Brian Allee-Walsh

Bottoms up! NFC South cellar up for grabs when Saints, Panthers clash

New Orleans 1-3.

Carolina 1-4.

The dregs of the NFC South.

How times have changed.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Sunday's game between the Panthers and Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Supedome would have meant something with regards to divisional supremacy and the NFC playoff picture.

Oh, it stands for something all right. The loser takes over last place in the NFC South.

Be still my racing heart!

Let the record show that on Oct. 16 -- Week 6 of the 2016 NFL season -- the Saints and Panthers will be playing for the divisional basement.

Let's be honest here: I'm not overly surprised to see the Saints in survival mode, standing with the league's common folk after the bye week. They haven't been above the .500 mark since 2013.

But the Panthers might be the NFL's biggest disappointment to date. Eight months ago they breezed through the regular season (15-1), won their third consecutive division title by a country mile, claimed the NFC championship in a cakewalk over Arizona 49-15 and entered Super Bowl 50 as a prohibitive favorite to beat Denver.

A strong case can be made Carolina has never recovered from that 24-10 beatdown.

An airtight case can be made that Carolina has not replaced trash talking/shutdown cornerback Josh Norman, who signed a blockbuster five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Redskins after being released from his franchise tag by Panthers GM Dave Gettleman eight days before the draft.

Gettleman must live with his decision as must coach Ron Rvera, his team and Panthers Nation. And yes, Norman's absence in Carolina is palpable and one reason for the team's current freefall. But it doesn't explain why:

▪  This year's team is a shell of its former self.

▪ Their swag is MIA.

▪ They can't protect the football (league-high 14 giveaways).

▪ They draw far too many penalties (46, second most in the NFL).

▪ They struggle defending the pass (7.85 yards per pass play).

▪ They have trouble getting to the quarterback (where are defensive tackles Kawaan Short, Kony Ealy, Star Lotulelei?)

▪ They can't run the football effectively. Bellcow Jonathan Stewart returns Sunday after missing the past three games with an injured hamstring.

▪ They can't protect Superman (a.k.a. quarterback Cam Newton). Heck, Superman can't adequately protect himself.

Consider: If the well-rested Saints win Sunday, the once mighty Panthers will have been swept by divisional foes Atlanta (48-33), Tampa Bay (17-14) and New Orleans (TBD) in successive weeks.

The last time Carolina lost to all three foes in the same season happened in 2010 under coach John Fox, who was fired after going 2-14, including 0-6 inside the division.

I'm not suggesting Riverboat Ron Rivera is in trouble.

Just his football team.