Written by: Joe Carlino @joecarlino14
The NFC South has arguably been the best division in football, and I’ve maintained the division’s dominance over all the others for good measure: because in-division competition is so hard to predict, even if one team is playing lights out, they cannot overlook those below them in the standings. The gauntlet continues for all four teams in this division, and I speak from experience when I say it’s one thing to win out-of-division games; it’s another to have bragging rights over those you are in close proximity of. So with that, here’s where the division stands entering Week Twelve*, complete with an analysis of their respective contests and previewing the next opponent:
*- teams are organized based on first place to last place
New Orleans Saints (8-2)
Week Eleven Result: Won 34-17 @ Tampa Bay
Analysis: So it turns out that for New Orleans to get back on track, they just needed to face an inferior opponent the week after looking abysmal in every sense of the word. Enter the Buccaneers, who the Saints absolutely trounced from the opening kickoff, as evidenced by forcing a three-and-out and then an interception on the Bucs’ fifth offensive play of the game. Drew Brees, flanked by dynamic back Alvin Kamara and second-best receiver in the division Michael Thomas (yes, you read that right) just kept going off on a Bucs defense which recently cut former first round pick Vernon Hargreaves due to lack of hustle. Also, how about the defense forcing four turnovers against the Bucs, even returning one for a touchdown. The Saints got back on their winning path, and combined with the Panthers losing opened up a much more comfortable lead in the division. Let’s see if they can finish it strong needing only one win to clinch another above-.500 season and two to essentially eliminate the Falcons from contention.
Up next: Sunday afternoon vs. Carolina. Round Three of the NFC South gauntlet for the Saints sees them returning home to the Superdome for a game against the Panthers. This matchup will be contested between two teams which, surprisingly, failed to score touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons, which means anything could happen in the Bayou. One thing’s for sure though: a win here and the Saints open a four-game lead in the division with five to play, all but guaranteeing playoff football from the Dome.
Carolina Panthers (5-5)
Week Eleven Result: Lost 29-3 vs. Atlanta
Analysis: Clearly the Panthers didn’t learn from what transpired last week when facing the underperforming Falcons: this team has changed since the bye week, and it’s showing. Yeah, the quarterback play wasn’t the best (Kyle Allen was sacked five times and hit 11 while throwing 4 INTs), but McCaffrey still got another game with at least 150 yards from scrimmage. As for the defense, in their past two games versus the Falcons at home, they’ve been torched by second-year receiver Calvin Ridley (11 rec, 143 yds, TD) and once again saw Julio go up and over Luke Kuechly on a big catch. Only difference here was that he didn’t score this time around. Also, Carolina needs to turn it around soon, because this loss might’ve just sealed their ticket out of the playoffs.
Up Next: Sunday afternoon @ New Orleans. Carolina now travels west to New Orleans for their second straight game against a division opponent. This time, however, it’s a New Orleans team which just put the hurt on the Buccaneers after coming out flatter than a tire on the freeway against the Falcons two weeks ago. Of course, New Orleans wasn’t going to go 8-0 at home (it’s very difficult to do this unless you’re New England), but Carolina could make it two home divisional losses in a row, which could very well shake the Saints confidence entering the home stretch.
Atlanta Falcons (3-7)
Week Eleven Result: Won 29-3 @ Carolina
Analysis: I said it last week, and I’ll use the same word to describe this contest: Unbelievable. I don’t know what’s come over the Falcons since their bye week, but they’ve now gone 10 straight quarters without surrendering a touchdown on defense. Of course, being a native fan of this organization, I’m ecstatic that we’re finally playing up to the potential everyone thought we could be at the start of the season. Sadly, though, despite our resurgence, everything has to go right for us to even sniff the playoffs, and losses to Seattle, Minnesota, and the Rams have us squarely behind the 8-ball. However, there’s one thing I’m impressed with: we’re playing for Dan Quinn, and I think anywhere between 7-9 and above (9-7 max) would be enough to save his job for one more year, despite everyone’s glaring objections about him.
Up Next: Sunday vs. Tampa Bay. Round three of the NFC South gauntlet for the Falcons sees the team remain home for the remainder of this schedule. First up for the Birds? A lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers team led by Jameis Winston, who despite his shortcomings does surprisingly play well against the team closest to where he grew up. However, the Bucs still have a porous pass defense, so Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley should eat for the second straight contest. The running game, however, might struggle against a team that is very good against this unit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7)
Week Ten Result: Won 30-27 vs. Arizona
Analysis: Bruce Arians probably would defend Jameis Winston again about the interceptions he threw against the Saints, and the one on OJ Howard I can give him. As for the other three, one bounced off a linebacker into the hands of a secondary player, one was just a bad throw, and the last interception was overthrown to Mike Evans and returned for a touchdown. Tampa Bay effectively turned into New Orleans in Week 10 as they only ran the ball a combined eight times. And of those eight, two came from Jameis and four came from Ronald Jones. I’m no coach, but regardless of how bad the turnover battle is, you can’t realistically win football games the way the Bucs are playing if there isn’t a balance between running and passing. And don’t get me started on the defense, because they’re just as lost as they’ve always been.
Up Next: Sunday afternoon @ Atlanta. Tampa now travels up I-75 to the hip-hop capital of the world to face off against Matt Ryan and the suddenly resurgent Falcons squad which many left for dead in the early stages of October. Both teams currently are 3-7, so the loser of this contest gets the unsatisfying pleasure of being in sole possession of last place in the division. Tampa has finished the season in this locale seven of the past eight years, so don’t be surprised if the game against New Orleans was a precursor to what Tampa Bay fans probably were awaiting from the minute the team left on that massively long road trip.