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Breaking down the NFC South entering Atlanta’s bye week

Unfortunately, the division won’t belong to Atlanta in 2020.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the season, the early expectations for the division were that the Saints would likely win it, the Bucs would push for second place, the Falcons would be in second or third depending on how they performed, and the Panthers would finish in the basement. We’re now nine weeks into the season and...that’s exactly how things have shaken out.

I don’t think anyone expected the Falcons to look as dismal as they did through the first five weeks, which essentially killed their season, but otherwise there just haven’t been a lot of surprises here. None of these teams have looked truly great on a sustained basis yet, but the Saints are atop the heap, the Bucs are right behind them, and Atlanta and Carolina are hanging around with losing records. When the dust settles, that’ll probably still be true.

Let’s take a closer look at the division today.

New Orleans Saints (6-2)

The Saints are atop the division again, squatting like some great loathsome golden toad. They got here despite barely having more points on the season than they’ve allowed, and despite utilizing what seems like it should be an increasingly stale bag of tricks on offense.

How? Drew Brees is not cooked, at least within the confines of this offense, which remains enviably run after all these years with Payton at the helm. There’s no question that he can’t regularly make deep throws, but especially with Michael Thomas returning, they can manage a high-functioning attack that rarely forces the issue. Alvin Kamara is a great back and Taysom Hill runs still work, even though every defense in America has to know it’s coming by now.

The defense, meanwhile, is rounding into shape after a hilariously off start to the year, culminating in a complete and humiliating shutdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday Night Football. I remain a little skeptical of this defense’s ability to hold great teams in check down the line—Cameron Jordan is aging, Marcus Davenport has not been the big splash the team hoped for, and the secondary is as up-and-down as they come—but there’s no point in denying that stomping hard on Tampa Bay sends a signal that they’re done before run over.

That’s the problem with New Orleans in this current era, even if it’s about to end when Brees retires at the end of 2020: They’re balanced enough to be in every game they play. I would suggest this is the weakest incarnation of the Saints we’ve seen in the last three years in many ways, but the weakest version of these Saints is still the best team in the division and it’s probably not going to end up being all that close.

Tampa Bay’s crushing defeat at their hands means New Orleans has to implode to give up the division, and while I look forward to seeing them do just that in the playoffs yet again, the likelihood that they fall apart in the regular season seems pretty slim. They are, regrettably, too talented and too well-coached to fall short, and they’re showing again that the teams you build painstakingly brick-by-brick tend to turn out better the ones that you get impatient and try to finish off the job with someone else’s aging stars.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3)

I expressed a lot of skepticism about the Bucs heading into this season. Brady was aging, I wasn’t sure the defense was together enough for a deep playoff run, and the slapped-together super teams never seem to work out quite the way they’re supposed to.

Tampa Bay is 6-3 and seems ticketed for a playoff berth, especially in the expanded format, but things are not exactly going swimmingly. The Bucs have lost twice to the Saints, imperiling their hopes of taking the division, and have played in weirdly close games against the Bears (a one point loss) and the Giants (a two point win). The defense has had a couple of great games and looks better than I might’ve expected on balance, but is trending in the wrong direction the last couple of weeks. The offense, expected to be a juggernaut, has only intermittently looked like one.

Why? Tom Brady’s quietly not having the season anyone expected from him. He’s feasted on the weak secondaries of the AFC West, throwing for 12 touchdowns and a single interception against the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders, but has just 8 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in the remaining five games on his slate. Against the Saints, he managed just 186 yards and three interceptions, and he’s got a credible case to make as the worst quarterback in the NFC South this year. Having Mike Evans, Chris Godwin (though he’s played in just 5 games), Gronk, and a talented cast at running back was supposed to make life easy for him, but it’s telling that Brady still has the 7th-worst on-target throw percentage in the league. He’s throwing a lot and he’s taking some deep shots, but this offense isn’t humming.

Brady’s hardly the only problem, though, as he’s just the most satisfying to tee off on. The defense has plenty of talent and the secondary in particular has been better than I would have anticipated, but the Saints dismantling them on national television tells you that quality offenses will be capable of the same.

The Bucs are a good football team probably destined for a playoff spot, but the way the Saints handled them makes it painfully clear that they are also very much a work in progress. When your team is heavily reliant on an aging veteran quarterback, that’s not all where you want to be nine games into the season.

Atlanta Falcons (3-6)

Here’s a painful stat: The Falcons lost three of their games this season by a combined six points. Had they held on to leads in those efforts, they could very well be sitting pretty at the top of the division right now. What an insanely frustrating team.

Atlanta’s surging a bit, having won three out of their last four games after losing their first five. They’re tightening up a bit on defense thanks to the return of some key players and Morris and company finally deciding to blitz more often, while the offense is slowly and fitfully finding consistency in the passing game, if not on the ground.

For all that, though, the Falcons are way behind and really only have a chance of making the playoffs by winning all but one game and getting some breaks from other would-be contenders in the NFC. The hole they dug early in the year is just too deep.

What can the Falcons do? Push for a playoff spot regardless and play big-time spoiler for the Buccaneers and Saints, who they’ve yet to play in 2020. The Falcons won’t find it so easy to pass against every team on the slate, but if they have a healthy Calvin Ridley they’ve shown they can throw, throw, throw to a ton of capable targets. Dirk Koetter and Todd Gurley hashing out a better way forward for the ground game and a defense that continues to at least look game for three quarters would make them dangerous against just about everyone except Kansas City.

We don’t know where Atlanta will end up and there’s no particular reason to think they’re going to pull off a miracle, but just being reminded that this roster has enough talent to win games and stay competitive after such a dispiriting start to the year is worth something heading into 2021.

Carolina Panthers (3-6)

The Panthers may very well end up in the basement, not that it would be all that unexpected. This is a better-than-expected football team this year that just battled the Chiefs until the bitter end, and there’s no question that as the Bucs and Saints have to think about retooling at the quarterback position (and the Saints likely have to make a raft of cuts to get under the spending limit), the Panthers will be one of the division’s most dangerous teams going forward.

For right now, though, they’re just not there. The defense is getting picked apart of late and is missing pieces at every level, the offense is capable but not outrageously great on a weekly basis, and it’ll take another offseason or two of infusing talent into the roster to take it to the next level. In the meantime, the Panthers will dwell near the bottom of the NFC South and will try to play spoiler as best they can, though they’ve not fared well against the division on balance thus far in 2020. Even with the Falcons finishing the year on a tough note, it would not be surprising to see the Panthers finish behind them.

Final NFC South projections

New Orleans Saints: 11-5

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-6

Atlanta Falcons: 7-9 (I know, I don’t like it either)

Carolina Panthers: 6-10