JR: The Saints have Super Bowl winner and former Madden cover boy Drew Brees at quarterback. The Panthers have No. 1 pick and rookie record-setter Cam Newton. Now here come the Falcons with Matt Ryan and his 34-14 career record as a starter. Tell me, Gary, would you trade Josh Freeman for any of the other NFC South quarterbacks?
GS: No, but I also acknowledge that the other three teams probably like their guys, too. It's a fine quarterback division. Most divisions have a borrowed-time guy but not this one. Its borrowed-time guys all play defense.
JR: What's fascinating is we could watch some extremely talented QBs go head to head for a long, long time. Ryan is 26, Freeman is 23 and Newton is 22. I can see a scenario where each one of those guys sits on top of the heap for a season or two.
GS: Could be. You're talking about a lot of talent. I think the difference in the careers of these guys is going to be how well their teams surround them with talent. I remember the old AFC East with Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Ken O'Brien. Those guys need playmakers. Which is why New Orleans and Atlanta are still the favorites in this division.
JR: A few weeks ago, I would have said Freeman was surrounded by some pretty good playmakers himself. Now I would argue that point at a much lower volume. We've heard in the past that LeGarrette Blount had to be eased into the offense because he wasn't real good with his assignments on passing downs. Now we're hearing he has trouble hitting the right holes, too. And Mike Williams needs to stand up a little taller even if teams are doubling him. Am I being too critical?
GS: You? Of course not. I still think Blount and Williams are assets, but they have a ways to go before they're stars. I think that's fair. In the coming years, a third-down back with a little scat and a receiver with blazing speed would help. Also, it would help if the Bucs didn't treat the first half as if it was nap time. I swear, if I was Raheem, I'm not sure I would tell my team this week's game doesn't start until 4:15. That way, maybe they'll be moving by kickoff time.
JR: You said the Falcons and Saints remain favorites in the division. I would tend to agree. The question is how far away are the Bucs? I think they're certainly close enough that they can win any game against either team. In fact, they split with New Orleans last season and were a handful of plays away from ruining Atlanta's season. But are they close enough that you go into a home game expecting them to beat Atlanta?
GS: You should. I should. They should. Atlanta has been a very frustrating team for the Bucs the last couple of years, and I suspect if you asked the players which team annoys them the most, it would be Atlanta. The Bucs had Atlanta beat up there last year until Blount picked the wrong ramp to the end zone. They had them beat here until a kickoff return. Atlanta was the place where Jon Gruden picked an injured Brian Griese over Luke McCown, who had practiced all week as the starter. Atlanta was where Raheem faked a punt with the lead in the late going. I think Tampa Bay needs this game for its own sanity.
JR: Forget sanity. Tampa Bay needs this game for the postseason. It may only be the third week, but the Bucs needed to do two things differently in 2011 that they failed to do in 2010. No. 1 was win more consistently at home. No. 2 was beat Atlanta. They don't want the playoffs to come down to a Jan. 1 game in Atlanta. They need to get a leg up today. And if I added a few curse words and a thousand brain cells, that might have sounded like Lombardi.
GS: I've always said you sounded like Guy Lombardo.
This week's electronic conversation between columnists John Romano and Gary Shelton: