It's fitting that now, at the end of the season, the the fate of the NFC South shall be decided by divisional games.
When the Falcons take on the Panthers Sunday, they will be attempting to lock down one of their best seasons ever, and to hold on to their tenuous hold on home field advantage throughout the playoffs. When the Buccaneers take on the Saints, they will be looking to secure a playoff berth of their own, while the Saints will be hoping for a win to jump into the top NFC seed. The Panthers are pretty much just looking to play spoiler for the Falcons.
All the Falcons have to do is win to secure the Georgia Dome until the Super Bowl. If they manage to lose to the Panthers by the capricious whims of disgruntled Football Gods, they'll need the Buccaneers to beat the Saints. Neither of those outcomes seem particularly likely, but I'd be leery of dismissing a supremely motivated Bucs team with the playoffs at stake.
For one final time, let's take a jaunt around the NFC South and encapsulate our opponents. Excited? Then hit the jump.
New Orleans Saints, 11-4
The loss to the Saints illustrated a number of things about the Falcons, but what it says about the Saints is worse. This is a good football team.
The offense is good, but the defense's ability to stuff Turner and blanket Roddy White is the real problem as far as the Falcons are concerned. Traditionally these two teams have gotten into slugfests, trading scores the way kids trade baseball cards. But this defensive surge for both squads means there's the possibility of a low-scoring nailbiter in the playoffs.
As mentioned countless times in this feature in past weeks, the Saints are getting healthy and effective at the right time. They're a nightmare matchup for almost any team, and the key to beating them is going to be to force turnovers and clamp down on Drew Brees. Easier said than done, but the Falcons nearly pulled it off.
At the beginning of the season, I never would've predicted the Falcons would take the division, but here we are. The Saints are still mighty good, and their defense should keep them in contention in the years to come.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9-6
The cards need to fall the right way, but the Buccaneers still have a shot at a playoff spot.
In order to get it, they'll have to beat a motivated Saints team, but these Bucs are no slouches. Josh Freeman is blossoming into a quality starter and the defense is beginning to find its way. The major knock on the Bucs is that they haven't beaten a great team all season, but they'll get their chance here. They'll need the Giants and Packers to poop the bed, as well.
Even if they don't make the trip, it's been a hell of a ride for the Bucs. The turnaround should keep Raheem Morris around, and I still firmly believe they'll be a piece of the NFC playoff picture for years to come. Scary.
Carolina Panthers, 2-13
The Panthers just want this season to be over. Let's oblige.
New Orleans: 11-5
Tampa Bay: 10-6