Is the door open in NFC South?

A free-agent class led by Vincent Jackson, right, could push Greg Schiano and the Bucs into contention. Cliff Welch/Icon SMI

The best thing about living in much of the South is that you can leave the door open in December and January. The flip side is, you never know who’s going to walk in.

That’s been demonstrated repeatedly throughout most of the decade the NFC South has been in existence. Worst to first isn’t just a hokey slogan in this division. It’s been a reality.

Not counting the inaugural season (because there was no defending champion or reigning last-place team in a division that didn’t exist before 2002), there have been six NFC South teams that finished fourth in the division one season and ended up winning it the following year. The trend started with the Carolina Panthers and their miraculous run to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season.

The Atlanta Falcons pulled off worst to first in 2004. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did it twice -- in 2005 and 2007. So did the New Orleans Saints. They did it in 2006 and again in 2009, the season after which they won their only Super Bowl.

But the worst-to-first trend has stopped since then. The Saints and Falcons have stayed consistently good and managed only to flip back and forth between first and second place.

This could be the season in which things get back to normal. Let’s be clear that I’m not ready to write off the Saints, as long as they have Drew Brees at quarterback, or an Atlanta roster that’s loaded with talent and has the potential to click at any moment.

But you look at what has happened in New Orleans and what hasn’t happened in Atlanta this offseason and you have to wonder if it’s at least possible that new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is about to pull off a miracle on Dale Mabry Highway or if Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis knew what he was talking about when he said the Panthers are headed for the Super Bowl.

The Saints’ bounty program has left them without coach Sean Payton for the entire season and they have little chance of pulling anything off in the draft because they don’t have a pick until the third round. They lost some free agents, like Carl Nicks and Tracy Porter. Plus, there’s the very real possibility that multiple players could face suspensions for their roles in the bounty program. Maybe adversity becomes a rallying cry for the Saints and they stay atop the division. Or maybe the bottom falls out of what was a great three-year run.

If that happens, the Falcons would seem the logical choice to step up. They did go 10-6 last season, although you could say they underachieved slightly throughout the regular season and tremendously in their playoff loss to the New York Giants. And what have the Falcons done to improve their roster this offseason?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present linebacker Lofa Tatupu and guard Vince Manuwai, two guys who didn’t play in the NFL last season.

Yeah, I know how the Falcons like to point to their roster continuity and changes at offensive and defensive coordinator as reasons they’ll be better this season. Those are valid points. But, still, the way last season ended, you have to at least wonder if the Falcons have already started their downhill slide.

Then, you look at the Buccaneers and Panthers and you see two teams that almost have to be on the rise. In the case of the Bucs, that’s mainly because they can’t go any lower.

Tampa Bay ended last season on a 10-game losing streak. Raheem Morris left for London at 4-2 last October, looking like the NFL’s next great coach. That guy hasn’t been seen since. But Schiano is in his office now and he seems to be saying and doing all the right things. He got rid of safety Tanard Jackson and coaxed safety Ronde Barber into coming back for one more year. Plus, Schiano has one luxury Morris didn’t last year -- a free-agent class.

A year after punter Michael Koenen was their big addition in free agency, the Bucs went out and made one of the league’s biggest splashes. They signed receiver Vincent Jackson, Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright.

Mix those guys in with some young talent (Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn and some others), let Schiano restore a little order in the locker room and on the practice fields and worst to first at least seems like a possibility.

But, even if the Saints and Falcons slip, the Panthers could be ahead of the Bucs. They only won six games last season, but it might have been the most positive six-win season in NFL history. With Ron Rivera taking over for John Fox, the Panthers suddenly realized the NFL became a passing league a few years ago and started playing catch-up. They used the No. 1 overall draft pick on Cam Newton and suddenly had one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses.

The problem was the Panthers couldn’t do the one thing they always did under Fox -- play defense. That was largely because defensive tackle Ron Edwards was lost to injury in training camp and linebackers Jon Beason and Davis quickly followed. All three are expected back and that instantly should give Carolina a better defense. It only needs to be a little better, because Newton and that offense are going to score enough points for the Panthers to stay in the game with anyone.

Can the Panthers and/or the Bucs pass the Saints and Falcons?

We’ll see. It’s only April and the NFC South door looks to be wide open. Let’s see if it's still ajar -- or maybe even off the hinges -- in December.