2013 NFC South Midseason Report Card: Can Panthers overtake Saints?

Through eight weeks everything we thought we knew about the NFC South is upside down. It all kind of makes sense now but go back and tell yourself before the season this is how things will play out. You won't believe it.

Midseason Team Report Cards
East East
North North
South South
West West

The Saints are back to being the dominant lead dog in a division they owned for several years. Fix the defense and let Drew Brees and Sean Payton work together and this shouldn't be surprising. The Falcons lack of depth showed up when they suffered a slew of major injuries and they fell back to the pack, quickly. The Panthers, a dark horse playoff contender, have an aggressive coach and are being creative on offense with Mike Shula. The Bucs, who traded for Darrelle Revis this offseason to make a run, are a total dumpster fire.

It really all does make sense now, but that's why hindsight is so sharp. Tampa and Atlanta are done. The real question now is if the Panthers -- white hot in recent games -- can make up ground on New Orleans, one of the best teams in football through the first half of the seaosn.

New Orleans Saints

MVP: Cameron Jordan -- All due respect to Drew Brees, the technically most valuable player on the Saints, this team's different because of the defense. And Jordan, with six sacks from the 3-4 defensive end position, is the anchor of the defense.

Disappointment: Marques Colston -- Slowing quickly and saw a precipitous drop in production over the first half.

Surprise: Rob Ryan -- Completely reinvented the defense on the fly while getting besieged by injuries. No one could've seen this success coming.

Going Forward -- The Saints, much like the Seahawks, need homefield advantage throughout the playoffs to really maximize their Super Bowl chances. They're probably in the poll position with no 49ers in their division, although they've got to go play Seattle in the nasty Northwest in a few weeks. They're one of the top Super Bowl contenders in the NFL at the midway point.

Eight Weeks In One GIF:

Carolina Panthers

MVP: Cam Newton -- Cam caught fire over the last three games and Carolina's 4-0 when he tops 100 in his passer rating, 0-3 when he's below 100. Newton's last three games have been a revelation. If he puts up similar numbers in the next three the Panthers are going to generate some real noise.

Disappointment: Steve Smith: Bit of nitpicking here but when Smith has less receiving yards than journeyman and return specialist Ted Ginn that's no good. Fortunately he makes up for everything with his performance in front of the microphone.

Surprise: "Riverboat" Ron Rivera: Rivera shed his cowardly persona after a bad loss to the Bills, got more aggressive and became the gambler who's guided his team to three-straight dominant performances. We'll see what happens when the cheeks start getting clinched and games start getting tight again -- the Panthers have won in blowouts the last three weeks -- but Rivera morphing into being a bold fourth-down coach has to go down as one of the biggest surprises of the season.

Going Forward: The Panthers just annihilated three terrible opponents as they surged to 4-3. Carolina kicks off a critical three-week stretch in Week 9. They host Atlanta, travel to San Francisco and get New England on Monday Night Football. Those games will ultimately define their season.

Eight Weeks In One GIF:

Atlanta Falcons

MVP: Matt Ryan -- Despite losing his two best wide receivers (Julio Jones, Roddy White), missing his new running back for much of the season (Jackson) and dealing with his left tackle (Sam Baker) being injured, Ryan's still completing 67.2 percent of his passes and averaging 317 passing yards a game.

Disappointment: Steven Jackson -- Jackson has 83 rushing yards. At midseason! He's only played three games but maybe somehow that's worse? Injuries have taken their toll but he's been a massive free-agency bust.

Surprise: Desmond Trufant -- Lost in all the bad things that've happened to the Falcons is the strong play of the first-round pick at cornerback. Trufant and Robert Alford provide some hope for a youth-infused secondary.

Going Forward -- It's hard to imagine the Falcons competing this year with the injuries they've suffered. 3-4 would look a lot different than 2-5 (obviously) after last week's loss to the Cardinals. This is a team that pushed some chips into the center of the table after a 13-win year and saw regression and injuries derail the tantalizing potential.

Eight Weeks In One GIF:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

MVP: N/A -- Seriously, who's been valuable on this team? Put a gun to my head and I'll take Lavonte David or Gerald McCoy. But if you're going to leave an award blank this is a good one.

Disappointment: Greg Schiano -- It's hard to imagine things going any worse for Schiano. His team is a walking PR disaster, they can't manage to win (1-12 in their last 13 games!), the Josh Freeman stink still lingers and there's an MRSA outbreak in the locker room.

Surprise: Mike Glennon -- For all the flak Schiano got about dumping Freeman, he actually made the right move going to the rookie Glennon. He's far from perfect but he's looked like a capable NFL quarterback in his starts under fire.

Going Forward: Things don't get any easier. Tampa has to play the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 9. They're a darkhorse for the No. 1 overall pick:

A tough schedule, a locker room swirling with controversy, the media smelling blood in the water, a rookie quarterback, tough injuries starting to pile up, a coach under fire ... it is not trending positively for the Bucs right now.

Eight Weeks In One GIF:

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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