For once, the NFC South could have had genuine clarity. The Atlanta Falcons just needed to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to have a two game lead on them (plus a tiebreaker) and a one game lead and a tiebreaker against the Saints. They would’ve been in an excellent position to win the division had they done so.
With the loss, though, things get murky and muddled all over again. Three teams are now atop the division with 6-7 records, with the Buccaneers holding on to the lead thanks to a common opponents tiebreaker over the Falcons. All three teams have a legitimate shot to win the division at this point, but none of them seem all that keen to do so. The Panthers, meanwhile, are heading toward a top draft pick in a year where they desperately need one, except they traded their first round pick away to go get Bryce Young, so this losing isn’t even doing them any favors.
The NFC South is a disaster, in other words. Let’s take a quick look at the state of the division heading into Week 15.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 6-7
Atlanta Falcons: 6-7
New Orleans Saints: 6-7
Carolina Panthers: 1-12
The Buccaneers now have three wins in their last nine games, but have won two in a row against the NFC South. The Falcons successfully shut down their offense most of the days, they are dealing with some unfortunate injuries, and there’s a vague sense in general that this team is not quite good enough to do much of anything this year. For all that, they’re absolutely good enough to win the NFC South if they can gut out close wins against sloppy opponents, which may be all you need to do to win the NFC South. They found their footing enough late in this one (and against Carolina) to move to 6-7, and now face the Packers, Jaguars, Saints, and Panthers over the final four weeks. There’s only one gimme win in that one, and the Panthers actually pushed the Bucs pretty hard last time out.
The Falcons seemed to be finding their footing, but they absolutely wrecked it in the course of one afternoon. Down several key starters and with more losses piling up during the game, the Falcons showed us just how mistake-prone they are in an agonizing loss to Tampa Bay, one where the defense was great until late and the offense was largely lousy until late. One of the league’s most inconsistent teams, the Falcons remain talented enough on a good day to win games, and their final four slate of the Panthers, Colts, Bears, and Saints is hardly a murderer’s row. You can’t take it for granted that this team, which turns the ball over far too often and comes up with the wrong play frequently, is going to come out of that stretch atop the NFC South.
The Saints, meanwhile, just hang around. Their own fanbase seems to be slowly but surely turning on this incarnation of the team, but they beat up the hapless Panthers and just refuse to go away, no matter how lackluster Derek Carr and the defense might be on a weekly basis. With the lousy Giants, the surging Rams, and then the Buccaneers and Falcons over the final four games, they do still have a legitimate shot at winning this division. They’re just not a very good football team, but that’s not disqualifying in 2023.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are headed for a new coaching staff and what they hope will be a lucrative free agency to make up for their lack of a top first round pick. No team looks like they have further to go in this division at the moment, but much will depend on their next hire. In the here and now, they’re just awful and keep losing, and with the Falcons, Packers, Jaguars and Panthers still to come, it’s hard to predict they’ll win a single game the rest of the way.
Who do you think will win the division?