Written by: Joe Carlino @joecarlino14
The NFC South hasn’t been the dominant powerhouse division they usually are entering December, but every division is subject to a down year here and there, even if one team is still playing at or above early season expectations. In Week Fourteen, the division attempted to put their stamp on this season by saying “In one week, we had one team play a close game, one team obliterate a divisional opponent, and have the Game of the Year candidate”, and all those statements ring true. So with that, here’s where the division stands entering Week Fifteen*, 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 (10-3)
Week Fourteen Result: Lost 48-46 vs. San Francisco
Analysis: This was arguably the Game of the Year in the NFL, and it just might be a preview of the NFC Championship game. This game had everything we want in our football games: high-scoring offenses, a young gunner versus the old warden, a raucous home crowd, and a game that literally came down to the final play of the game. New Orleans gave the 49ers everything they had in this contest, but sadly it wasn’t enough to win the game and inch ever closer to the coveted No.1 seed. Of course, the combo of Drew Brees and Michael Thomas is still impressive, but they didn’t really hit their stride until the second half with Jared Cook catching the first two touchdown passes from Brees. However, the defense still proves to be the weak link of this New Orleans team. Yes, they were playing a high-powered 49ers offense; yes, this game wasn’t going to come down to solely the play of either team’s defense. But when you’ve got a fourth-and-two with the game on the line, and the play is undoubtedly going to go to the best tight end in the NFL (yes, I said it), you don’t tack on extra yardage by grabbing his facemask throughout the catch-and-run, Marcus Williams.
Up next: Sunday vs. Indianapolis. Since the Saints clinched the NFC South, they’re guaranteed at least one more game this season in the Superdome. However, that’ll be the first official Saints contest of 2020, so this is the final game of the decade in front of the “Who Dat” Nation. And after the game they played against the 49ers, they’re going to be coming out swinging against a Colts team that narrowly lost to the Buccaneers and are on life support in the AFC. Sad to say that the Saints are like sharks in the Superdome, and the Colts are bleeding. Oof.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7)
Week Fourteen Result: Won 38-35 vs. Indianapolis
Analysis: There are two individuals that reside in the Tampa Bay area who currently are their companies’ respective “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”: WWE Universal champion Bray Wyatt and Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. It’s just so hard to put a bead on him, because every time he throws the ball, it’s somehow finding a way into a defender’s arms instead of his receiver. Such was the case on Sunday, when he threw two interceptions to Darius Leonard, one of which was returned 82 yards for a touchdown. Yet instead of just folding and moving onto their next opponent, Winston rebounded for over 400 yards passing and accounted for all five of the Bucs’ touchdowns (four passing, one rushing), even though on his first touchdown pass, he lost star receiver Mike Evans to a right hamstring injury, possibly for the season. As for the Bucs’ defense, they played just enough to win the game, even after falling behind on two turnovers by the Bucs’ offense on the first two drives, which demonstrates an ability to compartmentalize the bad data and make the necessary halftime adjustments to leave with a three-game winning streak.
Up Next: Sunday @ Detroit. Tampa Bay now travels up north to the “Motor City” in their final road game of the decade. However, they won’t get a chance to put pressure on Matthew Stafford as he’s still recovering from his back injury. Instead, they’ll get to apply more heat on rookie quarterback David Blough, who struggled mightily against a very tough Vikings squad (though who doesn’t?) The Bucs are almost certain to reach the .500 plateau for the first time since September, which will be a major victory in the Bruce Arians era. However, it’ll depend on the play of Winston, who surprisingly has played much better on the road than in the confines of Raymond James Stadium.
Carolina Panthers (5-8)
Week Fourteen Result: Lost 40-20 @ Atlanta
Analysis: In the first game of the Panthers era without Ron Rivera on the sideline, the Panthers played almost identical to how they showed against the Falcons in their stadium: sloppy quarterback play, terrible turnovers, letting the Atlanta defensive front get multiple sacks, and leave a divisional game against their I-85 rivals with another loss. It’s fair to say that Carolina wasn’t going to play well in this contest after losing Rivera as their coach; if anything, the morale in the locker room was absolutely dejected in the waking moments. However, there was one positive from this game that didn’t happen back in November: the Panthers scored two offensive touchdowns. But let’s be blunt: Carolina is playing for a draft position at this point, so don’t be surprised if they finish in last place in the division after Week 17.
Up Next: Sunday vs. Seattle. The Panthers’ penultimate home game of 2019 comes against a Seahawks team which just lost on a short week to a Rams team still fighting for a playoff spot. Russell Wilson looked nothing like the MVP candidate he did during the year against his divisional opponent, so one can anticipate that like his fellow teammates, they’re going to be out hunting and get that bad taste out of their mouths. It’s unfortunate that their first opponent will be this Panthers squad instead of one that’s contending for January.
Atlanta Falcons (4-9)
Week Thirteen Result: Won 40-20 vs. Carolina
Analysis: Playing against a team that recently fired their head coach, one would expect the Falcons to have trounced their I-85 rivals in the Panthers in their penultimate home game of the decade. And that’s exactly what Atlanta did. After going into the locker room with a modest 13-10 lead, the Falcons showcased why they’re still a team to be reckoned with, even if Carolina wasn’t at full strength all around. The defense sacked Kyle Allen five times and forced three turnovers (2 INTs, one fumble) and simply played the way they have since the bye: confounding opponents and not breaking after surrendering a play of more than 15 yards. Also, there was some nice moments for Atlanta in this game: Matt Ryan reached 50,000 passing yards in his career (second-fastest; first is Drew Brees), Julio Jones reached 1,000 yards receiving for the year again (still the best WR in the division), and undrafted wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (yes, you read that right) caught the longest pass play from scrimmage in the NFL this year, snagging a heave from Matt Ryan for his first career catch and first career touchdown. Two straight weeks of guys getting their first catch/score from the “Iceman”; he’s pretty good at that, wouldn’t you say?
Up Next: Sunday @ San Francisco. Yes, you’re reading this right; the Falcons next opponent is not only the 49ers juggernaut, it’s the 49ers juggernaut coached by former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Falcons fans would like nothing more than for their squad to do two things in this game: play spoiler to their season and also get revenge against the guy many claim cost them the Super Bowl (though there’s a plethora of other reasons as well). However, Atlanta beating the 49ers might give the Saints another chance to writhe away the No.1 seed from San Francisco, so there’s a caveat to them winning. Also, in 37 lifetime matchups in the Bay Area (most don’t know that Atlanta used to be part of the NFC West prior to 2002), the 49ers have a 26-11 record against the Falcons. Something’s gotta give; I just want a good game between two teams that will be fighting it out for NFC supremacy in the next decade.