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Panthers, Saints, Falcons in the mix in best division race in the NFL

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are on a collision course for the NFC South lead when they meet at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 3.

But don't forget about the Atlanta Falcons (6-4), who are only a game behind the Panthers (7-3) and two games behind the Saints (8-2) after Monday night's 34-31 victory over Seattle.

This is shaping up to be the best division race in the NFL.

This is shaping up to be the best division in football.

If the playoffs started today, the South would be the only division represented by three teams: New Orleans as the No. 3 seed in the NFC, Carolina at No. 5 and Atlanta No. 6.

Detroit (6-4), which has lost to Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans, is on the outside looking in, along with Seattle (6-4).

The South doesn't get a lot of credit for being a strong division top to bottom. Only six times since the current division was formed in 2002 has a second team qualified for the playoffs. A third never has.

But the South has represented the NFC in the Super Bowl each of the past two seasons, with Carolina (2015) and Atlanta (2016). Since 2002, the division is the only one to see all four of its teams make the Super Bowl.

The 2002 Buccaneers and 2009 Saints won it all.

And top to bottom this is the strongest the division has been.

Three South teams are ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's latest power rankings. New Orleans is No. 5, Carolina No. 8 and Atlanta No. 9.

Those teams also rank in the top 15 in total defense, led by Carolina at No. 2, Atlanta at No. 10 and New Orleans at No. 13.

All four division teams rank in the top 20 in total offense. New Orleans leads the way at No. 1, followed by Atlanta at No. 10, Tampa Bay at No. 13 and Carolina at No. 17.

New Orleans (3), Carolina (7) and Atlanta (14) also rank in the top 15 in rushing.

A sound defense and solid running game typically equals a formula for success. Perhaps that explains why this is the only division with three teams that have won six or more games.

Remember, it was only three years ago that the South was considered the weakest division when Carolina advanced to the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record.

It might be difficult for the division to get three teams into the playoffs this season because Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans will beat each other up over the final six weeks.

But two definitely have a legitimate chance.

Here’s a breakdown of what each team faces down the homestretch:

NEW ORLEANS (8-2)

Remaining opponents (34-26): at Los Angeles Rams (7-3), Carolina (7-3), at Atlanta (6-4), New York Jets (4-6), Atlanta (6-4), at Tampa Bay (4-6).

Division record: 2-0.

Comment: No team in the NFL is hotter. The Saints have won eight straight after losing their first two. They overcame a 15-point deficit in the final three minutes on Sunday to beat Washington. The next three weeks will be crucial, as they face three of the best teams in the NFC outside of Philadelphia, and two of those games are on the road. Win two of those three and New Orleans should have clear sailing to the playoffs, and perhaps the division crown.

CAROLINA (7-3)

Remaining opponents (35-25): at New York Jets (4-6), at Saints (8-2), Minnesota (8-2), Green Bay (5-5), Tampa Bay (4-6), at Atlanta (6-4).

Division record: 2-1.

Comment: Cam Newton & Co. are just finding themselves offensively. They put up 45 points in a win over Miami before the bye week. Newton threw four touchdown passes with no interceptions and looked like the player who won the 2015 NFL MVP award. If he can remain hot, the Panthers, on a three-game winning streak, are legitimate contenders with the No. 2 defense in the NFL. Their playoff hopes and division title could come down to the finale at Atlanta if they can get past New Orleans on Dec. 3.

ATLANTA (6-4)

Remaining opponents (39-21): Tampa Bay (4-6), Minnesota (8-2), New Orleans (8-2), at Tampa Bay (4-6), at New Orleans (8-2), Carolina (7-3).

Division record: 0-1.

Comment: Beating Seattle on Monday night was huge for the defending NFC champions. The Falcons still have a tough road, with five division games remaining. But they have the next three at home, and four of their final six are in Atlanta. If the defense holds together, the Falcons have plenty of offense to keep the heat on any team in the NFL. And remember: They were 6-4 a year ago when they got hot.