Last year's chumps, this year's champs? NFC South loaded at the top
The only bad news for the Falcons in their 48–21 dismantling of the Texans on Sunday was that they had to break their streak of three straight wins in which they were trailing in the fourth quarter. That's what happens when you so thoroughly dominate your opponent that you're ahead 42–0 in the third quarter and your opponent scores all of its points against second-stringers.
The only bad news for the Panthers in their 37–23 evisceration of the Buccaneers on Sunday was that Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston didn't throw more passes. Carolina's defense picked off four of the 43 throws Winston attempted, including two interceptions by the formerly underrated Josh Norman, who's playing as well as any cornerback in the NFL right now.
What's so unusual about this? The Falcons and Panthers have set the pace this season in an NFC South that became the second division in league history last year to fail to field a winning team. The Panthers “won” the division with a 7-8-1 mark, and the Falcons finished the end of the Mike Smith era with a 6–10 mark and a second straight losing season. This year, however, finds this same division as the league's only one with two undefeated teams through four weeks. There's nothing fluky about either turnaround, though the two teams are doing it in different ways.
The Falcons are doing it with coaching as much as anything else. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has turned a formerly dormant offense into a juggernaut with dynamic zone blocking and efficient route concepts that seem to guarantee first-read open looks for quarterback Matt Ryan. Receiver Julio Jones is on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history, and second-year running back Devonta Freeman became the first player since the 1970 AFL–NFL merger to score three touchdowns in each of his first two NFL starts.
On defense, the Falcons have taken on the personality of new head coach Dan Quinn: aggressive, assignment-correct and opportunistic. Cornerback Desmond Trufant returned an Arian Foster fumble 24 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter of the Houston game, and a defense that was passive over the last couple of seasons has turned on the jets. Draft picks Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett have helped along the defensive line, but Quinn has also taken formerly unspectacular players like end Adrian Clayborn and made them better in specific roles.
Before the season, according to Peter King of The MMQB, Quinn and his staff compiled DVDs of all 90 players on the roster, with detailed summaries of what each player did well and what he did not. Quinn and his staff then outlined specific roles for each player. So far, it's worked like a charm—pretty impressive for a roster that was nearly 40% new players coming into the new season.
“I think our best ball is out there as a whole team where we can collectively do it all together for the whole game,” Quinn said this week. “That's what I'm most excited about, and that's what I talked to the team about. Our best football is right out in front of us as a team from the start all the way through the finish.”
The Panthers haven't had as revolutionary an approach, though they knew going into the season they'd be without star receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the entire year due to injury. Thus, more would be placed on the shoulders of Cam Newton, and Newton has responded by playing as well as he ever has. Top linebacker Luke Kuechly has been out for three weeks with a concussion, but Carolina's defense still marches on. And a secondary that started to pay dividends with an investment in youth in the second half of the 2014 season has broken out as one of the better pass defenses in the NFL.
Norman and Bene Benwikere have been playing cornerback at a very high level, with Norman looking to make himself some serious cash in his contract year. Norman's interceptions helped to decide games against the Jaguars and Saints this season, and he opened Carolina's touchdown surge with a 46-yard pick-six early in the first quarter. Linebacker Thomas Davis was working through a pectoral injury this week, but he also added to Winston’s interception parade.
All around the roster, Ron Rivera's team seems to be stacked with unheralded players ready to contribute. With top pass rusher Charles Johnson on the mend with a hamstring strain, the Panthers traded for veteran Jared Allen this week. But it was undrafted rookie Ryan Delaire from Towson, who was signed to Carolina's roster from Washington's practice squad on Thursday, who came through with two sacks.
The Buccaneers had released Delaire in early September.
There's no telling how the Falcons’ and Panthers’ seasons will go, and they won't face off until the second week in December. But for the time being, they've given the NFC South two teams to watch—and to take seriously.