safety measure. Nothing wrong with blending into the crowd once in a while. Maybe wearing a hat would help, too.  

After a supposed breakthrough first year in New Orleans, Ryan suddenly has a defense that has people referencing the record-breaking Steve Spagnuolo-coached defensive collapse of 2012. And Saints fans just don’t want to think about 2012 any more. Ever.  

The Saints on defense have been underachieving, underwhelming and often just flat out terrible in terms of tackling and covering. The loss of high-priced free-agent safety Jarius Bryd to a recent season-ending knee injury doesn’t help, but in reality Bryd wasn’t playing worth a Fleur-de-lis even before he got hurt.  

It’s not pretty on defense, but upon closer inspection, the Saints at 2-3 aren’t in terrible position in a division with no superpower. It boils down to New Orleans being able to take care of business at home from here on out, as it has usually done in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era. The numbers don’t lie: The Saints defense ranks 23rd overall in yards allowed at 379.6 per game. But at home, where New Orleans is 2-0, that number drops to a very strong 280.5 yards per game, which would rank No. 2 in the league if the Saints could duplicate that number on the road. New Orleans is 0-3 on the road, giving up 445.7 yards per game.   

Same with the Saints’ scoring defense. They’re giving up 20 points per game at home, and 33.7 on the road, for a 28.2 point average overall. That’s way worse than last year’s 19.5 per game, but close to what the Saints defense is allowing at the Superdome.   

If New Orleans can win almost all of its home games, and pick off a road win or two, the path to a 9-7 or 10-6 playoff berth is still within reach. The Saints just have to survive long enough in the race to take advantage of playing five of their final eight games at home, indoors, where they are a different team. At Detroit, Green Bay at home, and at Carolina are next on the schedule and that’s not an easy run. But even being 4-5 through nine games would be manageable, because then New Orleans returns home for a three-game homestand in November. The Saints aren’t what we thought they’d be, but because there’s no place like home, they’re not even close to being left for dead in the sorry NFC South.

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