TAMPA, Fla. -- This is the state of competition in the NFC South in the post-Tom Brady era: The team whose quarterback threw three second-half interceptions last week, and fumbled three times in the red zone this week, won Sunday to seize first place in the division.
As Brady's career waned last season, his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, crawled into the playoffs, winning the South with an 8-9 record before getting blown out by the Cowboys during Super Wild Card Weekend. Given the division that Brady left behind, that outcome should look good right now, not just to the Bucs, who lost to the Atlanta Falcons, 16-13, on Sunday. It should look good to everybody else in the NFL's most unsightly division, including the Falcons, who, with the victory, are 4-3, and 2-0 against division opponents, which gives them a considerable advantage in a division where there isn't anything close to a dominant, or even predictable, team.
In nearly any other division, and any other scenario, there would be calls for quarterback Desmond Ridder to lose his job. Instead, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith was lauding the big throws Ridder made that led to the Falcons' improbable win, and the locker room was loud and happy.
"Week 7, we'll take it," Smith said. "We've got work to do."
So does everyone else. If you didn't know that someone wanted to win this game, you would not have been convinced by watching it. Ridder's three fumbles -- including one that resulted in a touchback -- kept the Falcons from what should have been an easy win over a Bucs team whose offense is slumping. The Bucs had a fumble and an interception. The teams combined for 18 penalties. The Bucs running game is so non-existent that they got their season-long run from Baker Mayfield, for 31 yards. Outside of that, they averaged just 2.2 yards per rush, which led to a desperate plea from a Bucs fan on the team's final drive: "Stop running the ball." And with a chance to take the lead, they managed only a tying field goal with under a minute remaining despite having first-and-goal from the 8-yard line. That, too, was a theme. The Falcons were only 1 of 5 in the red zone. The Bucs were 0 of 2.
"That's been going on a couple of weeks," said Bucs left tackle Tristan Wirfs. "We've got to score in the red zone."
"We've said the NFC South runs through us," Wirfs added. "The way things shake out, it still could happen."
Wirfs was frustrated by the penalties and the turnovers and he rejected the idea that the inability to run the ball is entirely to blame. After all, he noted, the Bucs used to throw the ball 50 or 60 times per game and win. Unspoken was that the Bucs used to win that way with Brady, when the Bucs could legitimately claim the division had to go through them.
The truth now is that the NFC South doesn't look to be going much of anywhere, no matter who eventually wins it. The Carolina Panthers are the NFL's only winless team. The New Orleans Saints are 3-4, have lost two in a row, and Derek Carr and the offense are struggling to get on the same page. The Bucs are 0-2 since their bye, have not beaten a team with a winning record, and have scored only one touchdown over their past two games. They play the Bills on Thursday night, and have four of their next five on the road. And the Falcons' quarterback has committed six turnovers in his last two games, but managed to do enough to win Sunday and to garner the unequivocal support of Smith.
"We'll find a way to fix it, I promise you," Smith said. "It's his 11th start, just got a good win. Let's give the team some credit. We found a way to win. He's tough. He's a winner."
Ridder explained at least one of his fumbles by saying he should have switched the ball to his left hand instead of leaving it in his right when he ran. On a fumble at the goal line, he said he was antsy.
"At the end of the day, there's no magical potion to fix fumbles," he said. "It's just strapping up and knowing that you have to protect the football. The ball is the key. The ball is the issue."
The fumbles are really just one issue in this division.
As messy as this game was, as unimpressive as the entire division has been, it does mean it likely will remain in play until late in the season.
Perhaps by then Carr won't be yelling at receivers, and Ridder will have solved his turnovers and the Bucs will be able to score. Until then, the only division that does not have a five-game winner will probably continue to provide less celebration and more desperation, like the kind already felt in Tampa, where the game began with many empty seats and the Bucs' final drive began with a fan begging Mayfield from the stands to play like he wants another contract.
"We've got to do more -- some games they're rolling and we're not," said Bucs safety Ryan Neal of the Bucs offense. "We've got to do more on our side."