It was inevitable, really. A division with four bad teams that excel at lingering but not excelling is going to come down to the wire.
The Falcons will play the Saints Sunday and the Buccaneers will take on the Panthers, and either the Buccaneers (by virtue of a win) or the winner of Falcons-Saints will be heading to the playoffs. That team is likely to be annihilated in the Wild Card round, but they’ll get the bragging rights that come with being atop the NFC South dumpster pile.
Here are where things stand going into the final week of the season.
New Orleans Saints: 8-8
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 8-8
Atlanta Falcons: 7-9
Carolina Panthers: 2-14
The Saints did their part to ensure the final game of the season against their most bitter rival would mean something, denying the Buccaneers a division-clinching win. They made the Bucs look pretty bad in the process, and this rickety football team might actually have a playoff run in them. Given how dour their future looks, having this team picking that much later in the first round might actually be more curse than blessing, but with Derek Carr showing some signs of life and a decentish roster, New Orleans has a real shot to do this.
The Buccaneers are swooning at exactly the wrong time. This is a team with probably as much on-paper talent as any team in this division, if not more, but a nasty habit of wilting for long stretches and even multiple games. If the Panthers are frisky and the Bucs are still shaky, it’s possible Carolina has an upset in them, which would knock Tampa Bay out of it despite the fact that they looked to have the division all but sewn up a short time ago. So goes the NFC South.
The Falcons can still win this, but they need Tampa Bay to lose and have to knock off the Saints. Beating the Saints is a prerequisite regardless—nobody wants to lose to those losers—but the dispiriting performance against the Bears and the team’s overall inconsistency means it’s hard to feel confident about that outcome. This will go down as a squandered year for Atlanta, which badly needs to solve what ails them this offseason given that they’re still in a good long-term position in this ugly division.
All that remains for Carolina is to play spoiler, and given that they don’t have their first round pick, that’s really the only thing that matters. The Panthers would love to be the ones who ruined Tampa Bay’s season, but they’re a terrible team that can only knock off teams on bad days or bad teams (or both, in the case of the Falcons). We have to hope they catch the Bucs at the right time.
How do you expect the division to shake out this coming weekend?