NFC South
Sep 29, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Mario Addison (97) celebrates sacking Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) (not pictured) in the first half at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers notched huge victories on the road in Week 4, while the Atlanta Falcons suffered an embarrassing loss at home. Do these Week 4 outcomes suggest we’re in for a three-team race in the NFC South?

Entering Week 4, the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were both facing tough road tests in an effort to keep pace with the New Orleans Saints, who rallied around backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to move to 2-1 after their big win in Seattle in Week 3 and set the stage for their Sunday night showdown with the 3-0 Dallas Cowboys.

While it may have appeared as if the Saints would be going nowhere after losing Drew Brees under center, Week 4 demonstrated that this race is far from over.

Panthers get an important win in Houston

The Panthers went into Houston and scored an impressive, if not aesthetically pleasing, 16-10 victory over the Texans, as Carolina’s defense sacked quarterback Deshaun Watson six times on the way to victory.  Christian McCaffrey continues to terrorize defenses in both the rushing and passing game, as he posted 93 rushing yards and 86 receiving yards on 10 catches to lead the Panthers out of Houston with their second straight road win.

Carolina has now sacked the quarterback 14 times across the last two weeks facing Kyler Murray and Watson. For Week 5, they will have their eyes set on the NFL’s version of Uncle Rico, Garnder Minshew, as the Panthers host the Jacksonville Jaguars. Carolina has won two straight to get back to 2-2, following a sloppy 0-2 start, and put themselves back in the division race.

Buccaneers dominate early before holding on

Out west featured one of the biggest upsets we’ve seen so far this season, as well as a classic barnburner.

The Los Angeles Rams were expected to cruise to 4-0 against the Buccaneers following their hard-fought win in Cleveland in Week 3. Jameis Winston was having none of that.

The Buccaneers, for the second year in a row, went on the road against a high-powered offense and stunned the football world. Last season, the Buccaneers opened the season with a 48-40 shocker over the Saints. This season, Tampa Bay hung 55 on the defending NFC champions, in a game punctuated by former Ram Ndamukong Suh‘s strip-sack of Jared Goff and subsequent touchdown return, to give the Buccaneers a 55-40 victory. 

Winston threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns, as Chris Godwin exploded for 172 yards on 12 catches and a pair of touchdown receptions. Even Mike Evans had 89 yards and a score.

Can the Buccaneers survive the travel schedule from hell?

Tampa Bay also now sits at 2-2 and in second place in the NFC South, by virtue of their Week 2 win in Carolina. They look to be in the race too, right? Well, first they have to survive a gauntlet of travel over the next month-plus, which Bruce Arians let everyone know about back in April. Tampa Bay just traveled out west to Los Angeles, then next week, it’s a trip to New Orleans to face the Saints in another important game. Then they meet the Panthers again in Week 6, but that game is all the way over in London.

After a bye to try and recover from their trip to the UK, the Buccaneers have two more road trips to Tennessee and Seattle. They do not play a true home game until November 10th against the Cardinals. That’s seven whole weeks between true home games for the Buccaneers (Tampa is acting as the home team in London). That is a brutal stretch, not just in terms of who the Buccaneers are playing, but the amount of travel they have to do. Only the Raiders have as rough of an itinerary as the Buccaneers.

Oakland just came off a loss in Minnesota in Week 3 and a road win against Indianapolis in Week 4. Now they head to London themselves to meet their old friend Khalil Mack and the Bears. After their bye in Week 6, Oakland travels to Green Bay and Houston before finally returning home on November 3rd against the Lions. 

At least the Raiders get three straight home games after their long road trip (Lions, Chargers, and Bengals). The Buccaneers only get a two-game stretch against the Cardinals and Saints before going back on the road to face the Falcons and Jaguars to begin the month of December. Also, they have three of their final four at home, including their final two games against the Texans and Falcons.

By comparison to all of this, the Panthers only have one more stretch this season in which they are traveling for back-to-back games, and those weeks sandwich their bye. They head to London in Week 6, have their bye in Week 7, and then travel to San Francisco in Week 8. After that, they alternate home and away for the rest of the season. Weeks 3 and 4 at Arizona and Houston were Carolina’s only two weeks in a row where they had to travel.

So while the Buccaneers scored a very nice win against the Rams in Week 4, they still have a lot of work to do to keep themselves in NFC South contention. That work starts in Week 5 at New Orleans. Win that, and we can talk about them more seriously as contenders for the division.

It is more likely the NFC South becomes a two-horse race as the season progresses, as Tampa Bay’s travel may eventually catch up to them. As for the Falcons, they simply look lost after their 24-10 home loss to the Titans to drop them to 1-3. Even at this early stage of the season, the next two weeks could shape this division in 2019. Two Buccaneers wins against division rivals would give themselves a chance. Anything less than perfection, combined with that brutal travel schedule, may leave them with too much to do when December rolls around.