Here's how the NFL determines divisional standings when two records are identical, albeit at the end of the season:
- Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
- Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
- Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
- Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
- Strength of victory.
EDIT: Alert reader wiesengrund has pointed out that I did not correctly interpret the strength of victory tiebreaker. It is based on strength of victory by opponent, not by margin of victory, and therefore the Panthers still have the tiebreakers. It's every bit as much of a technicality as I thought the Falcons' lead was, but obviously less satisfying. I regret the error.
The Falcons and Panthers haven't played one another yet, and they have identical win-loss-tied in games played in the division (100%) and against common opponents (100% against Tampa Bay) and within the conference (100%). The difference is that the Falcons won two games in the division, while the Panthers have only won one. That doesn't matter, however,
That doesn't give the team a meaningful lead on Carolina, and it's worth noting that the Saints are lurking just a game behind. Nonetheless, it counts.
The trick now is earning first place for real, and then staying there.. Stay tuned on that one.