What was once called the 'NASCAR Division' is now widely believed to be the best division in football.
The NFC South put two teams into the playoffs last season in the Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. A third, the Bucs, won 10 games. This season is no different as division play has begun and the teams in the Southern part of the United States are beating up on each other.
Last week, the Saints narrowly defeated the Panthers and this week, division play continues for the Panthers as they come to Atlanta. The game against the Panthers marks the second division game of the season for the Falcons.
The Falcons aren't debating what division is the toughest, but they know each week will be a battle. The Falcons seem to have a natural rivalry-feel against every opponent in the NFC South and the games usually reflect that. Each week in the NFC South, when two division opponents square off, both teams come to play.
"We've got a lot of talent, top to bottom, and a lot of good football teams both offensively and defensively," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Carolina is a good football team. They've been in tight games and the difference between wins and losses is very small. It comes down to a handful of plays. So it's a good football team that we're going against this week and we've got to prepare really well and I think we've all gotten off to a good start."
In some divisions there are perennial doormat teams, franchises that can't seem to find their way. Although teams will never circle wins on their schedule before playing the games, there's generally a belief that franchises with a history of losing are sure-wins. The NFC South is the only division since realignment in 2002 that has seen each team make the conference championship game.
Also in that time each team in the division has won two division titles, the only division with that claim. What it means is there's no looking past teams inside the NFC South.
"It's tough. It's hard to get wins," Julio Jones said. "You don't get a week off. Everybody is tough. Carolina with Cam (Newton) is a much better, improved team from last year. Tampa is who they are, young and aggressive. The Saints have been winning for the last couple of years. Everybody's tough and every week you've got to show up."
The presence of Cam Newton has immediately made the Panthers viable. Although Carolina lost its way in 2010, landing the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, the addition of Newton has helped spark a turnaround in the franchise that isn't reflected in their 1-4 record. Newton rounds a four-pack of quarterbacks in the NFC South that are among the best in the league.
One way to look at the competition inside the division is by considering the winner of the NFC South as a battle-tested team, ready for tough games come playoff time. With the kind of close games that are played in the division, the teams that emerge are typically well-rounded and prepared for playoff-level football.
"You've got some great quarterbacks in this division, some great playmakers at receiver, big defenses," Gonzalez said. "It's become one of the best (divisions) in football. I always look at that as a luxury because it prepares us for where we want to go when we do get to the playoffs. That's the goal you want to have. You want to make sure you play against some good teams. ... The team that goes from this conference is ready for the playoffs when they get there."
Bad Timing:Penalties have made life difficult for the 2011 Atlanta Falcons.
Although they aren't in the top-10 in penalties on offense earned this season (they're 13th) the flags they've drawn have come at critical times. The offense has stalled multiple times because of bad field position received after a penalty. On two occasions last week against Green Bay, plays of positive yards were wiped out due to penalties, including a 47-yard gain by Matt Ryan negated by a holding penalty.
The defense hasn't been immune to the bad kind of attention from the refs, either. On defense, Atlanta sits tied for 10th in the league with 33 penalties.
What's encouraging about Atlanta's play this season is that penalties are one of the biggest culprits for their 2-3 start. It's something that can be corrected and it's no secret the players know they're digging holes for themselves that make games difficult.
"We've just been making mistakes at the wrong time," Gonzalez said Wednesday. "We need to make sure we cut down on those penalties. ... We've got to cut down on that. Once we do, we'll be where we want to be. I think we'll see a lot more consistency, I know that for sure."
Disciplined play and a lack of penalties has been a trademark of the coach Smith-led Falcons and it would appear only a matter of time before they're able to reign in the mistakes for negative yards and get things clicking on both sides of the ball.
D-Youth:Two of the younger players on the defensive line didn't bat an eye when the Falcons signed free-agent pass rusher Ray Edwards.
The signing wasn't an indictment on Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury and what they've accomplished, but rather an attempt to create more depth at the critical pass-rushing position. An extra talent breeds more competition and from that comes a higher level of play for all involved.
Last season in 14 starts Biermann registered three sacks and his high-motor play resulted in an interception for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns. With the special teams struggling during the mid-point of the season, Biermann began logging minutes again in that phase of the game as well. His impact on special teams was noticeable, but it may have hindered his impact on defense.
This season Biermann already has one sack and another interception for a touchdown. His quarterback pressures are up and he routinely has been a big part of the heat the Falcons have put in opposing quarterbacks. Now firmly planted in the rotation at defensive end, he can also continue to impact special teams. He currently leads the team with five special teams tackles.
Biermann didn't take it personally when Edwards was added to the roster this season. He instead looked for ways to continue to grow as a player and impact the team's success.
"I think Kroy handled it very well," Smith said on Thursday. "Kroy understands that any move that we make, or any player should understand, any move that we make in terms of personnel is trying to make our team better and Kroy's numbers are really similar to what he's played in year's past. The rotation is going to be the rotation. He's had some opportunities to rush."
The play of Sidbury has been a pleasant surprise this season. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2009 Draft, he was projected as a player with superior athleticism that needed time to hone his pass rush. After being active in only six games last season, Sidbury's commitment to special teams play has been recognized by the coaching staff. He's been active for all five games this season and has come to play.
"Lawrence has done a very nice job," Smith said. "He's recorded two sacks in his rotational play. Again, if you keep having success, you're going to get more opportunities to play in the situations where you can rush the passer. I still think that's the strength of Lawrence is his ability to rush the passer. I think he's solidified his game in terms of playing the run and has improved."