Flaws, strengths of NFC South becoming evident

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

MINNEAPOLIS -- When they came off their buses at the Metrodome this morning, the Carolina Panthers were undefeated and, in the minds of some, already in the playoffs.

Back in Charlotte, fans were ready to post an NFC South championship flag atop Bank of America Stadium and there already was talk about a 5-0 start.

The points were all valid. Win a game against a winless Minnesota team and come back home for games with Atlanta and Kansas City. The snowball then might roll through Tampa Bay and New Orleans and Don Shula, Paul Warfield and Larry Csonka would have to start fielding questions about the perfect Panthers.

Well, nice idea, but Week 3 taught us the Panthers aren't perfect and the NFC South's a lot better and a lot more complicated than most expected. It's only three games into the season, but some things are becoming clear.

The NFC South standings are jumbled -- Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay are 2-1 and New Orleans is 1-2 -- and the good and the bad about each team is starting to stand out.

Start with Carolina, which, until Sunday, seemed like the division's most complete team. The Panthers got their best player, receiver Steve Smith, back from a two-game suspension, but their defense isn't as strong as it looked against San Diego and Chicago. If you don't believe that, I give you two words: Gus Frerotte.

But Carolina's defense is good. What's troubling is the offense. The running game, which looked so good in the first two weeks, produced 47 yards. At first glance, I thought the stat crew made a mistake and confused the Panthers' rushing total with Frerotte's age. After double-checking, it turns out Frerotte is 37.

The combination of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 32 yards in 15 carries in the first half. Rumors that coach John Fox's ball-control offense was back and could wear a defense down became a myth as the Panthers only had five running plays in the second half, even though the score was tied at halftime. Smith caught three passes early, but finished with four catches.

The Vikings exposed the secret to beating the Panthers and it's probably not what you would expect.

"We were shutting down the run and forcing them to be one-dimensional,'' Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen said. "When you shut down the run, play action loses its luster. They can't keep seven or eight guys in to block. They've got to start loosening up.''

Isn't that when the Panthers should turn to Smith, who is one of the game's best receivers?

"If we force them to drop back and throw, then we'll do things to cover Steve Smith,'' Allen said.

The Vikings did, but it involved a lot more than covering Smith. Minnesota sacked quarterback Jake Delhomme five times (including one sack on which Antoine Winfield recovered a fumble, returned it for a touchdown and changed the course of the game).

"We had some problems getting the football actually out of the quarterback's hands,'' Fox said.

As Carolina's offense was struggling to find the right hands to put the ball in, Tampa Bay and Atlanta weren't as the Bucs and Falcons moved into a first-place tie with the Panthers. Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese, who wasn't supposed to be more than a game manager when he was selected to replace Jeff Garcia as the starter, might need the same Tommy John elbow surgery Delhomme had after going way over his pitch count.

Griese attempted 67 passes in a 27-24 overtime win against the Bears. Only four players in NFL history have attempted more passes in a game. Griese completed 38 for 407 yards and he did it without injured receiver Joey Galloway.

We all knew the Bucs' defense would be good (actually, it was supposed to be better than it has been), but maybe Jon Gruden really is an offensive guru, after all. If you can get 15 catches for 192 yards out of the receiving tandem of Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton, you must know what you're doing.

This much we know about Tampa Bay so far: The defense isn't going to give up 24 points every week and, as long as he's healthy, Griese will be the starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

That's also true of rookie Matt Ryan in Atlanta, where the Falcons have been the division's most surprising team. Sure, their wins have come against Detroit and Kansas City, but the Falcons have figured out they can keep the heat off Ryan if they run Michael Turner consistently.

Believe it or not, the Falcons suddenly are facing a game in Charlotte that could put them alone in first place in the division if they win and Green Bay beats Tampa Bay. Sure, it's early and reality probably will catch up to the Falcons.

It's already catching up to the Saints. They're looking a lot like last year -- good offense and bad defense. They lost, 34-32, in Denver and the offseason overhaul of the defense doesn't look like it's working.

The Saints, who were the popular preseason pick to win the division, have shown their flaws. But they're only a win behind the Panthers, Falcons and Bucs, who have some flaws -- and some positives -- of their own.