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Who will win wide-open NFC South race? Making a case for still-alive Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Bucs

It would be easy to look down on the NFC South, the division that seemingly no one wants to win, the division that collectively has not had a winning week when each of its four teams have played, the division in which no team has won more than two consecutive games and every team has had a three-game skid.

But rather than bemoan its deficiencies, I'm going to do the mental gymnastics and find a positive. I'm going to embrace the chaos that remains with three weeks to go in the regular season.

I mean, if we really love competition as much as we say we do, what's not to love about the only division in which every team is still capable of finishing in first place with three weeks to go? A division in which the front-runner and bottom-feeder are separated by one game?

So, make your picks now about whether Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans or Tampa Bay will win the division. A case can be made for each -- and in alphabetical order, I will do my best to make each one, often stretching the edges of credulity while doing so -- then offer an (un)educated guess about how it will play out.

The Falcons turned to rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder in Sunday’s 21-18 road loss to the Saints, and while the former Cincinnati star struggled for most of the afternoon, the running game and defense gave them a chance to win. The outcome wasn’t sealed until rookie wide receiver Drake London’s fumble with just over two minutes to play, when the offense was driving for a potential game-tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown.

Atlanta has consistently showed a grit and determination under second-year coach Arthur Smith, so there is no reason to believe that it will fold with a rookie quarterback. However, the odds are not in the Falcons’ favor; they are 1-4 against division opponents, which means the primary tiebreakers likely will work against them with one division game remaining, in Week 18 against visiting Tampa Bay, which won the teams’ earlier meeting.

But the remaining schedule is not daunting. They next play at Baltimore, which could be without quarterback Lamar Jackson for the third consecutive week. The Ravens have scored only one offensive touchdown the past two weeks, and are coming off a game in which they allowed 143 yards rushing to the Browns

They then close the season at home against the struggling Cardinals and the inconsistent Bucs. They would finish 8-9 by winning out. But would that be good enough?

The Panthers control their future. If they win out, they win the division. Period. End of story.

They are 5-9 overall and 3-1 against division opponents. They play Detroit in their next game, a formidable test considering the Lions are among the league’s hottest teams. But the game will be in Carolina, where four of their victories have taken place.

They close out the season at Tampa Bay and New Orleans, divisional foes whom they beat by eight and 18, respectively, in the first half of the season. They surrendered a total of two touchdowns in those games, both to the Saints, who were quarterbacked by Jameis Winston at the time. Andy Dalton is now New Orleans’ starting quarterback. The offense is not as dynamic with Dalton, but coach Dennis Allen apparently believes he is more trustworthy when it comes to ball security.

Bottom line, there’s no reason to believe the Panthers can’t win those divisional games. Sam Darnold has not been dynamic since returning to the starting lineup the past three games, but he also has not committed a turnover. That might be enough to get them over the top.

Making this case is simple: The Saints were my preseason pick to win the division, so I’m sure they want to make me look good. Right? Right?!

Actually, the Saints have one of the tougher roads to prosperity. They are 2-3 against division opponents, have scored more than 21 points only once in their last six games and arguably have the toughest schedule to finish the year among the NFC South teams, traveling to Cleveland (where Deshaun Watson is capable of a big game) and Philadelphia (where Jalen Hurts is an MVP candidate) before a Week 18 matchup at home against Carolina, which beat them in Week 3.

However, the Saints are due for a run considering they’re the only team in the division that has yet to record back-to-back wins. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 

Reason for optimism: Tom Brady.

Reason for pessimism: Tom Brady.

For nearly all of his career, he has been the rising tide that elevated the play of those around him, but not this year. And it’s hard not to question whether he fully trusts those around him this year, considering how often he is being hit and how frequently he and his receivers have seemingly been reading from different playbooks.

But there are several reasons to believe. The Bucs have a one-game lead in the NFC South, are 3-1 against division opponents, and looked outstanding in the first half against the Bengals on Sunday. They were efficient, productive and focused. Unfortunately, they were none of those things in the second half, with the third quarter including a botched fake punt, two interceptions, two lost fumbles and, ultimately, a 34-23 loss after leading 17-0. 

They close out the season with road games at Arizona and Atlanta sandwiched around a home game against Carolina. 


My heart is saying Carolina wins the division. It would be an incredible story, with Steve Wilks taking over as interim coach in early October, the team trading its best player (Christian McCaffrey) and utilizing three different starting quarterbacks, not to mention creating a culture of accountability. 

But my head says Tampa Bay prevails. I realize Brady is not playing as well as the Brady we are accustomed to. But he's still Tom Brady. So, Tampa it is.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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