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South Standings Give Hope

Posted Jul 20, 2011

The Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers will try to continue an unusual trend that has made the NFC South so unpredictable since its inception


The NFC South has an unusual history of first-place teams since its formation in 2002.  As NFL.com is the latest to point out, in its preseason “Where We Left Off” analysis of the division, a team has yet to repeat as NFC South champs in consecutive years.

 

That’s a challenge for the 2011 Atlanta Falcons and an encouraging trend for the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished with 11 and 10 wins, respectively, in 2010 but no division crown.  Actually, given the not-uncommon worst-to-first occurrences in the South, even the Carolina Panthers can reasonably have hope for 2011, despite just two wins last year.

 

The South was put together during the realignment that accompanied the league’s expansion from 31 to 32 teams in 2002.  Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta came over from the poorly named NFC West and Tampa Bay left the NFC Central to join them.  The Bucs won the division (and the Super Bowl) that first season and Carolina came in last.  The next season, Carolina flipped the standings by coming in first, starting an incredible run of five straight seasons in which the last-place team from one season won the title the next.

 

Here’s a look at how the standings have sorted out in the NFC South in its nine-year history so far:

 

Season

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

2002

TB

ATL

NO

CAR

2003

CAR

NO

TB

ATL

2004

ATL

NO

CAR

TB

2005

TB

CAR

ATL

NO

2006

NO

CAR

ATL

TB

2007

TB

CAR

NO

ATL

2008

CAR

ATL

TB

NO

2009

NO

ATL

CAR

TB

2010

ATL

NO

TB

CAR

 

Note that in addition to a new first-place team each year, the South has never had the same last-place team for consecutive seasons.  That’s more good news for the Panthers, who added the talented Cam Newton with the first pick of the 2011 draft with the hopes of catching up in the suddenly QB-rich NFC South.

 

Anyway, you’ve probably heard about the flip-flopping tendencies of the Bucs’ division before, in part because Tampa Bay was the team that pulled off the worst-to-first trick in both 2005 and 2007 (and weren’t too far from doing so again in 2010).  The question is, how unusual this is, compared to the other seven divisions that were either formed or reshaped in 2002?  The South has become recognized as the NFL’s most consistently competitive division, not only because every team seems to have a shot each season but also because it has done well in the postseason.  Two of its four teams have won the Super Bowl (Tampa Bay and New Orleans), three have been in the title game (also Carolina) and all four have made at least one conference title game.

 

Two other divisions – the West in both conferences – have matched the NFC South in terms of that first feat, with all four teams winning the division title at least once.  However, Tampa Bay’s division is the only one in which all four teams have been in at least one conference championship game, the only one with three different clubs making a Super Bowl and the only one with two different teams winning a Super Bowl.

 

The lack of a repeating champ, or a repeating fourth-place finisher, also makes the South unique.  Since the 2002 realignment, each of the other seven divisions has had at least one repeater in both categories.  To repeat, the South is the NFL’s only division since 2002 in which the first and last place teams have been different every single season for the last nine years.

 

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that the trend will continue into a 10th season; the Falcons will certainly try to end it, and the Panthers have a long way to go to get out of the cellar.  Still, it’s a reason to believe, and motivation for the Bucs, Saints and Panthers to unseat their rivals from Atlanta.  The editors of the “Where We Left Off” series on NFL.com certainly see reason for Buccaneer optimism, citing the Buccaneers’ youth and their rising talent on offense.  Click here to read more.