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NFC South report: The Falcons are now the division’s best long-term bet

Atlanta’s rebuild is proceeding briskly, if unevenly.

NFL: OCT 23 Falcons at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Many national pundits had the Falcons as one of the worst teams in the NFL heading into 2022, and instead they’re maybe a little bit below average with some impressive strengths on the ground. Many national pundits also had the Buccaneers and Saints dominating this division, and both of those teams are cold bowls of hot farts thus far in 2022. At the moment—and at least for a few more hours—the Falcons are actually winning the NFC South.

It was easy for me to see the Falcons winning six or seven games this year, and I was skeptical the Panthers and Saints would be anything special, but I didn’t see the Buccaneers being this bad. It’s encouraging—and extremely fun—to see the Falcons with a real shot at winning the division in 2022. It’s even more encouraging to realize they may be set up to win this division over and over again.

Why? This deserves a deeper dive later in the season, but for now suffice to say that:

  1. Atlanta has a smart coach, a general manager who keeps finding free agent bargains and has largely drafted well, and a handful of true stud players already on the roster. They also have a nearly full complement of draft picks next year and tens of millions of dollars in cap space to build on what they already have, so assuming even a decent amount of competence and luck this coming offseason, they should be a better version of the team that’s been in every game except one thus far this season. It probably seems like an odd time to write all this given that they’re coming off a heart attack effort against what should’ve been an inferior Carolina team, but at 4-4 and with all that cash and promise ahead, they’re in a fine position.
  2. The Buccaneers are probably either losing Tom Brady or quietly moving on from him, given that they’re in shambles with the aging-at-light-speed quarterback. They do have young talent on the roster, but many of their star players are expensive, older, or both. Tampa Bay pushed their chips in to win a championship or two with Brady and got one, but given that Spotrac has them at -$47 million in cap space next year, there’s likely to be a painful year or two ahead while they re-tool the roster and jettison players who aren’t performing.
  3. The Panthers are likely in a similar no quarterback, very little cap space situation, but they also don’t have a set coaching staff. They’re only a few million dollars in the hole and will have more draft capital thanks to recent trades, but they have to make a good coaching hire, find a quarterback unless Matt Corral really gets it going next offseason or P.J. Walker Magic is a thing, and have holes at running back, wide receiver, tight end, and dotted across the defense to contend with. They likely need at least one year, if not more, of very good offseasons to seriously contend again, and they might be tempted to sell off more pieces of the roster depending on who they import this spring.
  4. The Saints are in maybe the worst spot of all, which is a delight. Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton are not long-term options, so they can’t even talk themselves into a Corral or Kyle Trask the way Tampa Bay can. No team is deeper in cap debt than the Saints, who have over $63 million to clear next year just to break even, and it does not appear that Dennis Allen had much of the Sean Payton magic rubbing off on him during their shared time in New Orleans. This team also has no first round pick after making their big swap to get Chris Olave (who admittedly has looked great) and have been slowly bleeding useful pieces of the roster for years now. Mickey Loomis has pulled off magic in the past, but given the many factors working against the Saints right now and the fact that they’re not remotely close to contending, they may finally face a bit of a reckoning in the 2023 offseason. Of course, given their history, I’m not exactly going to bet on that.

The Falcons are a decent enough team right now, and they have the cash and ability to get really good this coming spring and summer. The remaining three teams in the division have zero combined long-term answers at quarterback, are all in the red in terms of 2023 cap space, and are certainly not in significantly better positions than the Falcons roster-wise, if at all. That adds up to Atlanta having their best opportunity in the NFC South in a very, very long while.

It remains to be seen what the Falcons do with that opportunity, but it’s safe to say they have the chance to run the NFC South for at least a couple of seasons, if not significantly longer than that. While we enjoy the limited but real success we’re seeing in the here and now, let’s remember what could lie ahead for the Falcons in the very near future.

Oh, and this was ostensibly a story about the NFC South in the here and now, right? Let’s take a quick look at the standings.

Falcons: 4-4

Buccaneers: 3-5

Saints: 3-5

Panthers: 2-6

It goes without saying that this division is far from settled, but the Falcons ultimately did what they needed to this weekend and got out of their matchup against the Panthers with a win. That divisional victory is really important for a team that had been 0-2 in the NFC South, and they’re now a game ahead of the reeling Buccaneers and suddenly spry Saints.

The Falcons get the Panthers again in two weeks, and if they pull off the victory against the Chargers next Sunday, they could be .500 in the division and standing at 6-4, which would put them in a very strong position to win this division over the final seven games. To get there, I think we all know they’ll have to be stronger than they were yesterday, but the opportunity is there for the division-leading Atlanta Falcons.