With the exception of the Bucs, the NFC South has become one of the league’s most competitive divisions. With the last two NFC Super Bowl representatives coming from this division, the South has emerged as an NFC powerhouse. The Saints and Panthers each hold a playoff spot at the moment, while the Falcons remain in the hunt for a postseason invitation. The Saints are 9-3, while the Panthers have fallen a game back, to 8-4, after losing a crucial game in New Orleans this past weekend. This victory could prove pivotal by the time the playoffs roll around, as the Saints are now 3-0 in the division, while the Panthers are 2-2 (Falcons 1-1 in the division). New Orleans controls its own destiny, as three out of their last four games are against division opponents. The Falcons too have four games left against division opponents. However, they are playing catch up at the moment and have plenty of work to do themselves. The good news for fans? Over the next four weeks, we will have an opportunity to see some incredible football, as we watch the battle for NFC South supremacy. With plenty of head-to-head action about to unfold, all three of these teams will have plenty of opportunities to claim the division title for themselves. Here’s how things should shake up:
Division Champions: New Orleans Saints
Yes, when the final whistle blows during Saints’ Week 17 New Year’s Eve matchup with the Bucs, they will be crowned division champions. New Orleans looks poised to do two things they haven’t been able to accomplish since 2013: Achieve a winning record and qualify for the playoffs. Perhaps most interestingly, they will do so not solely because of the hall of fame quarterback leading the charge, but rather through their formidable defense and versatile running game. Rookie Alvin Kamara has been one of the most exciting players to watch this season. Combining Kamara with Mark Ingram has been a revelation for the Saints. It is not often (if at all) that Drew Brees is not the main reason for the Saints’ success. However, as we have watched throughout this season, these are not your older brother’s New Orleans Saints.
Out of their final four games, the Saints have arguably two of the easiest matchups they will have seen this season: Week 15 against the Jets, and Week 17 at the Bucs. Unlike the Falcons, the Saints will not be traveling to New York. This means that they will not be subjected to the elements, like harsh weather, that playing outside (and up North) involves. This gives the Jets less of a chance against a far superior team. As for the Bucs, it feels like they have already written off this season and have started planning for February. They should be all the more inclined to do so by the time Week 17 rolls around. The results should be similar to that of their first matchup in Week 9, when the Saints won 30-10 (and that prediction might be overly generous to the flailing Buccaneers).
This leaves the Saints with two tough games: Week 14 at Atlanta, and Week 16, this time hosting Atlanta. The way these two teams play each other, a split is almost inevitable. Regardless of where the win will occur, the Saints and Falcons have the players to come out with a victory, and should each be rewarded once.
For those keeping count, this brings the Saints’ regular season record to 12-4, 5-1 in the division, and good enough to be crowned NFC South champions.
Runner-up: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons find themselves with a similar schedule to the Saints. Aside from their two head-to-head matchups, the Falcons also have an easier game against…. yup, you guessed it, Tampa Bay. The Falcons should emerge from these three games with two crucial victories.
Finally, Week 17 sets up an epic game, where the Falcons will host the Panthers. Assuming both teams continue on their current trajectories, this game will serve to separate two teams with similar records. The winner should be assured the first Wild Card position. The loser of this game will fall to 9-7, a respectable record, but one that might not be good enough for the playoffs. The Falcons have been thinking about this rematch since Week 9, when the Panthers bested them.
After a tough home loss to the Vikings in Week 13, the Falcons should rebound and make a December push for the playoffs and go 3-1 in their final games, good enough for a 10-6 record (4-2 in the division), not to mention a spot in the playoffs, where anything could happen. Super Bowl hangover be damned.
Danger Zone: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers might be in the most trouble out of the the three teams vying for the division crown. An expected loss to the Falcons should severely impact the Panthers’ playoff chances. Further, the Panthers will be hosting the Vikings in Week 14, one week after their hard-fought victory over the Falcons. Expect Case Keenum and the Vikings to come out more confident than ever, with their defense making their presence felt, punishing Cam Newton, who will no doubt try to put his team on his back. The Panthers should wind up with two crucial losses during their final four games.
On the bright side, the Panthers have one, maybe two games that should allow them to keep up with the Saints and Falcons. In Week 15, they host the Packers. If Brett Hundley starts the game, the Panthers will cruise to victory. If Aaron Rodgers makes his much anticipated return that week, the Packers could pull out a win, all but ending the Panthers’ playoff hopes. At least the Panthers will be able to take out all of their aggression when they host the Bucs in Week 16.
Still, going 2-2 during this stretch will doom Carolina to a 9-7 finish, 3-3 in the division, and most likely needing a whole lot of outside help for any chance of reaching the playoffs.
The NFC South was once a division defined by the fact that they had a new champion each year, something more indicative of each teams’ inconsistency rather than their talent. However, looking at the three teams fighting for top spot this year, football fans can be assured that if a new champion is crowned, it won’t be because the others let us down. It is hard not to feel sorry for a team like Carolina, which would undoubtedly make the playoffs in the lackluster AFC. However, as a fan, it’s harder not to thank the football gods that all these teams have to play each other in these next four weeks. This should be good.
Photo Courtesy of: Dynasty League Football