The NFC South Has Disintegrated, But One Team Must Survive

Drew Brees

Someone has to win.

Even in a league where a game can end without a winner – ironically enough, the NFC South is currently led by a team with a record of 3-4-1 – the division cannot. All four teams can’t be withheld from the playoffs in order to allow four deserving teams to get in. Instead, someone from the NFC South will host, let alone play, a postseason game.

None of them deserve it right now.

In the past three weeks, the NFC South as a collective whole is a disgusting 2-9-1. Removing the Saints’ overtime victory over the Buccaneers from the equation – one of the NFC South teams had to earn the win – the NFC South is 1-8-1 over this span.

The only win? New Orleans crushing the Packers on Sunday Night Football. Translation: all of a sudden, the Saints are back on track.

Not so fast.

As impressive as New Orleans’ victory was on Sunday night, it was merely a delay of the inevitable. The win prevented the Saints from dropping to a dismal 2-5 on the year, and still has them below .500 at 3-4. The Saints will now have to face the Panthers twice, 49ers, Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers in their next six games. Losses are coming.

At the start of the season, the NFC South appeared to be one of the strongest divisions in football. The Saints, Panthers, and even Falcons looked capable of winning double-digit games, and the Buccaneers were a sneaky favorite among analysts. Once the losses started piling up, however, it became clear that ten wins would likely be enough to grab the crown, but each passing week is dropping that threshold lower.

Now, it seems possible that 9-7 might actually run away with the NFC South.

Who is doing the running?

Which of these struggling teams has the ability to win more than half of their remaining games, especially since none are currently posting a winning record?

To believe in the Saints is to assume that Drew Brees and his offense is enough to go on a tear and win games they shouldn’t. Of the four teams, the Saints have the ingredients most necessary for a winning season: quarterback, coaching, and pedigree.

To believe in the Panthers is to assume that last year was not a fluke and that their formerly strong defense can return to form for the second half of the season. Currently, the Panthers are ranked in the bottom third in the league in points and yards allowed and points and yards gained.

To believe in the Falcons is, at this point, simply a waste of time. And to believe in the Buccaneers is a cruel joke aimed at hurting next year’s draft position.

The winner – read, non-loser – of this division needs to hail from Carolina or New Orleans.

The ‘easy route’ was paved by the Saints’ nationally televised ‘Hey, We’re Not Dead Yet’ party, but the quick turnaround of playing back-to-back primetime games might actually benefit the home team riding a three-game winless streak more than the road team coming off a huge home victory. As poorly as they have played over the past few weeks, the Panthers are not wildly outmatched by the Saints, and a Thursday Night Football win over their division foes would extend Carolina’s slim lead in the division.

If the Panthers end up winning on Thursday night, New Orleans, at 3-5 and with division losses to Atlanta and Carolina, will almost certainly be facing a mountain too large to climb. If New Orleans can secure the difficult road victory – the Saints haven’t won in Carolina since 2011 – they will be poised to escape the NFC South.

As it stands now, one team from the NFC South will have a weaker record than its playoff opponent, but the beauty of the National Football League is that, whichever team is actually granted an extra life in January, no sort of upset is impossible. If the Falcons were to somehow pull off a miraculous run and steal the division crown, could they not possibly beat a Wild Card team from Detroit in Atlanta instead of London?

The success of Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans in their eight seasons together – 76-42 overall record for games in which Brees started and Payton coached – gives the Saints the edge when trying to project the remainder of the NFC South race. But again, a loss to Carolina would be crippling considering the difficulty in their upcoming games.

It is, then, with no exaggeration that the likely winner of the NFC South should be indirectly decided by Thursday night’s matchup. With so few teams making a move towards the top of the pile, every win goes one step further for separating one from the rest of the pack. In a game between the only two contenders with a realistic chance for the division crown, the winner simply won’t be caught.

Or more accurately, the loser, like the rest of the NFC South, simply won’t be able to catch up.

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Mario Mergola
Mario Mergola is a writer, avid sports fan, former ESPN Radio producer, husband, and father who specializes in finding the hidden gems of the less-explored option. Follow @MarioMergola