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NFC South standings, Week 14: The Bucs return to the top of the heap

The Falcons are ahead in the division on the strength of tiebreakers alone.

Kansas City Chiefs v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Every week, we look at the state of the NFC South, and for weeks, that has been a cause for celebration. No longer, because while the Falcons have a key playoff tiebreaker still at the ready, they are essentially tied for first place with the Buccaneers.

How did we get here? The Falcons lost a pair of tough but winnable games against the Eagles and Chiefs, while the Buccaneers have suddenly caught fire, winning both easy and difficult games with aplomb. That means there’s a clear striation in the division with four games to go, between the Falcons/Bucs and the Saints/Panthers, who are currently inhabiting the basement.

Let’s take a closer look at the standings.

NFC South standings

Falcons: 7-5

Buccaneers: 7-5

Saints: 5-7

Panthers: 4-8

The Falcons obviously blew a golden opportunity to stay ahead by a decent margin in the NFC South, even though that decent margin was only a game. This was always going to be a tough game, but after watching a lot of Chiefs football this season, I came away convinced the Falcons could win this one, and they came tantalizingly close to doing so. The lost cost them sole possession of first place.

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are surging. After years of “wait and see how good the Bucs will be,” they appear to actually be getting there, with a punishing defense and the excellence of Mike Evans papering over their issues. I don’t know what the ceiling is here, but with seven wins already, the Falcons really can’t afford to lose many more before Tampa Bay potentially overtakes them. They’re scary earlier than I had hoped.

The Saints’ dud of a loss agains the Lions puts them two games behind, which is good news for both the Falcons and Buccaneers. That’s not insurmountable, but I’d say one of those two teams is going to finish over .500, which means the Saints are probably dead in the playoff waters if they lose one more. Given that they still have NFC South games coming up, that seems very possible, and we’ll get to see whether this New Orleans team has sufficiently re-tooled in 2017.

The Panthers are just absolutely toast at this point. Ron Rivera is out here benching Cam Newton for one series, they’ve already lost eight games, and the investments they’ve made in the secondary are unlikely to pay off until next year. It’s a crushing season for a team that came so agonizingly close to a Super Bowl in 2015...but hey, we don’t mind that, do we?