The NFL has a very flawed system in place when putting together its playoff picture every year. That’s because it is a system where the winner of each division is guaranteed the 4-seed or better and at the very least one home playoff game.
Many times, this rewards a division winner who has an inferior record with home field advantage over an opposing Wildcard team. We have actually seen this happen 12 out of the last 15 seasons in just the NFC alone, including in 2011 when the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons had to travel to East Rutherford, New Jersey to face the 9-7 NFC East Champion New York Giants.
We are poised to have it happen again in 2022, as the winner of the NFC South will slot into that 4-seed to very likely play host to the NFC East runner up. At the moment, that would be the 6-6 Buccaneers welcoming the 9-3 Dallas Cowboys to town.
There have even been three instances in NFL history — both within this 15-year time period — of a team below .500 winning its division and hosting a playoff game. The Seattle Seahawks (7-9) did it in 2010, the Carolina Panthers in 2014 (7-8-1) and then the Washington Football Team (now Commanders) (7-9) in 2020.
The NFL knows what they are doing, and this is by no means a call for them to change the format in place (that’s an article for another day). This importance placed on winning the division enhances regional rivalries and puts more at stake in head to head matchups within each grouping of four. The NFL understands the seeding flaw, but the opportunity cost is worth it for the payoff gained.
This year, the NFC South has four teams that don’t look very deserving of being in any sort of playoff contention, but one of them will be hosting a Wildcard matchup nonetheless. Going into Week 15, this is the only division in the NFC where every team has a negative point differential. Let’s look at the entire division, and explain why the Falcons somehow still have a shot at post season play despite their 5-8 record.
NFC South Standings
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 6-6 overall record; 3-1 Division Record; Remaining Schedule: Week 14 at 49ers, Week 15 vs. Bengals, Week 16 at Cardinals, Week 17 vs. Panthers*, Week 18 at Falcons*
- Atlanta Falcons — 5-8 overall record; 1-3 Division Record; Remaining Schedule: Week 14 BYE, Week 15 at Saints*, Week 16 at Ravens, Week 17 vs. Cardinals, Week 18 vs. Buccaneers*
- Carolina Panthers — 4-8 overall record; 3-1 Division Record; Remaining Schedule: Week 14 at Seahawks, Week 15 vs. Steelers, Week 16 vs. Lions, Week 17 at Buccaneers*, Week 18 at Saints*
- New Orleans Saints — 4-9 overall record; 1-3 Division Record; Remaining Schedule: Week 14 BYE, Week 15 vs. Falcons*, Week 16 at Browns, Week 17 at Eagles, Week 18 vs. Panthers*
(* indicates a divisional matchup)
The Atlanta Falcons have no business being alive right now, but they somehow are along with the Carolina Panthers as well. A Buccaneers loss against a superior 49ers team (even without Jimmy Garoppolo) would put Atlanta back to within 1.0 game of the division lead.
I would not bet on or predict the Falcons to do what they need to win the division, which is likely to win out, but they do still have a mathematical chance. The big problem for Atlanta is their 1-3 division record. Basically, Tampa beating the Panthers will guarantee them the tiebreaker over Atlanta as it would guarantee that the Falcons will have an inferior NFC South record along with a head to head split at best. Basically, the Birds will have to be tied with the Bucs going into that Week 18 matchup.
Carolina currently has better odds than the Falcons of winning the South, despite their worse overall record, because they can win the season series against the Bucs outright while holding the tie tiebreaker over Atlanta due to division record, if they win against Tampa in Week 17.
FiveThirtyEight currently gives Tampa Bay an 87% chance of winning the NFC South. Even losses in their next two games, where they will be underdogs, and a Falcons triumph in New Orleans would only decrease those odds to 65%, despite the fact that both teams would be 6-8 at that point. This highlights just how much of a hole Atlanta has dug itself.
The only scenarios which give Atlanta a legitimate chance are: if they win out, or if Tampa suffers the type of collapse that has been unprecedented for Tom Brady in his career.
In the end, it seems that the Bucs are destined to be the latest in a long list of NFC teams to host a playoff game against a division runner up with a superior record while the Falcons sit at home and ponder on the number of blown opportunities they had in games this season.
Carolina is also in firm control of its own destiny at the moment while the Falcons can officially bury any small hopes the Saints have with a victory in Week 15.