Three weeks or so ago, the division had settled into a comfortable sort of mold. The Saints were the best team, but the Panthers weren’t far behind, the Falcons were charging, and the Buccaneers were basement dwellers.
My, how things have changed.
The Saints are now running away with the division and figure to be one of the top two seeds in the NFC, unfortunately. The Falcons have dropped three in a row and are now hovering near the basement of the division, with the Buccaneers managing to match them at 4-7 (though the Falcons have tiebreakers). Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the Panthers have begun to break apart, creating a bit of a mire below the Saints.
We already know what happened to Atlanta and New Orleans, but the other two games were a bit of a surprise, and the NFC’s habit of shooting itself in the foot explains how the Falcons still have even a remote playoff shot. Start with the Buccaneers, who were playing a (once again) awful 49ers team and beat the living daylights out of them, piling on the points and looking competent on defense against a weak offense to win 27-9. There’s a legitimate possibility they could finish above the Falcons in the NFC South at this point, and while that would be humiliating, it would also give Atlanta a better draft selection. Pick your own your adventure, there.
Carolina, meanwhile, just got beat narrowly by a surging Seahawks team. They were hungry for the win and put together one of their best performances of the season on offense, but they were only able to turn 475 yards of offense into 27 points and Graham Gano missed a critical field goal, setting up the Seahawks to boot one as time expired. The team may have also lost promising rookie cornerback Donte Jackson for a while thanks to a quad injury, and they’re now on a three game losing streak that has left them in the thick of the NFC playoff race instead of comfortably above it. Should they collapse and miss the postseason, Ron Rivera is probably getting fired, given that he’s put up just three winning seasons and is closing in on his eighth complete season as the team’s head coach. With Dirk Koetter in trouble in Tampa Bay, it’s possible two teams in the division will be looking for new hires heading into 2019, though I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here.
The end result isn’t that Atlanta is any closer to the playoffs—though they and Tampa Bay both annoyingly have a remote shot—but that the division that was supposed to be the strongest in football looks like anything but at the moment.