NFC champ will come from the South

The landscape in the NFC looks good for the South division -- Can Drew Brees (center), Matt Ryan (right), or even Josh Freeman (left) key a title run? Getty Images

The seventh week of the NFL season is upon us and there still isn’t anything close to a dominant team in the NFC.

I usually don’t make predictions, but I’m going to break from that policy right now. I’m going to say, when all is said and done, the best team in the NFC will come from the NFC South. I don’t know which team that will be yet, but I think the table is set. The Saints, Falcons or maybe even the Buccaneers, just have to sit down and take everything that’s sitting in front of them. One of them can walk away with a division and conference championship

The door to the Super Bowl in Dallas is wide open. Let’s look around the rest of the NFC for real contenders.

The NFC West is going through its annual process of sorting out which team is slightly better than mediocre.

Teams in the NFC East and North are beating each other up and it’s hard to imagine any team running away with either division, let alone the conference title. That’s why the path from the NFC South looks so clear.

We’ll leave the Carolina Panthers out of this because they are out of the race. The Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers aren’t clinching any titles now, but there are obvious ways each of them could take this division and become the elite team in the NFC.

Obviously, there are a lot of variables that could factor in. But let’s take a look at each of the three contenders and examine what needs to go right to rise above the pack.

New Orleans Saints. Yes, the defending Super Bowl champions haven’t played like Super Bowl champions. But they are 4-2 and that ties them for best record in the NFC. It’s almost like the Saints have been treading water, but you get the sense they could swim off in a sprint at any time.

Look at the rest of New Orleans’ schedule. That Thanksgiving game at Dallas now seems like a big piece of pumpkin pie. There’s a home game with Pittsburgh (Oct. 31) and road games with Baltimore (Dec. 19) and Atlanta (Dec. 27), but you look at the rest of the schedule and see nothing else but games the Saints should win. Even if they lose all three of the challenging games, they still should finish 11-5.

That’s a worst-case scenario and there are indications the Saints can move way beyond the worst case. They played their most complete game of the season last Sunday in Tampa Bay. Drew Brees got back to being Drew Brees, Chris Ivory stepped in and gave the Saints a running game. The defense, while still not the turnover machine it was a year ago, played perhaps the most complete game of the Gregg Williams era.

That might be just a small sign of things to come. The Saints have survived some injury issues and it shouldn’t be too much longer before running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas get back on the field. The defense could get a boost as safety Darren Sharper appears ready to make his comeback from knee surgery.

But the best thing the Saints have going for them is Brees. By his standards, he was ordinary early in the season. Brees isn’t going to stay ordinary for an entire season. When he really kicks in, the Saints could become extraordinary.

Atlanta Falcons. They’re a hard team to figure out. On Sept. 26, the Falcons came into the Superdome and beat the Saints in one of the best NFL games of this season. On that day, the Falcons looked like they could beat anyone and that victory came in the middle of a four-game winning streak. But the Falcons sandwiched that streak with dud games in Pittsburgh in the opener and last week in Philadelphia.

Those games are reminders the Falcons are still on the cusp. But look at this team and it’s not hard to envision the Falcons moving past the cusp and, maybe, past the Saints. The offense is loaded at the skill positions. If Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas just can be consistent, the Falcons could be hard to stop.

The defense has some sudden question marks with cornerback Dunta Robinson and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon banged up right now. They’re the two new guys who have brought a faster, more aggressive look to the defense. Get Robinson and Weatherspoon back to full health and put them with Atlanta’s new-found pass rush and this defense can be very good.

Plus, there is the schedule. Much like the Saints, you can look at the Falcons’ schedule and not see a lot of big problems. There’s that post-Christmas rematch with the Saints. But other than that, a Nov. 11 game with Baltimore and a Nov. 28 game with Green Bay look to be the only truly potential problems. And they might not be as difficult as they look because they’re in the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons have been very strong throughout the Ryan era.

Atlanta’s offseason marketing campaign was “Rise Up.' The Falcons haven’t truly done that yet. But they’ve put themselves in a position where, if they can make a few positive tweaks on both sides of the ball, they might be able to soar above the rest of the NFC.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yes, they are a long shot and, by all rights, they probably won’t be able to hang with the Saints and Falcons. But, for the moment, you still have to include the Bucs in the conversation. They’re 3-2 and stranger things have happened in a division that has seen the last-place team from one year jump to first place the next in every season except for one since realignment in 2002.

The Bucs seem very much like a work in progress. They haven’t been able to find a running game, their defense can’t stop the run or rush the passer and the secondary has shown a tendency to give up too many big plays. But the Bucs are young and working hard to fix their flaws. Major improvements are needed in those areas for the Bucs to be a playoff contender. But the Bucs are out of the mode they were in last year when things had to get worse before they could get better. This team is getting better and it’s already pretty good in some areas.

The biggest piece in any building project is the quarterback. The Bucs have found a franchise guy in Josh Freeman. He's got a crew of young wide receivers that are growing up along with him. That passing game alone is enough to keep the Bucs in a lot of games.

If they can fix some of their other problems, they could be in a lot of other games. You look at Tampa Bay’s schedule and it’s not quite like the situation in New Orleans or Atlanta where you can say the Saints and Falcons should win most of their remaining games. You look at Tampa Bay’s schedule and you don’t see many games where you can flat out say the Bucs are going to lose. That’s progress from last year. Ifwe see more progress from the Bucs, they could climb into contention.

They’ve got a rematch with New Orleans on the last day of the regular season and two games with Atlanta. Pull some upsets in those games and win a few others along the way and Tampa Bay at least has a shot at the playoffs.

In a year in which no one has stepped forward to claim the NFC just yet, anything remains possible.