Twelve weeks into the NFL season, the NFC South has run away with the title as the best division in football. Combined, its teams boast a league-best record of 27-17 and a league-best point differential of plus-137. If the season ended today, the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons would all be heading to the postseason—no small feat in a competitive NFC field.
But this division is more than merely spectacular, it’s intriguing: It features the past two MVPs in quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, and a third passer who’s more accomplished and probably still better than either of them in Drew Brees. It’s headlined by a plethora of electric playmaking stars such as Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, and Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey. It’s got two top-10 defenses in Carolina and New Orleans, and a young, fast group on the rise in Atlanta. And when you add in the the Buccaneers—who might not be good, but can at least throw the ball all over the yard with Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson running routes downfield—the NFC South can claim something this year that just about no other division in football can: It’s almost never boring.
But everything that’s happened in the NFC South so far has just been a prelude to the real bit of fun the final five weeks of the season promise. It may seem like the Saints (8-3) have a firm hold on the division title after winning eight of their last nine games, but the hierarchy in this division is anything but locked in. The Panthers (8-3) and Falcons (7-4) have both quietly heated up over the last month as well to place themselves right on New Orleans’s heels, and each will have plenty of opportunity during the final month of the season to not only shake up the division, but alter the landscape of the entire NFC postseason field.
With many thanks to a prescient NFL scheduling committee, we’re about to witness chaos: The Saints and Falcons are set to face off twice (in Weeks 14 and 16); the Panthers get their shot to even the season series with New Orleans (this Sunday); and the Atlanta-Carolina tilt in Week 17 could have major division title and postseason-seeding implications. All three squads still get a game against the Bucs, too, and while Tampa Bay’s playoff odds are next to zero, it’ll still be going hard with the hopes of playing spoiler to ots hated division rivals. It’s an NFC South semi-round-robin tournament that leaves each of its teams facing countless possible scenarios—and that’s not even including the fact that the Falcons and Panthers each play the 9-2 Vikings before all is said and done. Put it this way: All four of the teams in this division are in the top seven for the toughest remaining schedules from here on out.
Toughest remaining #NFL schedules: ATL .673, SEA .636, TB .618, CAR .600, CIN .593, NYJ .564, NO .545, MIA .545, NYG .545, LAR .545, SF .537— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) November 28, 2017
While it’s fun to play around with The New York Times’s Playoff Machine, it’s impossible to delve too deeply into the countless scenarios around each team’s odds for a division title or a playoff berth because there are just too many wild things that could happen in the next month (you should try it, though; go down the rabbit hole). It’d be just as easy to see one squad sweep through their final five games and emerge far out ahead as it would be to imagine the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons all beating the hell out of each other over the next month-plus while allowing some other team—maybe the Seahawks, maybe the Lions—to sneak past one of them to grab a spot in the playoffs.
Take the Falcons: Atlanta may have the toughest schedule from here on out—with games against the Vikings, Saints, and Panthers at home and road contests at the Buccaneers and Saints—but with a quarterback like Ryan passing to a centaur like Jones, anything is possible. We saw what the team’s offense could do last year during Ryan’s MVP season, and while the unit hasn’t been quite the same this season, we’ve seen glimpses of it over the past few weeks. Steve Sarkisian’s play-calling and the team’s execution have quietly improved after a slow start, and going back to Week 8, the Falcons have gone 4-1 and are averaging 27.4 points per game. In that stretch, Ryan’s completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 1,294 yards (fifth-most), at 8.19 yards per attempt (sixth), with seven touchdowns (tied for fifth) to just two interceptions, compiling a 107.4 passer rating (fifth). The defense has improved of late, too, with Adrian Clayborn and rookie Takkarist McKinley sparking a dormant pass rush. Add in the team’s relative luck in the health department, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Falcons make a late-season run.
The Panthers will have some say in that. Carolina heads to New Orleans this week to take on the Saints, then returns home to face the Vikings, Packers, and Buccaneers before finishing the year in Atlanta. The team’s defense (which came into Week 12 sixth in Football Outsiders DVOA) remains a relative constant, as the Panthers have been able to consistently count on stout play up front and the game-changing instincts of Luke Kuechly in the middle for the last several years. Instead, what may swing Carolina one way or another down the stretch is the play of Cam Newton, who’s had just about as up-and-down of a season as any player in the league. If the Newton who threw for 254 yards with four touchdowns while adding another 95 yards on the ground against Miami two weeks ago shows up over the next month, the Panthers might be the most dangerous team in the NFL. But if they get the guy who completed just 11 of 28 passes for just 168 yards last week against the Jets instead, it’s going to be hard for Carolina to win against New Orleans and Atlanta, who are not the Jets. It helps that the team’s run game has gained traction the last three weeks (averaging 213 yards per game), but to get through the upcoming gantlet, they need Newton at his best.
For now, though, the Saints are atop the division and control their destiny. With a win this week over the Panthers, New Orleans will sweep the season series and open up a de facto two-game lead over Carolina thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker. But, lose on Sunday, and New Orleans would lose their spot atop the division. In any case, it doesn’t get much easier down the stretch: The Saints travel to Atlanta in Week 14 to take on the Falcons before coming home to play the Jets in Week 15, then face off against Falcons for the second time in two weeks in Week 16. A road game in Tampa Bay to close out the season doesn’t look too terrible on paper, but division games are always tougher and more unpredictable than they seem because of the abundance of familiarity these teams have with one another.
The Saints still look like the most balanced and impressive team in the division, though. They are a whole different team from what we’re used to. New Orleans features a physical, physical defense, headlined by one of the top pass rushers in the game in Cameron Jordan and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Marshon Lattimore at cornerback (though, his status with an ankle injury suffered in New Orleans’ Week 11 tilt with Washington remains unclear). The Saints have a new punch-you-in-the-mouth run game with Ingram and Kamara. And if both of those things fail, they can always turn to their future Hall of Fame quarterback to carry the load. New Orleans has a tough road to winning the division, but this is a deep, talented, and most important, extremely balanced team that can beat you in more than a few ways.
Five weeks left. The "play a few division opponents near the end of the year" thing is a pretty common scheduling strategy leaguewide nowadays, but it’s hard to remember one division having a more brutal or competitive stretch run than what the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons now face. Buckle up, because what happens from here on out will not only shape the playoff race in the NFC South, but it could change the complexion of the playoff picture in the conference at large.