Nobody has ever been better at diagnosing diseased divisions than Tom Brady.
Brady spent his first 19 years as a starter in the AFC East playing against the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets—all three of whom experienced prolonged periods of struggle, including an infamous 17-year playoff drought by Buffalo. The Jets were by far the most successful of the Pats’ three AFC East opponents during the Brady era, and they famously had a quarterback who rammed his head into a teammate’s ass so hard that he committed a turnover. The Pats went 91-25 against their divisional opponents, who finished 21st, 23rd, and 26th in the NFL in winning percentage over that two-decade span. It was a massive structural advantage that kept the Pats from having to play many road games in the playoffs during the greatest dynastic run in the sport’s history.
By the time he played his last season for New England in 2019, the GOAT must have noticed that the tides were turning. Josh Allen was turning the Bills from a decades-long joke to a postseason contender. Two years later, the Dolphins and even the Jets are good. So Brady had to find a new division to dominate.
Which brought Brady to the NFC South, the league’s most forgettable division. The NFC South is seemingly always bad: Its four teams rank 23rd, 24th, 28th, and 32nd in all-time NFL winning percentage. But in 2022, it’s gone off the rails. Every team in the division is below .500 and, with four weeks left in the season, each still has a chance at winning the division and making the playoffs. Heading into Week 15, the NFC South has a combined record of 20-32. Of course, that’s propped up by the games they play against each other—the division’s record against other opponents is 12-24, a solid 33.3 winning percentage.
The Buccaneers should be running away with things, right? They won the Super Bowl two years ago! They have the GOAT! Nope! They’re 6-7, with one of the worst offenses in the NFL. If it weren’t for a miraculous three-minute, 13-point vintage Brady comeback win against the Saints two weeks ago, every team in the NFC South would be 5-8. (I’m so mad at the Saints for allowing this to happen that I won’t be acknowledging them for the rest of the article, even though they theoretically still have a chance to make the playoffs.)
Brady’s knack for scouting terrible divisions has bought him a strange lottery ticket: the right to be absolutely terrible and still potentially make the postseason. It’s oddly compelling to watch three teams that have basically given up on the year be locked in a tooth-and-nail battle with the greatest quarterback of all time, fighting for the right to go 8-9. Let’s explore the NFC South, simultaneously the NFL’s worst and most competitive division.
How Bad Is This Division?
Do you realize how logistically hard it is for an NFL division to have no team above .500? It’s not just that all four teams in the division have to be terrible. It’s that all four have to suck so badly that even with six intra-divisional matchups per team, nobody manages to win enough games to eclipse .500. If one team in a division is significantly better than the other three, they should be able to get five or even six wins off their divisional opponents—which gets you most of the way to a winning record. A full sub-.500 division is a festival of suck, where nobody distinguishes themselves from the awful teams they have to play week after week.
The NFC South is there right now. It’s not going to be the worst division ever. At the very worst, the division will go 24-44, a 35.3 winning percentage. Since divisional realignment in 2002, the worst division has been the 2008 NFC West, which went 22-42 for a 34.4 win percentage. (The NFC South was slightly better than that in 2014, when these four teams went 22-41-1.) But it still seems unlikely that anybody is going to make it out of this bucket of crabs, with the leader at 6-7 and a handful of divisional games left.
The Bucs obviously have the best chance at hitting .500. But they’ll need to go 3-1—and they’re underdogs on Sunday against the Bengals, who have won five games in a row. And they close the season with the Panthers (a team they lost to by three scores) and the Falcons (a team they beat after one of the worst roughing-the-passer calls in NFL history). Atlanta and Carolina can still hit .500 if they go undefeated the rest of the way, but, like, let’s be real here.
How Low Can the NFC South Go?
But this current NFC South has the potential to produce a historically awful champion. After running through calculations on The New York Times’ playoff scenario creator, I have determined that it’s possible for everybody in the division to finish with an identical 6-11 record. Here’s what has to happen:
- The division has to go 0-8 in non-divisional play the rest of the way. According to FiveThirtyEight, they’ll be moderate-to-large underdogs in four of these games: Bengals-Bucs this week, Falcons-Ravens and Saints-Browns next week, and Saints-Eagles in Week 17. Complicating the 6-11 dream is the fact that at least two non-division games will be against backups: The Bucs and Falcons will get the Cardinals, who are starting backup Colt McCoy after the injury to Kyler Murray, and the Panthers could face either Mitchell Trubisky or Mason Rudolph against the Steelers this weekend if Kenny Pickett hasn’t cleared concussion protocol. But every game on the NFC South’s schedule is absolutely loseable.
- To get to all-6-11, the Panthers and Falcons both have to win their matchups against the division-leading Buccaneers, which would hold them to six wins, and both also have to lose their matchups with the last-place Saints, which would get New Orleans to six wins.
In this four-way tie at 6-11 scenario, the Panthers would advance to the postseason, on account of their 4-2 divisional record. Scientists have informed me that a 6-10-1 finish for every team is also possible but advise against attempting to re-create it for the sake of humanity.
Of course, a 6-11 champion would be the worst modern-era NFL playoff team. (Two 4-5 teams made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1982 season, but that barely counts.) A 7-10 champ would also be the worst, since 7-10 is worse, based on winning percentage, than the 7-9 or 7-8-1 playoff teams we’ve seen before.
