The NFC South, which was undeniably the worst division in football last year, now has a pair of 4-0 teams: the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
Atlanta is winning with the third-ranked scoring offense in the league (34.3 points per game), while Carolina is winning with the third-ranked scoring defense (17.8 points per game).
In a way, that’s surprising. Atlanta brought in defensive guru Dan Quinn in the offseason, and yet the Falcons are outscoring people. Then again, that’s what happens when you have Julio Jones, who leads the NFL with 38 catches and 478 yards, and Devonta Freeman, who was exploded for 342 total yards and six rushing touchdowns over the last two weeks.
What’s been the biggest difference in Atlanta this season?
“I think the offensive line, which was a disaster the last few years,” NFL.com analyst Chris Wesseling said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “Thomas Dimitroff would keep pumping in resources to that offensive line – second-round draft picks, third-round draft picks, first-round draft picks – and they couldn’t block anyone. I think you have to give a lot of credit to Kyle Shanahan. Whether it’s Houston, Washington, Cleveland or Atlanta – wherever he goes – he immediately instills a successful rushing attack with a good offensive line, and right now he’s doing it with spare parts, really. They trade for Andy Levitre right before the season, they pick up (Chris) Chester from the Redskins right before the season, plug these guys in and they’re blowing people off the ball.”
Freeman, a fourth-round pick out of Florida State in 2014, has taken it from there.
“Devonta Freeman has 10 free yards to show his burst through there,” Wesseling said. “He’s been unstoppable. I think you have to tip your hat to him as well. He’s a guy who, when I look at him, looks like an early career Ray Rice who’s mixed with an early career Pierre Thomas where he’s that squatty guy who can catch the ball and shows a little more power than you expect for a 5-8, 200-pound guy.”
Carolina, meanwhile, has gotten stellar play from its defense as well as Cam Newton, who has nine touchdowns (seven pass, two rush) and just two interceptions on the season.
How long can Newton carry Carolina?
“That’s a good question,” Wesseling said. “When I watch him, he’s played three or four of the best games games of his career when you consider the guys he’s got surrounding him. Today their leading receiver was Brenton Bersin, who, if you recall back from the playoff game last year, couldn’t field a punt. Shaky hands. They don’t have a physical receiver, and (Newton is) carrying that team. I think you have to give Cam Newton a lot of credit. And we’ll see because they really haven’t played anyone tough. It seems like they play the Buccaneers every week.”
The Panthers have beaten Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Combined record? 4-12.
The Falcons and Panthers don’t play until Dec. 13 in Carolina, with the rematch to follow two weeks later in Atlanta.