A few weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints were unbeaten and appeared to be on the verge of running away with the NFC South.
They remain atop the division at the halfway point of the regular season, bolstered by the return of coach Sean Payton from his 2012 bounty suspension. But the surging Carolina Panthers are now nipping at the Saints' heels.
New Orleans (6-2) has dropped two of three games, while the Panthers (5-3) have won four straight to pull within a game of the Saints, whom they'll play twice in December.
"We don't care where Carolina is at or what they're doing," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We care about what we can control. ... November and December is the time where the real teams start to separate themselves. The great teams separate themselves from the good teams. We know that, and that's what we're going to do."
Not if the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton have anything to do with it.
Carolina has a winning record at the midway point for the first time since 2008, when it won the division. Offensive tackle Jordan Gross said the Panthers have developed mental toughness and are finding ways to close out games.
"That's the difference between this year's team and the teams in years past," Gross said. "We are tough. We hang in there."
Atlanta, by contrast, struggled to close out several tight games early, all while injuries mounted. Only one season after narrowly losing the NFC championship game to San Francisco, the Falcons (2-6) are on the brink of their first losing campaign in coach Mike Smith's six seasons.
"Certainly things have not gone the way we had hoped," quarterback Matt Ryan said.
It could be worse. Tampa Bay (0-8) is still looking for its first victory of 2013.
Here are five reasons why the NFC South race looks the way it does at midseason:
SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT: The NFC South once again appears sticking to a pattern of making it tough for teams to get comfortable at the top. Since its creation in 2002, the division has never had a repeat winner. Another more recent trend could continue as well. The Saints and Falcons have alternated as division champs the past four seasons, and this season would be the Saints' turn, if they can hold off Carolina.
SAINT RYAN: If performing a miracle is a prerequisite for Sainthood, New Orleans' new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, might qualify. He took over arguably the worst defense in history — a unit which allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards in 2012. The Saints now rank 10th in total defense, giving up 333.1 yards per game, putting the unit on pace to yield 107 fewer yards per game than a year ago.
CAM CAN: Newton has escalated his performance dramatically during the team's four-game winning streak, accounting for 10 touchdowns versus two turnovers. Coach Ron Rivera describes Newton as a quarterback who is more comfortable reading all of his options and using the best one. "It's based on what (defenses) are trying to do and what they're trying to take away, and Cam's finding the guy," Rivera said.
CLIPPED WINGS: Atlanta has lost receiver Julio Jones, defensive end Kroy Biermann, fullback Bradie Ewing and left tackle Mike Johnson to season-ending injuries. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, receiver Roddy White, running back Steven Jackson and cornerback Asante Samuel have missed multiple games. That might explain why the Falcons have fallen so hard — not that it makes Smith feel any better. "There are injuries all across the league," Smith said. "There are teams that have more guys on IR than others and still they've been successful. That's why I say you can't use injuries as an excuse."
BAD BUCS: It may be too late for coach Greg Schiano to save his job. As if an 0-8 start for the first time since 1985 wasn't bad enough, the Buccaneers' season also has been marred by the messy benching and subsequent release of former starting QB Josh Freemen, followed by three players being diagnosed with MRSA infections. Now any hope of salvaging a respectable season rides on rookie QB Mike Glennon, a third-round draft pick out of North Carolina State who hasn't won in five starts, but has shown steady improvement.
PREDICTED WINNER: Saints
AP Sports Writers Steve Reed in Charlotte, N.C.; Charles Odom in Atlanta; and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.