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NFC South Standings, Week 13: Three contenders and the Panthers

The Falcons maintain a slim lead, and Carolina finally, gracefully drops out of the race.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC South went from being all but decided to awfully close in the span of a couple of weeks, which is par for the course with this division in those years where the Panthers aren’t mysteriously dominant. This, of course, is not one of those years.

It briefly looked like all four NFC South teams might win today, but then Carolina dropped a heartbreaker late to the surging Oakland Raiders, and that was that. It’s still close in the standings, unfortunately.

Here’s a look at the full division standings.

NFC South standings

Falcons: 7-4

Buccaneers: 6-5

Saints: 5-6

Panthers: 4-7

The Falcons did what they so badly needed to do and stomped the Cardinals, turning a narrow 17-13 halftime lead into a 38-19 win thanks to a 21-6 second half. It was a terrific offensive performance and a solid defensive one, and that was enough to get them to seven wins and put them in the driver’s seat in the NFC South the rest of the way. Tampa Bay and New Orleans have tough schedules remaining, while the Falcons really just have fellow NFC South teams and the tricksy Chiefs next week to contend with. They’re still the favorites to win this thing, as they should be.

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are making me eat a little bit of crow. They only scored twice against the Seahawks, but Seattle has a rough defense and Tampa Bay did a mighty impressive job shutting down Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense altogether. Between that and the Chiefs win, you suddenly don’t have to squint very hard to see them as a legitimate threat for the division crown, so we’ll have to hope they cut this nonsense out soon.

The Saints are still two games back, but they’ve got a deadly offense and figure to hang around until the end unless the Falcons can put them down decisively in Week 16. New Orleans is probably the team that makes me the most nervous, despite the two game cushion, because they just never seem to go away even when they have no business hanging around, and this is legitimately the best offense they’ve had in a couple of years. The defense isn’t really any worse than Atlanta’s, either.

The Panthers are cooked. They’re still mathematically in this, but there’s virtually no way they reel off five wins in a row, and I still think one of these teams is going to end up at 10-6 and atop the NFC South. It’s a disappointing follow-up effort to a Super Bowl season, but it is sort of the inevitable outcome for a team that didn’t do anything to fix its major weaknesses (wide receiver and offensive line) and actively damaged one of its strengths (its secondary). Carolina will be back, perhaps as soon as 2017, but for now they’re just a lurking spoiler for everyone else in the division.