The NFC South was touted by some as the best division in the NFL before the 2017 season. It has been even stronger than expected, with the potential of three teams from the division making the playoffs. Consider that after Week 10, New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta have a combined points differential of plus-154.

The Saints are the big surprise in the lead entering Week 11. They're the hottest team in the league but are up only a half-game on the Panthers thanks to their win in Carolina in Week 3. The Falcons, still far from hungover as the reigning NFC champions, are only two games behind.

The three South rivals all enjoyed blowout wins against other playoff contenders in Week 10, with an average margin of victory of 27 points. That sets up for an epic finish to the division race, even with New Orleans sitting pretty. Neither Carolina nor Atlanta, the previous two division champs who went all the way to the Super Bowl, can be ruled out.

MORE: NFL playoff picture for Week 11

"The division is tough this year. Everyone's playing well," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly told Sporting News after Carolina's 45-21 beatdown of Miami on Monday night. "When the teams are winning, you try to keep pace. They're trying to do the same things we are."

All three teams are similar in their game plans. The Saints, Panthers and Falcons all boast MVP-caliber quarterbacks, but the defenses and the running games are the real keys to success.

Here is a breakdown of each team, handicapping the race with seven weeks left in the regular season.

Saints (7-2), first place

Offensive rankings: No. 3 rushing, No. 5 passing, No. 3 scoring

Defensive rankings: No. 16 rushing, No. 6 passing, No. 5 scoring

Schedule: vs. Redskins, at Rams, vs. Panthers, at Falcons, vs. Jets, vs. Falcons, at Buccaneers

Bovada odds to win division: 4/5

Game flow has played a big part in New Orleans' success. The team has gone into a unique, explosive ball-control mode with Drew Brees and great running from both Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Opponents can run on the Saints, but it's hard to stay with the rushing attack for teams forced to play catch-up, which plays into New Orleans' new strength of Cameron Jordan, Marshon Lattimore and the pass defense. The Saints are tapping into the formula that has made recent Cowboys teams so successful.

If an opposing defense first tries to take away Ingram and Kamara, Brees can be put in favorable position to pick it apart when needed. The Saints' defense isn't close to perfect, but it keeps making timely plays, much like the Super Bowl unit of 2009. As long as the Saints can keep thriving on both lines of scrimmage, they will keep winning.

Panthers (7-3), second place

Offensive rankings: No. 4 rushing, No. 17 passing, No. 17 scoring

Defensive rankings: No. 4 rushing, No.13 passing, No. 3 scoring

Schedule: at Jets, at Saints, vs. Vikings, vs. Packers, vs. Buccaneers, at Falcons

Bovada odds to win division: 7/4

The Panthers are back to the basics under coach Ron Rivera. They run the ball, with Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne, whoever. They stop the run just as well. It allows Newton to be in comfortable passing situations, while his counterpart has to drop back often against an attacking defense.

When they protect the ball with Newton, the Panthers fine. But they haven't been great at forcing takeaways to facilitate their offense. Newton has been up and down based on level of opponent and time of game.

As long as the Panthers jump out to early leads and take control of games

, they are hard to beat. As they've gone run-heavy and away from pass-happy based on personnel, it's now more difficult for them to rally after bad starts. The bye week arrives at an ideal time for Carolina to get healthier at key positions, just in time for a tough stretch run.

Falcons (5-4), third place

Offensive rankings: No. 13 rushing, No. 11 passing, No. 15 scoring

Defensive rankings: No. 18 rushing, No. 5 passing, No. 10 scoring

Schedule: at Seahawks, vs. Buccaneers, vs. Vikings, vs. Saints, at Buccaneers, at Saints, vs. Panthers

Bovada odds to win division: 17/4

Matt Ryan and Julio Jones don't have the passing game rolling in the way it was last season. The Falcons can still have success rushing, but first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian hasn't stuck with it, and now the team is without Devonta Freeman for at least one game.

The Falcons' defense has kept them in a lot of games. They have been steady against the pass and recently have revved up their pass rush. The speed of the defense is starting to take effect, and they should be improved against the run.

Atlanta so far has lived dangerously, splitting its six games that have been decided by one possession. At the same time, the Falcons also have come through with big conference wins against Detroit, Green Bay and Dallas. That's good news with an all-NFC schedule remaining, including a winnable swing game at Seattle on Monday night in Week 11.

The Falcons rebounded from not making the playoffs despite a 6-0 start in 2015 to go 11-5 last season. They started 3-0 before falling quickly to 3-3 this season. They were left for a free-fall given the way Super Bowl LI ended, and that didn't happen. Coach Dan Quinn's team has developed a habit of responding with resilience, which will be a key asset in the final month and a half.

NFC South prediction

1. Saints (12-4)

2. Falcons (11-5)

3. Panthers (11-5)

The Saints survive here, thanks to playing the doormat Buccaneers in Week 17 while the Falcons and Panthers play each other. Atlanta will make familiar noise with a 6-1 finish, including big wins over both rivals. Carolina's offensive inconsistency will lead to a couple clunkers like the Bears game in Week 7.

Against the spread | Straight up

In the end, with the NFC North and NFC West both looking less certain to punch two tickets to the playoffs, the opportunity is there for all three NFC South teams to crash the party, with a chance for all three to play in the divisional round.

Given the fact that an unexpected NFC South team has made a deep playoff run the past two seasons, New Orleans is in good position to do it again in 2017 with some Superdome advantages in-hand.