“No team was happier to hear the results of the NFL’s realignment than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not only did the Bucs get to leave behind their perennially tough NFC Central rivals and their frigid stadiums, but they were rewarded by being placed in one of the NFL’s weakest divisions.”

–Quick Slants, Sept. 4

Holy smokes, did I ever call that one wrong.

Yes, Tampa Bay is still 5-2 coming off their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but that record, instead of providing the Bucs with a comfortable lead in their division, has them in second place.

Meet the NFC South, the NFL’s most surprising division:

Carolina Panthers

Though they have since lost four consecutive games, the Carolina Panthers were the talk of the league after starting out 3-0. Journeyman quarterback Rodney Peete seemed to have found the fountain of youth in Carolina, leading the Panthers to wins over Baltimore, Minnesota and Detroit. Peete went down with an injury last week, but there have been a few bright spots for the beleaguered Cats. With defensive guru John Fox as head coach, the Panthers had held opponents to an average of just 12.5 points per game before spotting 30 to the Falcons Sunday. Running back Lamar Smith, Miami’s trash thanks to Ricky Williams, has become Carolina’s treasure, racking up 513 yards and six touchdowns thus far. Despite Carolina’s recent nose dive, Panther fans have to be happy: after all, they finished 1-15 last year.

Atlanta Falcons

If Carolina has been the South’s most surprising team, then Atlanta has been the most intriguing. Though their romp over Carolina brought them up to just 3-3 on the year, Michael Vick and the Falcons are the most exciting .500 team in the league. Consider Vick himself. Though his passing yards are not particularly impressive, he has avoided throwing any interceptions while tossing four touchdowns. Those stats, however, do not take into account Vick’s most potent piece of weaponry — his nimble feet. While T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn have been adequate as the Falcons’ primary ball-carriers, it is Vick that gives the Falcons a spark on the ground. On just 31 carries Vick has garnered 276 yards — an astounding average of 8.9 yards per rush. I’ll admit that I thought Dan Reeves was washed up after the Falcons’ Super Bowl run in 1999, but if he can get his team through a tough stretch ahead, Atlanta’s easy end of season schedule could mean playoffs for the once-and-future Dirty Birds.

New Orleans Saints

As impressive as the Falcons may be, they can’t hold a candle to the New Orleans Saints. After stumbling to a 7-9 mark in 2001, New Orleans has returned to the playoff form they had in 2000, charging out to a 6-1 record on the year. Aaron Brooks is throwing darts to his wideouts, Deuce McAllister is running better than Ricky Williams ever did, and the Saints defense is firing on all cylinders. If you consider the fact that we haven’t heard a peep about Kyle Turley misbehaving, well, one can assume that things are going very well in Mardi Gras-ville. The most encouraging sign of the Saints resurgence has to be McAllister, who has proved to be a much better fit in Jim Haslett’s offense than Williams, who never felt truly comfortable catching passes in the Saints’ scheme. In their gutsy 35-27 win over the 49ers Sunday, Deuce lived up to his double-threat moniker, rushing for 139 yards and catching five passes, one for a score.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

So the division is tough, but what about those Buccaneers? Well, it’s safe to say that the “frigid” stadiums of the NFC North are looking pretty appetizing right now. Apart from the Packers, who check in at 6-1, the North has proved pitiful, as Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota have just five wins among them. But stuck in the South, however, John Gruden will have to work on fixing his offense, which managed to put just three points on the board against Philadelphia. It’s never a good sign when your outside linebacker is tied for the team lead in touchdowns scored. Then again, Derrick Brooks does seem to have a phenomenal nose for the end zone. Perhaps they should try lining him up next to Keyshawn on the offensive side of the ball. Might help.

Truth be told, the Buccaneers will make the playoffs in 2002; it just won’t be nearly as easy as they, or I, or anyone for that matter, thought. Credit the NFC South, which, outside of the always ultra-competitive AFC West, is the cream of the NFL crop.

Random Thoughts: Week 7

New Orleans 35, San Francisco 27: TO reaches for pen, comes up empty. SF not looking too Sharpie.

NY Jets 20, Minnesota 7: Franchise collapsing around Mike Tice. Denny Green seen scaring away fish with peals of laughter.

Denver 37, Kansas City 34: As many TDs as Priest Holmes manages to score, Chiefs always manage to yield one more.

San Diego 27, Oakland 21: San Diego is rolling, time to drag out that theme song: San Diego, Super Chargers–

Green Bay 30, Washington 9: Favre goes down, Packers escape to bye week. When it comes to the football gods, fate is definitely part of the equation.

Arizona 9, Dallas 6: Zzzzzzz–. Poor, poor Pat Summerall.

Monday Night Preview: Indianapolis at Pittsburgh

Tony Dungy leads his new team onto the national stage to face Touchdown Tommy Maddox and the re-energized Steel Curtain. Tough to call, but it’s been a weekend of home-field winners, (only three road teams earned victories on Sunday) so I’ll go with the Steelers. Pittsburgh 23, Indianapolis 21.