State of the NFC South: Where does the division stand after Week Sixteen?

Graphic by Robert Robinson

Written by: Joe Carlino @joecarlino14

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all readers! Hard to believe we’re entering the final week of regular season football of the decade, isn’t it? Because the playoffs are right around the corner, this slate of games are all divisional matchups, so wins here are critical for final placement for not only the tournament but the next season’s schedule. While the NFC South will only have one representative trying to represent the NFC on the “Road to Miami”, it doesn’t mean this weekend’s slate won’t be interesting for all four teams. If anything, our division’s champion might have to be on spoiler alert with a potential first-round bye/home field advantage on the line. So with that, here’s where the division stands entering Week Seventeen*, 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 (12-3)

Week Sixteen Result: Won 38-28 @ Tennessee

Analysis: A week after Drew Brees broke the career passing touchdowns record, Michael Thomas broke another Colts legend’s record, surpassing Marvin Harrison’s 143 receptions that had stood for 17 years. However, it didn’t come easily for “Who Dat” Nation, as the team fell behind 14-0 early to a Titans squad that wasn’t necessarily needing a victory to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture. That said, once the Saints got their motors in gear, it was off to the races for everyone involved. Alvin Kamara got his first touchdown since Week Three, Thomas continues to dominate at his position (like Julio; story for another time), and the Saints emerged from the Music City with a win to keep their hopes for a bye alive.

Up next: Sunday @ Carolina. There were reports coming out that New Orleans was planning to rest their starters in a meaningless Week 17 game with the playoffs right around the corner. However, because the Saints have a shot at a bye or home field advantage (even if the chances are slim), head coach Sean Payton is not pulling any strings with such scenarios at stake. Of course, they could be up big at halftime and then they get pulled, but who knows what Payton could be cooking up for this week and beyond.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)

Week Sixteen Result: Lost 23-20 vs. Houston

Analysis: Man, that Jameis Winston and his inconsistency, huh? It’s just way too hard to get a read on him because one minute he’s throwing dimes to his receivers; the next minute he’s gifting opposing defenders with the football and wasting a possession for his team. Such was the case during a special NFL Network Saturday afternoon game, where his first pass and final pass of the game landed in the waiting arms of Texans defenders, one of whom hadn’t played on the grounds of Raymond James Stadium since he was nine (Jahleel Addae). While the defense continues to make strides (Shaq Barrett tied Sapp’s franchise record and JPP had a hat trick), they can only do so much in a game like this. And when your quarterback isn’t performing up to standards, it can be pretty difficult to snatch victory against a quality opponent.

Up Next: Sunday vs. Atlanta. With the Bucs’ season almost finished, they now welcome in the Falcons for the traditional Week 17 divisional opponent. Last time these two teams met up, the Bucs rode Chris Godwin for two touchdowns and had six sacks on Matt Ryan en route to a 35-22 victory that ended the Falcons’ two-game winning streak. Godwin’s status is still TBD because of his hamstring, so if he’s unable to go, it’ll be up to Breshad Perriman and Co. to pick up the slack in the final Bucs game of this decade. Side note: Winston needs only two interceptions to become the first member of the 30/30 club, and most of his have come at home.

Atlanta Falcons (6-9)

Week Sixteen Result: Won 24-12 vs. Jacksonville

Analysis: Atlanta continues to win for embattled head coach Dan Quinn, and if anything it shows that the team wants him to stick around. Yes, the team went 1-7 at the beginning and it was speculated when he was getting axed, Arthur Blank held firm and let him coach out the season (deservedly, I might add). And after the bye week, the changes he made to the coaching staff have clearly worked for an organization that was irrelevant after Halloween. Matt Ryan continues to play at a high level, even if both of his interceptions went on targets to Julio, and the defense is still showing signs of life throughout all three levels, especially with the linebacker core of Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Also, getting back to Julio, he also broke a record set by an NFL great against the Jaguars: with his 10 receptions for 166 yards, he broke Jerry Rice’s record of reaching 12,000 yards for a career in his 125th game. For reference, Rice reached that total in his 142nd contest, so Julio is technically one full season ahead of arguably the greatest WR in history for career yards. Anyone want to talk about dominance, use Julio for an easy win.

Up Next: Sunday @ Tampa Bay. Last time these two teams met, the Falcons picked off Jameis twice while also being torched by Chris Godwin, although one pass was perfectly thrown to where Debo couldn’t do anything. Now Atlanta travels down I-75 to Tampa Bay to try and avenge a division loss against a surprisingly resurgent Buccaneers team with multiple questions about their quarterback still prevalent. One thing to note: if Atlanta does win this contest, they’ll have finished the season at 7-9 for the second straight year, but they’ll also finish second in the final division standings by virtue of a better division record. And if that happens, there’s some similarities to something which previously occurred in team history that will be covered should DQ stay as Falcons head coach.

Carolina Panthers (5-10)

Week Sixteen Result: Lost 38-6 @ Indianapolis

Analysis: In the first game of the Panthers era with rookie quarterback Will Grier under center, everything continued to go wrong for owner David Tepper’s squad. Grier couldn’t get anything going and threw three ugly interceptions against a stout Colts defense, McCaffrey couldn’t fully dominate on offense like he’s accustomed to (although he did become the first running back in league history with two seasons of at least 100 receptions), and the special teams unit had virtually no answer for Colts punt returner Nyheim Himes, who torched the Panthers for 195 return yards and two touchdowns in the blowout. It’s honestly difficult to find anything positive for a team that has failed at every aspect of this game since firing Ron Rivera. Maybe the statement just hasn’t fully been made, or maybe it’s part of the plan in the organization. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out, though.

Up Next: Sunday vs. New Orleans. At this point, Carolina is just trying to get into 2020 as quickly as they can, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they just mail it in against a Saints team which is trying their hardest to avoid playing on Wild Card weekend. If the Colts game or the Falcons game were any indication, this game against New Orleans might be the worst blowout of not only the Panthers season, but the entire iteration of the NFL’s 100th celebration. Oof.