Despite a catastrophic season, someone is going to win the NFL’s worst division and host a playoff game. Who will it be? (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
Predicting outcomes is always tricky business. By my math, I have a 25% chance of getting this right. Before predicting an NFC South champion, let’s look at three things: What they’ve done. Where they’re going. Who they are.
What They’ve Done
Atlanta is 4-0 in the NFC South pond and 0-7 when they swim out to sea. Even worse, the Falcons lost by multiple scores in five of those seven non-division contests. The Atlanta defense is horrible. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White comprise a capable but overrated aerial attack. The ground game is a disaster. Atlanta is the only NFL team in history to take pride in having a four back rotation. If you’re trying to play four backs in one game it means you have none.
Carolina started off the 2014 season where they ended 2013; dominant defense, capable offense, game-changing QB. Then the wheels fell off in Week 3. Since starting 2-0, the NFL’s 2nd ranked defense in 2013 surrendered at least 28 points in six of their next nine outings. This just in: The 2014 Panther defense is not the 2013 Panther defense. Also, Cam Newton, in the words of the great Gregg Popovich, is suffering from a “variety of maladies.” If the best player on your team, who happens to play the most important position, can hardly stand up in the huddle you’ve got problems.
New Orleans is the real shocker of the NFC South. The Falcons were always flawed and the Panthers lacked talent. The Saints were supposed to cruise to a division title and maybe even the top seed in the NFC. Whoops. Drew Brees has morphed into mini-Brett Favre and Rob Ryan’s defense looks like Rob Ryan’s defenses in Dallas. To further torment fans, the Saints have blown winnable games against NFC contenders. Last minute collapses to Detroit and San Francisco have the Saints at 4-7 instead of 6-5.
Tampa Bay has improved throughout the 2014 season. Unfortunately, when you improve from laughably horrendous to simply bad the win column doesn’t change much. On the other hand, the Buccaneers can hang their hat on a Week 4 victory over Pittsburgh and the emergence of rookie receiver Mike Evans.
Where They’re Going
Atlanta: Cardinals, @Packers, Steelers, @Saints, Panthers
Carolina: @Vikings, @Saints, Buccaneers, Browns, @Falcons
Saints: @Steelers, Panthers, @Bears, Falcons, @Buccaneers
Buccaneers: Bengals, @Lions, @Panthers, Packers, Saints
Who They’ll Be
Sorry, Falcon fans. After reviewing the remaining schedule, Vince Carter has officially bestowed the notorious, “it’s ova” on your 2014 season. And really, Atlanta deserves this. First, they bored us to death with the worst Hardknocks of all time. Then, they failed to throw 50 yard bombs to Julio Jones on every other possession to keep fans and fantasy owners engaged. Finally, Mike Smith has tormented fans and bettors with horrible clock management. That stress is too much. See you in 2015, Atlanta.
Naturally, the team with the easiest remaining schedule has the inside lane on the division crown. Though Carolina owns a favorable slate of games, anyone who’s seen Cam Newton over the past month knows the Panthers are likely doomed. On the flip side, Newton did snap out of his funk for a brief stretch in the 4th quarter of Week 11 as he and the Panthers stormed back to take the lead over Atlanta. Plus, Carolina may benefit from the late season bye, so maybe there’s hope for Panther fans after all. To have any sort of chance, though, the Panthers must emerge from their last two road games with a victory. Disguising Greg Hardy in another uniform wouldn’t hurt the cause, either. All in all, I like Carolina’s chances. I can’t believe I’m saying that.
Despite Drew Brees’ struggles and that horrific defense, the Saints still feel like the team to win the division. It’s hard to imagine them finishing worse than 3-2 over the final five weeks. That would put the Saints at 7-9 and thus requiring the Panthers to finish 4-1 to take the division from New Orleans. Aside from the Bengals beat down in Week 11, the Saints can still score. That counts for a lot when playing subpar opponents like the Panthers, Bears, Falcons and Bucs.
The Buccaneers sit short stacked and long odds against. Tampa Bay will face three playoff contenders over the final five weeks. That’s a tough task. Considering the Bucs will start this journey trailing by two games, I’m willing to eliminate Lovie Smith and his crew of pirates right now.
The Winner (Or Worst Loser)
To conclude, Atlanta’s schedule is too tough. The Buccaneers are too bad. The division will boil down to whether Carolina can win in Weeks 13 and 14 on the road in Minnesota and New Orleans, respectively. If they sweep, they’re in the driver’s seat and win the NFC South. If they split, some hope remains. If they go belly up, their season will follow suit. My guess: New Orleans gets the division at 7-9 and will probably win at home in the Wild Card round if they draw Philadelphia or Dallas. I’m already sick about it.