NFC South Q&A: Who wins division, best suited for deep playoff run?

Flip a coin. That might be the best way to pick which team will win the NFC South between the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons.

All three teams have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs, which would be a first for the division since it was aligned in its current form in 2002. Only six times has the division seen two teams advance since then.

But which team will finish first? Not so easy.

The Panthers (8-3) and Saints (8-3) meet in a critical game Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the winner taking the outright lead.

But defending division champion Atlanta (7-4) is only a game back with two matchups against the Saints and a home finale against the Panthers still on the schedule.

Las Vegas likes the Saints, making them a 5-7 favorite. The Panthers are second at 9-4, followed by Atlanta at 17-4.

But really it's anybody's guess which team will come out on top, so ESPN NFL Nation reporters Vaughn McClure (Falcons), David Newton (Panthers) and Mike Triplett (Saints) are here to sort this out:

Who will win the division?

McClure: The Falcons. I could see a scenario where all three teams finish 11-5 overall. No matter how the final five games unfold, the Falcons have momentum. The offense is capable of putting up 30 points a game, especially at home, and the Falcons play host to both the Saints and Panthers. Wide receiver Julio Jones is healthy and being targeted consistently. Quarterback Matt Ryan's accuracy is back on point. And Atlanta will be even more dangerous when running back Devonta Freeman returns from a concussion. The inability to sustain drives and convert in the red zone hindered the offense early. The Falcons boast the league's top third-down offense and have gone 7-of-10 in the red zone amid a three-game winning streak. The defense has enough all-around speed to track down anyone, and reigning sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. hasn't played his best ball yet.

Newton: The Saints. The magic number appears to be 11 wins. The Saints have remaining home games against Carolina, the New York Jets and Atlanta. Their only home loss this season is to New England, arguably the best team in the NFL right now. Win out at home and the Saints are in unless the Panthers were to win their final four games. That's possible, but one of those games is at Atlanta in the regular-season finale. The Falcons would have to win four of five games to reach 11, and that will be tough with Minnesota (9-2) on the schedule in addition to tough division games. This all changes if the Panthers win Sunday at the Superdome. I picked them to win the division prior to the season because they have the best defense. They still do, ranking second in the league. If they win Sunday to stretch their winning streak to five, the division likely will come down to the final week in Atlanta. And remember, Carolina is 5-1 on the road.

Triplett: I'll take the Saints mostly because they have a head start with that huge Week 3 win at Carolina. Of course, that advantage goes away if they can't double down by beating the Panthers in the Superdome. They'll also need to at least split with the Falcons in Weeks 14 and 16. But they should be favored in four of their last five games (including vs. Jets, at Buccaneers). Scheduling aside, the Saints might be built for a stronger postseason run than Carolina and Atlanta because they have been so well-rounded. Believe it or not, quarterback Drew Brees and the passing offense have run a distant third behind the Saints' resurgent defense and run game led by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (this season's version of Freeman and Tevin Coleman). The Saints badly need cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley to get healthy soon. But if they do, they can beat teams in a number of different ways.

Which quarterback do you trust most to have a deep run in the playoffs?

McClure: Ryan. In order to have a quarterback you trust for a deep run, he has to have the offensive weapons and protection surrounding him to get it done. All three quarterbacks have plenty of talent, and Ryan, with touchdown passes to eight different targets, has the most weapons at his disposal. Although Brees is getting sacked less than any of the three -- in part because he gets the ball out quickly -- Ryan has gotten good protection and is doing a masterful job throwing outside the pocket. There is an argument here that Brees is the savvy veteran and the only one with a Super Bowl ring. But Ryan has started to regain his MVP form and mesh with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian at the right time, as his 73.6 completion percentage and 110.5 pass rating over the past three games would indicate.

Newton: Brees. Even if the Saints struggle defensively, they're never out of a game because of the future Hall of Famer. His performance in an Oct. 19 overtime win against Washington is all the evidence you need. Brees went 11-for-11 passing for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the final six minutes to erase a 15-point deficit and force the extra period. That the Saints finally have a running game makes Brees doubly dangerous, more so than the past two NFL MVPs, Ryan and Carolina QB Cam Newton. Newton's ability to run makes him a wild card in all this. Even when the passing game is struggling, he can make things happen with his legs. But he has been too inconsistent at this point to expect him to carry a team deep into the playoffs.

Triplett: I'm a little torn here between Ryan and Brees (Ryan was certainly better this past week). The problem with all three of these QBs is they've been more inconsistent than usual this season. But I'll be a homer and go with Brees because he has been a little steadier throughout -- and because I think he has better support with the Saints' offensive line and run game playing so well. The Saints haven't asked Brees to do too much this year, which is why he leads the NFL with a completion percentage of 71.3 and has a passer rating of 104.1 despite being on pace for "only" 4,406 yards and 23 touchdown passes. The lack of a consistent downfield passing game is concerning, though.

Which non-QB will be the biggest difference-maker down the stretch?

McClure: Jones. He is the most dominant weapon in the game when he's not battling nagging injuries. He ran circles around the Tampa Bay defense to the tune of a season-high 253 receiving yards on Sunday. And his career-high total was 300 against the Panthers last season. The Saints are banged up in the secondary, which could factor into both remaining matchups between the teams in terms of defending Jones. And Jones already put up 118 yards on six receptions against maybe the best defense in the league at Carolina. Plus, Atlanta's coaches constantly point out how Jones' mere presence and the attention he draws opens up one-on-one opportunities for others, and those "others" have stepped up and made plays.

Newton: Luke Kuechly. Jones may make a big splash every three or four games, but to consistently make a difference I'll go with Kuechly. The Panthers middle linebacker showed with his 34-yard fumble return for a touchdown that he can change a game even when things aren't going well. If the Panthers are going to make a push for the division title, Kuechly will be key. They are 7-4 against New Orleans since Kuechly arrived in 2012. They were 2-5 in the seven meetings prior to his arrival. That's because Kuechly impacts even the best quarterbacks in the league, like Brees. A close second in my thinking here was Saints rookie Kamara. He gives Brees and the Saints that much-needed double-threat, just as Christian McCaffrey does in Carolina.

Triplett: Jones is the obvious answer since no one else in the NFL is capable of busting out the occasional 250-yard game like he is. But I'll also shine the spotlight on the Saints' rookie duo of Lattimore and Kamara, who might be the front-runners for Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league this season, and his value has become more apparent as he has been sidelined by an ankle injury over the past two weeks. The Saints ranked first in passing defense from Weeks 4-10 and 31st in Weeks 11-12. Kamara, meanwhile, has the most yards from scrimmage in the NFL since Week 6 (more than Julio) with 463 rushing yards, 401 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.