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Falcons hope for rare division road win
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking sneered at the question:Is the surprising success of the Falcons and the NFC South the result of playing teams from the lowly AFC West and NFC North? If not, what explains the teams’ combined 22-2 home record, easily the best in the NFL?

“I just think this division as a whole is the toughest division in the league,” said Brooking, in his 11th year with the Falcons. “You look at the records and that pretty much indicates that. I think people are starting to realize that right now.”

The NFC South is one of three divisions without a losing team. The other two are the NFC East, in which teams are 18-7 at home; and the AFC East, where teams are only 15-11 at home.

One year ago, Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay combined for a 14-18 home record, and only the Buccaneers made the playoffs.

What a turnaround. As of this week, Tampa Bay (9-3), Carolina (9-3) and Atlanta (8-4) would make the playoff cut. New Orleans is 6-6.

Falcons center Todd McClure can’t explain the turnaround, but said teams in the division are “really competitive” this season.

“There’s no gimme in this division,” he said. “No matter what team you play in this division, they’re all capable of beating each other.”

And beating up on some of the league’s worst teams.

The division is undefeated against such struggling teams as Kansas City (2-10) and Oakland (3-9) from the AFC West and Detroit (0-12) from the NFC North.

“Man, you can’t read too much into that,” Brooking insisted.

Brooking may have a point.

The division is 4-0 against a more competitive Green Bay team that is 5-3 against the rest of the league. The NFC South is also 3-0 against the Chicago Bears, who are 6-3 against the rest of the league and still have a game left against the Saints.

And it’s not as if home teams are winning everywhere in the NFL. Visiting teams posted 11-5 records in Weeks 12 and 13. Home teams were only 2-10 on Sunday.

This week the NFC South’s teams square off in head-to-head matchups. If a visiting team can break through on the road, the impact on the division race could be dramatic.

Tampa Bay and Carolina will play Monday night in Charlotte, N.C. Atlanta plays at New Orleans on Sunday.

Quarterback play could be the determining factor.

Carolina coach John Fox said the performance of the four starting quarterbacks is one reason the division is enjoying success.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Tampa Bay’s Jeff Garcia and Atlanta rookie Matt Ryan rank among the NFL’s top eight in passer rating. Carolina’s Jake Delhomme is No. 22.

“I think last year there was a problem at quarterback in our division,” Fox said. “I think Atlanta went out and found a quarterback. We got our quarterback back. Tampa won the division last year because they went out and got Garcia to bounce off a 4-12 season. I think it’s pretty obvious when you look around the league, it’s haves and have-nots at the quarterback position.
“I think the fact that all four quarterbacks in our division are playing well is significant.”

Fox said the 2007 down year for the division was an exception.

“I think since this division’s inception in 2002, I think we’ve represented the NFC pretty well,” Fox said, adding this year’s strong showing “doesn’t surprise me at all.”

The Buccaneers are 6-0 at Tampa Bay with home games left against San Diego and Oakland.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said kicker Matt Bryant “has a lot to do” with his team’s 12-2 home record the last two seasons.

“Our special teams is making a big difference, scoring on special teams,” Gruden said. “We’ve blocked a punt, returned a kick, returned a punt and made field goals. (Punter Josh) Bidwell is a Pro Bowler in my opinion and our quarterback play has been steady. That makes a big difference in tight games.”

The Panthers also are 6-0 at home.

The home-field advantage is most dramatic for New Orleans, which is 1-5 on the road and 5-1 at the Louisiana Superdome. The other three division teams each have 3-3 road records.

“I’ve heard it’s a hostile environment and fans get into it and it gets really loud,” said Falcons running back Michael Turner, who has never played in the Superdome.

Brooking said the Falcons won’t be thinking about the NFC South’s impressive home record when they the play at New Orleans, just getting their first road division win of the season.

“We’re not worried about the AFC West or NFC North this week,” Brooking said. “We’re worried about the New Orleans Saints in the South and putting another stamp on our division. It’s a huge game for us in the standings.”

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