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NFC South report: Eternal life through mediocrity

The race to win the NFC South features a lot of backtracking.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, the NFC South seemed like it might be settling out. The Saints had lost, dropping them to the bottom of the division, and the Buccaneers had won and were back to .500. Given that every other team in the division was at least three games under .500, it seemed as though the drama was largely over.

Of course, with this putrid division in 2022, you can’t really put much stock in the standings at any given point. After Week 14, the only team that seems to be completely dead is in New Orleans, who would likely have to win every game the rest of the way and get real help to win the NFC South. Here’s a recap of the action.

NFC South Standings, Week 15

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 6-7

Carolina Panthers: 5-8

Atlanta Falcons: 5-8

New Orleans Saints: 4-9

The Buccaneers squeaked by the Saints in Week 13, but in Week 14 they ran into a rolling 49ers team led by 2022 Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy and got absolutely smoked. It was 28-0 at halftime, illustrating the massive gap in talent and acumen between the two squads, and a reminder that the Falcons both got the 49ers at the right time and played them exceptionally well. The Bucs dropped back under .500 again to give Atlanta and Carolina some hope of overtaking them, with one tough game (the Bengals) and two divisional games left.

Carolina has been somewhere between gritty and impressive since firing hapless loser Matt Rhule, who fled to the collegiate cornfields of Nebraska to a hero’s welcome. Steve Wilks and the interim staff have gotten much more out of the Panthers than anticipated, and they’re now within striking distance of the Buccaneers themselves. The Panthers get the shaky Steelers and Saints in two of their final games, but have to play the Buccaneers and the surging Lions as well. Right now, I don’t think we can count them—or anyone—out, especially if Sam Darnold can provide a little stability at quarterback in the final stretch.

The Falcons sat idle this week, and will come out of the bye set to start Desmond Ridder at quarterback and hoping to take advantage of the latest crack in Tampa Bay’s armor. The best case scenario has the Falcons winning two or three of their upcoming games—one of them is against the Ravens, so I’d bet on two—and then capping the season off with a win over the Buccaneers that wins the division. They’ll have to start playing a lot better than they have over the last month-and-a-half to get there, but it’s still more of an improbable dream than an impossible one.

The Saints were also idle, and remain in the NFC South’s basement. No team has a worse 2023 outlook than New Orleans, and the hope is that the Falcons beat them next Sunday to drop them to double digit losses and make their misery more acute.

Barring a sudden Tampa Bay surge, this may come down to the final week of the season, and the winner seems likely to be under .500. If someone has to win, though, it may as well be the Atlanta Falcons, right?