What a difference a week makes.
After their Week 10 implosion against the Cardinals, the Atlanta Falcons were 4-6, having lost three straight games and looking up at the division-leading New Orleans Saints. They headed into the bye searching for answers, with uncertainty at quarterback and all throughout a banged-up, struggling defense. They absolutely had to triumph over the Saints to salvage the season, and to their credit, they did.
This was a rare win that was by more than a single score, a rare win over the Saints period, and a defensive effort that was essentially bend-but-don’t-break taken to a beautiful extreme. Atlanta held the Saints to five field goals, forced a pair of big turnovers, and did enough on offense to win by nine, so in spite of some very noteworthy mistakes and frustrations, they moved to 5-6 on the season.
As you might guess, that had real divisional implications, which I’d like to check in on right now. What are the NFC South standings heading into Week 13?
Let’s start with our favorite team. By winning, the Falcons flipped from trailing the Saints to leading them, with at least a temporary head-to-head tiebreaker and a perfect 3-0 record in the division. That puts them solely on top of the NFC South despite their identical record with New Orleans, and with a game against an offense-less Jets team looming, a similar effort minus a turnover or two could allow them to extend that lead. This could not have been a bigger win or a more major course correction for this Falcons team, which now has a genuine shot to win the division if they can build on this. That’ll be especially true in two weeks if they can get by Tampa Bay again, but we’ll tackle that when we get there.
For the Saints, things went from bad to worse. Fresh off a thumping at the hands of the Vikings and then a bye, New Orleans lost multiple key players in this one and were already down Michael Thomas and Marshon Lattimore, and they’re lining up to play a pissed off Detroit Lions squad next week. With their punchless performance against the Falcons—again, the only touchdown Derek Carr threw was to Atlanta—they’re in real danger of effectively falling more than a game behind their rivals by the end of Week 13. That would be so glorious.
The Bucs are already falling. They’ve lost five of their last six games, including one to the Falcons, and now have the Panthers and Atlanta in back-to-back weeks with a chance to do their own salvage job on their season. A team with talent but frustrating inconsistency and limitations at key spots—sounds familiar, right?—Tampa Bay should stay in the mix in some fashion until the end of the season, but needs those divisional wins to stand a chance of actually pulling it out in the NFC South. They’re effectively more than a game behind the Falcons right now.
And finally, we get to the Panthers, who are 1-10, about to fire Frank Reich, and possibly setting up to confront a 2024 season with a ruined young quarterback and no first round pick. They are the epic disaster of an already terrible division, which is saying something, and have the worst short-term outlook and potentially worst long-term outlook unless Bryce Young can rebound under a new coaching staff and with better weapons. I wouldn’t bet against that—I think Young is a good player—but things look awfully bleak for Carolina.
There will undoubtedly be twists and turns along the way with six weeks to go, but the Falcons now have another opportunity to stay on top of the NFC South the rest of the way. Let’s hope they don’t squander said opportunity.