Last Sunday, the entire NFC South won in narrow fashion. The Falcons luckily took care of business, but the reality is that they need more than just winning to get ahead of their rivals. They need some of those rivals to start losing.
Here's a closer look at their games this weekend as the Falcons stay idle, and our thoughts on how they might actually do us a solid and lose their games.
Panthers (4-2) vs. Ravens (4-3)
The Panthers have played some very close games this season, and they’re 2-2 in one score games thus far. That includes a last second, incredible Graham Gano field goal-driven 33-31 win over the Giants and a 21-17 comeback win over the Eagles. I’m not suggesting that they’ve been the beneficiary of luck in those games, but that as we’ve learned this year, playing in a lot of close games tends to eventually haunt you.
Playing against a Ravens team that was a missed Justin Tucker extra point away from going to overtime against the Saints, the Panthers are probably going to run out of luck. It may be that the 17 point comeback was a clue to some deep reserve of talent and gumption the Panthers haven’t displayed to this point in the year, and they are a good enough football team to beat the Ravens. Baltimore is an extremely tough team to beat, however, and unlike the Saints (and hopefully the Falcons down the line), Carolina doesn’t have the offense necessary to overcome that particular obstacle. Things may go sideways, but I’d expect a game Ravens offense and league-best defense to hand the Panthers an L today, home or not.
Buccaneers (3-3) @ Bengals (4-3)
The Bucs squeaked one out over the Browns last week, and their offense is capable of great things. Jameis Winston still is good for a series of boneheaded mistakes on a weekly basis, but he’s also good for several highlight reel plays, and that was enough against the Browns and nearly enough against the Falcons.
Tampa Bay’s best shot here is to win a shootout, as the Bengals have proven to be indifferent players of defense and enthusiastic proponents of scoring. The exception that gives me pause came a week ago, when Andy Dalton went full pumpkin and Cincinnati was on the wrong end of a 45-10 beatdown from Kansas City. Tampa Bay isn’t nearly that good, thankfully, and Cincinnati should be able to turn this around at home and put the Buccaneers in the basement. Tampa Bay is, despite their many flaws, still good enough to pull this one off, but on the road and still largely incapable of stopping teams, I’ll go with Cincinnati in a high-scoring affair.
Saints (5-1) @ Vikings (4-2-1)
At this point, bet against the Saints at your own peril. They lost their first game in flukey fashion to the Bucs, who simply piled up too many points, and nearly lost to the Browns in Week 2. After that shaky start, they’ve won every game, including a squeaker over a great Ravens team and a narrow win over the Falcons, plus blowout wins against Washington and the Giants.
The Saints do have flaws, however. Their cornerback play has been bad enough that they felt the need to trade for Eli Apple, but he’s more of a “let’s hope this talented former first round pick develops” than an immediate upgrade. Against a Vikings passing attack that memorably torched them at exactly the right moment in last year’s playoffs, New Orleans has to be wary about that.
But their extreme aptitude on offense and quietly potent defensive line makes them tough for anybody, and there’s a strong possibility this turns into a real shootout. This Vikings team has not had a ton of success on the ground and somehow has allowed more points than New Orleans this year, so as good as they are, I’m not considering this one a gimme at home for Minnesota. Hope for the best—this is one of the toughest games left for New Orleans, after all—but I’m done betting against them.
Who do you think will win?