The NFC South was, not all that long ago, a fiercely competitive division featuring some of the best teams in football. From 2010-2020, the division sent teams to the NFC Conference Championship in five seasons and to the Super Bowl in three years, and the battles for the crown in the South were frequently great.
Now, though, this division might be the worst in football. None of these teams have a surefire franchise quarterback after this season and only the Falcons have the kind of money in free agency to make major upgrades, the kind that all four of these squads desperately need. The future may seem dismal, but the present may be even worse.
After a listless Monday Night Football game between the Buccaneers and Saints, the division leader is .500 and every other team is at least three games below .500. There’s still a remote possibility that another team could overtake Tampa Bay, but none of them deserve to, and as it is the Buccaneers don’t really deserve to go to the playoffs. Let’s take a closer look at the state of the NFC South.
NFC South Standings, Week 14
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 6-6
Atlanta Falcons: 5-8
Carolina Panthers: 4-8
New Orleans Saints: 4-9
Tampa Bay is still atop the division by the slimmest margin imaginable after a series of punts, mishaps, and a frankly pathetic offensive performance that nearly doomed them even with the Saints repeatedly settling for field goals. A late, impressive rally saved the day. The Buccaneers have too much talent to be this shaky, but they’ve now been this shaky for 12 games and their offensive woes only seem to disappear when they’re in hurry-up. They seem likely to be one-and-done in the postseason, but they also seem likely to get there.
The Falcons have repeatedly been given the chance to stay in the NFC South hunt, and they’ve repeatedly declined to do so. If not for Tampa Bay’s mediocrity, they would be dead dead in that race right now, instead of just something like 95% dead. The offense is stagnant, particularly through the air, and the defense is a punchline for yet another season, leaving the Falcons three games under .500 and struggling to find answers. They still have perhaps the best long-term outlook in the division at the moment, but in the here and now they have a 4% chance to make the playoffs and a burning need to find a way to play better over the final four weeks.
The Panthers were on a bye this week, but they made headlines when they waived Baker Mayfield, who apparently wanted out of Carolina. This is a team with some real talent, but until they can upgrade at quarterback and get a good head coach in the door, they’re just adrift. The fact that they, too, are not yet out of this divisional race despite firing their head coach and dealing off multiple pieces before the deadline speaks volumes about just how bad things have gotten in the NFC South.
The Saints could have moved into second place in the NFC South with a win, but thanks to truly inept and cautious decision-making, they instead watched a lead evaporate and will move to 4-9 and dead last. New Orleans will head into next year as one of the worst teams in football, with less cap space than any other team, and may have a top five pick that’s going to the Eagles thanks to the Chris Olave trade. They’re miserable and terrible and they lost in the most wrenching fashion imaginable, and that’s what we like to see.
Who will win this thing? Only the gods know, and they appear to have forsaken this division anyways. Right now, though, it’s hard to bet against the Buccaneers.