Three weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints were in first place in the division and appeared ready to stay there. Three weeks later, the Saints look dead in the water, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are surging (a little), and the Atlanta Falcons are firmly at the top of the division. Much can change in a short time, which is both something to celebrate and a warning.
That brings us to our breakdown of the divisional standings after Week 13, with another huge NFC South tilt on the way for this week. Here’s where things currently stand.
Yes, that is your Falcons all alone in first, just three weeks (and two games) after being 4-6 and looking pretty toasty. They can credit a pair of slugfest-y wins over the Saints and Jets for that, with the defense doing heavy lifting to hold those two teams to a combined 23 points while the offense chipped in 37 (24 of those against New Orleans). This team hasn’t gotten any less frustrating out of the bye, but they have found their way to a couple of wins, and that’s putting them in a prime position to push for the NFC South title down the stretch. With five weeks to go, though, it’s far too early to start talking about that with any confidence.
Part of the reason why? Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers moved up to second with some tiebreaker magic, thanks to just their second win in their last eight games, a squeaker over the horrendous Panthers. They’re still not very good right now despite having some terrific players, as that win evinces, but they’re very much in the divisional picture right now with a matchup against the Falcons looming. A win over Atlanta will propel them back to the top of the NFC South because they have a common opponents record tiebreaker, but the Falcons can effectively torpedo them by winning, putting themselves two full games ahead of Tampa Bay with every significant tiebreaker and a 4-0 record against the division that gives them a lot of runway. It’s a crucial week for the Bucs, who like every other team in the division are in a limbo state between “firing our coach out of a cannon” and “playoff-bound.”
The Saints are definitely heading for the former right now. You expected them to lose to the Lions, but the deep hole they fell into very quickly was maybe a bit less expected, and now a banged-up Derek Carr may miss some time again. Saints fans are sick and tired of this team—I’m stifling a laugh—and they’re now riding a three-game losing streak with a creaky, aging, and expensive roster that was supposed to be better than this. The Saints get the Panthers next and a chance to get right; if Carolina pulls off the upset they couldn’t against Tampa Bay, it might be time to stick a fork in New Orleans.
And yeah, the Panthers are in last, but at least they showed some life against Tampa Bay. This is a team that needs to get its next head coaching hire right, stock the roster with more talent, and pray doing so gives Bryce Young a big lift, because the immediate future of this franchise is very dark otherwise. All this losing isn’t even helping their draft positioning in the first round because Chicago has their pick, so playing spoiler down the stretch is about the best Carolina can hope for. I’d appreciate it if they did so against the Saints, personally.