The Falcons may be at the top of the NFC South right now, but what matters is finishing there. The journey to that point is not without some potential turbulence as the Bucs, Saints and Panthers will likely have something to say about who claims the division title. With a second half of the season heavy with division games, AtlantaFalcons.com managing editor Jay Adams takes a look at the three NFC South teams Atlanta will have to go through to take the division crown
The Falcons have been taking this season one game at a time, and the sometimes overly-cliched football philosophy is working wonders with the Birds sitting at 5-2 overall as one of the best teams in the NFC.
But with the bye week now behind Atlanta, it's time to take a look ahead to how the division shapes up and what the Falcons have to do to finish in the same spot they're at now — on top.
While things haven't exactly gone as some might have expected around the rest of the NFC South, there are some battles that lay ahead for the Falcons if they hope to claim that coveted division crown.
Here's a look at the rest of the NFC South:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2)
At the Falcons: Sunday
Vs. the Falcons: Dec. 5
Current NFC South slot: Tied for first
Analysis: The Bucs were thought to be taking another step toward rebuilding this year as they got comfortable with another year with head coach Raheem Morris. But Tampa Bay has been a bit of a surprise so far this season, pulling off some impressive wins with a very young group of potential future stars. Quarterback Josh Freeman is really coming along as the Bucs had hoped and it looks like he'll be their quarterback of the future, despite the revolving door at the position in years past.
The Falcons swept the Bucs last year with a 20-17 win in the Georgia Dome and a 20-10 victory in the season finale in Tampa. Games against Tampa Bay could be equally as close this season. Tampa Bay seems to have found a diamond in the NFL Draft in wide receiver Mike Williams out of Syracuse, and other younger players like cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are making impacts on the defensive side of the ball. The Bucs are a dangerous team that needs to be looked at as a serious threat to contend for the NFC South title.
Carolina Panthers (1-6)
At the Falcons: Dec. 12
Vs. the Falcons: Jan. 2
Current NFC South slot: Fourth
Analysis:Carolina has experienced its share of bad breaks this season. The quarterback situation looked to be somewhat ironed out with Matt Moore taking over after Jake Delhomme had worn out his welcome in Carolina, but Moore has struggled to find a successful level of consistency. The Panthers spent some time experimenting with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has 91 attempts on the year, but Clausen wasn't able to fare much better. The Panthers are back with Moore as their man and that helped translate into their first win of the season — a 23-20 victory over San Francisco on Oct. 24.
The Panthers' running attack is just as dangerous as it has ever been. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are one of the best two-headed rushing tandems in the league and they're notorious for giving opposing defenses fits. The real key for Carolina, however, is to figure out a way to become more consistent in the passing game in order to open things up even more for Williams and Stewart. Until that happens, defenses are going to have an easier time against Carolina's largely one-dimensional offense.
For the Falcons, going to Carolina can sometimes be a harrowing experience, and a team with not much to lose is always a dangerous one to face. Atlanta can't sleep on the Panthers, especially if they are able to find a comfort zone with the passing game before the two teams meet late in the season.
New Orleans Saints (5-3)
At the Falcons: Dec. 27
Vs. the Falcons: Falcons 27, Saints 24 OT, Sept. 26
Current NFC South slot: Third
Analysis:The defending Super Bowl champions have had to fight a little bit of a Lombardi Trophy hangover by starting the season with losses to the Falcons, Cardinals and Browns. But don't count the Saints out just yet. The Falcons will definitely be in a fight to the end with New Orleans, and the Dec. 27 game at the Georgia Dome is of extremely high importance to the playoff picture for both teams. While the two will likely be vying for the division crown, a Falcons win over the Saints could help assure the top spot in the NFC South. A loss could muddy the playoff waters, depending on how the other two NFC South teams fare and how the Falcons fare against them.
The Saints are a team that could really come on and find their form from last season late in the season. With a national television audience for what could be one of the best Monday Night Football games of the 2010 slate, the Falcons will be looking to make a statement. They've been able to start very quickly and efficiently at home, and getting the game off on the right foot will only serve to help them as New Orleans can be very dangerous in the waning minutes.
Go ahead and circle this one on your calendars if you haven't already. It's going to be a good one.