METAIRIE, La. — Few clichés are trotted out in sports as much as this one – there’s always next year.
But few clichés ring as true, especially in the NFC South.
Because for every year the division has been around, there has been a new champion. Never, in other words, has there been a back-to-back winner.
The trend will continue this year as Atlanta, last year’s champion at 13-3, is only 3-9.
Sunday night, the Saints and Panthers, both 9-3, will fight for lead position in the final month.
“I think it’s really competitive and it shows that the difference between No. 1 and No. 4, regardless of what the record of No. 1 is and what the record of No. 4 is, there’s not that much of a difference,” Atlanta Coach Mike Smith said.
A lot of that, at least lately, can be traced back to the quarterbacks leading the respective teams.
The Saints, since 2006, have won three division titles. In that time, they’ve had one quarterback, the record-setting Drew Brees.
Atlanta, meanwhile, has picked up division titles in two of the past three seasons thanks in part to quarterback Matt Ryan.
And this season, for the first time since 2008, the Panthers are in position for a title with Cam Newton playing the most consistent football of his NFL career.
That they’re in the division is largely on the coaches and general managers.
“I think it’s all part of the whole team dynamics,” Carolina Coach Ron Rivera said. “It is about the general managers and their scouting departments, going out and finding players in the draft. It is those guys having to find the right fits for you in free agency.”
Regardless of why, the NFC South has become must-see football. Since 2006, the Saints lead the way, winning 62.9 percent of their games. Atlanta has won 56.6 percent while Carolina is 59-65.
How egalitarian has the NFC South been? New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay each have won three division titles. Carolina has just two, but is in position to win No. 3 this year after having won 13 of their past 16 games.
Suddenly, the Saints have found a rival in Carolina. In fact, while the more public rivalry is with Atlanta, it’s Carolina that has been a much more equal matchup with New Orleans. The Saints are 13-3 against Atlanta since 2006 but just 6-8 against Carolina.
With so much on the line Sunday, it’s expected to be a bit more chippy.
“Every divisional game I guess you could say is a ‘rivalry game’, just because there’s so much familiarity between the two sides,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “So I would say that those games tend to be a bit more chippy maybe.”
While Saints Coach Sean Payton doesn’t believe there are rivalries in the NFL akin to those in college, say like Alabama-Auburn or Ohio State-Michigan, he does admit to the importance of divisional games.
“When we first got here, Tampa Bay seemed to carry a lot of weight because they were the team that had just won a Super Bowl and had won a division,” Payton said. “I think that can fluctuate between divisions. ... This year obviously Carolina and the Saints is a game of importance.”