The NFC South is due for another shakeup. At least, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers hope so.
Earlier this week, ESPN.com NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas pointed readers towards a series of extremely early 2012 predictions by numberFire within the site's "Insider" section. Yasinskas then discussed the results and actually spun a generally more positive outlook for the division than numberFire's predictions. He wasn't ready to concede the division to the Saints (projected to be 12-4), but thought the predictions for Atlanta (9-7) and Carolina (7-9) were probably too conservative and believed there were too many variables at this point to necessarily agree with the Bucs' 6-10 projection.
Obviously, the Buccaneers – who were 10-6 in 2010 and thought to be on the verge of playoff contention before last year's stumble – intend to outpace their numberFire projection in 2012. And if the first decade of play in the NFC South has taught its four teams anything, it's that a "worst-to-first" turnaround is anything but impossible.
In fact, the last three seasons have been the closest the division has ever come to any sort of standings stability, and even that is stretching the point. The NFC South, which was formed in 2002 when the NFL expanded to 32 clubs and realigned into eight four-team divisions, has still never had a repeat champion. The division titles have been spread around as equally as they could be in a decade of play, with the Buccaneers and Saints winning three each and the Falcons and Panthers winning two each. The NFC South is the only division that has not had a repeat champion since the 2002 realignment.
Thus, the South's version of standings stability in the last three seasons has been a flipping among the top two teams and the bottom two teams, rather than a wholesale upending of the order that had become common from 2002-08. The Saints and Falcons have traded places in first and second from 2009-11, while the Bucs and Panthers have swapped third and fourth.
If one arranges the annual NFC South standings from 2002-11 next to each other horizontally and draws a line for each team's spot in those standings from one year to the next, the resulting chart has 36 lines. Incredibly, only five of those lines are straight, indicating a team finishing in the same spot in the standings from one year to the next. New Orleans finished second in both 2003-04 and Carolina stayed in second from 2005-06 and from 2006-07. Atlanta finished third in both 2005-06 and held onto second from 2008-09.
Even the comparatively minor shuffling of the past three seasons in the NFC South is unusual around the rest of the NFL. The NFC West is the only other division which did not have a single team repeat its spot in the standings from 2009-10 or 2010-11.
The aforementioned "worst-to-first" tendency is what has really distinguished the South in terms of its competitiveness and continuous upheaval. Amazingly, from the formation of the division in 2002 through the 2007 campaign, the last-place team in the South went on to finish in first the next year five straight times. The rest of the NFL produced only four worst-to-first moves during that same span (Kansas City, 2002-03; San Diego, 2003-04; Chicago, 2004-05; Philadelphia, 2005-06).
That streak in the NFC South was barely broken in 2008 when the Falcons, who had finished 4-12 and in fourth place in 2007, "only" improved to 11-5 in 2008 and lost the division to Carolina by one game. It was re-established the following year, however, when the Saints rebounded from their last-place finish in 2008 to go 13-3, win the division and go all the way to a Super Bowl title.
The success of the NFC South in its first decade, as compared to the NFL's other seven divisions, has been duly noted here and in other venues. It's worth updating, following the New York Giants' Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots that brought the first decade of 32-team, eight-division play to a close.
Since the 2002 realignment, the NFC South is the ONLY division in the NFL to have:
- All four of its teams make the playoffs at least three times
- All four of its teams appear in a conference championship game
- Three of its four teams appear in a Super Bowl
- Two different teams WIN the Super Bowl
- All four of its teams post at least one 12-win season
Thanks to repeat Super Bowl title runs by the likes of New England, Pittsburgh and the New York Giants, the NFC South is only tied for first in Super Bowl wins (two each for the NFC South, AFC East, AFC North and NFC East); tied for second in Super Bowl appearances (three each for the NFC South, NFC East and AFC North but four for the AFC East); and Conference Championship Game appearances (six each for the NFC South, NFC East and AFC North but seven for the AFC East).
When it comes to full-division competitiveness, however, nothing could match the NFC South during the first decade of its existence. It's telling that in 2010 the Buccaneers became just the 23rd team in NFL history to record a seven-win improvement in a single year, finishing 10-6, and still ended up in third place in the division.
The ability of Atlanta and New Orleans to stay just ahead of the Bucs in the standings that season kept the division from being turned upside down once again, and artificially appeared to keep the house in order. Those who have paid attention to the NFC South over its first 10 years, however, know that a complete upheaval of the standings is usually not far off. Yasinskas was right to be skeptical of a prediction that would maintain the status quo in 2012.