Can the Buccaneers Blow It?
Absolutely! We’re three-quarters of the way through this NFL season, so we can stop acting like teams that are playing terribly are going to figure it out eventually. The Buccaneers offense stinks! They’re first place in an awful division only thanks to a pair of miracle comeback wins. They started the year with a 19-3 win over the Cowboys—in retrospect, this game makes no sense—and haven’t beaten a team with a winning record in North America since. (Does Allianz Arena have any open dates in January, just in case?)
Last year Brady led the NFL in passing touchdowns. This year, he leads the league in passing attempts … but has roughly half as many touchdowns (17) as league leader Patrick Mahomes (33). Combine that with the worst rushing game in the NFL (the Bucs are averaging 3.3 yards per carry; every other team is averaging at least 3.7 yards) and you’ve got a disaster.
Statistically, Brady is playing the worst football of his career by a significant margin. His touchdown percentage (2.9) is a full percentage point worse than his career worst (3.9.) He is averaging a career-low 6.2 yards per attempt, which ranks 31st in the NFL among qualifying QBs. The quarterbacks ranked 25th, 26th, 28th, 29th, and 30th (Zach Wilson, Matt Ryan, Davis Mills, Baker Mayfield, and Carson Wentz) have all been benched due to poor performance at some point this season. That is not an option for Brady, the GOAT who unretired for another shot at the Super Bowl.
Brady is 45 years old and realistically should have started being bad half a decade ago—but he didn’t, and it’s stunning to see him go from exceptional to mediocre overnight. What happened here? Is it the crypto? The divorce? Whatever the hell happened to this man’s face that made it look like this? Does he actually need a similarly old Rob Gronkowski near him, just to take the edge off things? Did the team lose a lot more than it realized when Bruce Arians suddenly retired in March? Regardless, this isn’t your father’s Tom Brady. (Seriously, Brady was a lot better when your dad watched him play 20 years ago.)
So, Are You Going to Say It? Is Tom Brady Officially Washed?
At the advice of counsel, I invoke my Fifth Amendment right and respectfully decline to answer this question.
If Not the Bucs, Who Wins This Division?
I believe in the Carolina Panthers—which is funny, because not so long ago they clearly didn’t believe in themselves. In the span of two weeks in October, the team fired head coach Matt Rhule and traded franchise player Christian McCaffrey, as well as the team’s nominal WR1, Robbie Anderson.
With “The Smock” in charge, the Panthers were 11-27. But interim head coach Steve Wilks is 4-4. He’s already won more games in half a season at Carolina than in his one full season as an NFL head coach with the Cardinals. With Mayfield this season, the Panthers were 1-5; they’re above .500 with P.J. Walker and Sam Darnold. Three of those wins have been by at least 10 points; the fourth also would’ve been, if not for a garbage-time TD by the Seahawks last week. Notably, the Panthers crushed the Buccaneers 21-3, something they’ll have to do again if they want to win the division: If Carolina beats Tampa Bay in Week 17, the Times’ playoff calculator gives the Panthers a 52 percent chance to win the division; with a loss, that drops to 2 percent.
It’s remarkable. McCaffrey looks like the versatile superstar he was born to be in San Francisco. Baker Mayfield just won a thrilling game as the Rams’ QB. And yet somehow, this team has improved without them. They have a backup coach, a backup QB, and a backup running back, and they’re better than ever. I’m all in on the second-string Panthers—no Rhules, just right.
Can Desmond Ridder Be Atlanta’s Hero?
Atlanta finally made the decision to switch from quarterback Marcus Mariota to rookie Desmond Ridder during their bye week, prompting Mariota to go AWOL, as he has since gotten knee surgery. Normally, a Week 14 QB switch for a 5-8 season is a play for the future—but in Atlanta, it has to be a play for right now, as the Falcons are only a game back of the division lead.
After trading away Matt Ryan, the Falcons apparently decided to win games despite hardly passing the ball. They’ve run the ball on 56 percent of plays, the second-highest rate in the NFL. Even when trailing by 10 or more points, they ran the ball over half the time, while the average NFL team throws the ball almost 60 percent of the time. When Mariota has thrown the ball, he’s been throwing bombs … which generally miss. He led the NFL by averaging 10.35 air yards per attempt, and threw passes of more than 20 air yards at a higher rate than anybody in the NFL, despite doing so while logging the fourth-worst completion percentage. It was a big change from the Mariota we’d seen in past seasons, when he was typically very conservative.
Ridder could be addition by subtraction. He was tagged as the most NFL-ready prospect in the 2022 class and considered a likely first-rounder by many draft analysts, but eventually fell into the third round. In many ways, I think he’s a safer QB than Mariota was—he makes great reads and he won’t randomly throw deep balls he can’t hit. And he ran a 4.52-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine—literally the same exact speed as Mariota, except he did it in March and not seven years ago. And Ridder got Cincinnati into the College Football Playoff in the 2021 season, the first and only appearance by a team from outside the five power conferences—so he’s an expert in getting teams with slim hopes into the postseason.
What About the Saints?
Why Does This Matter?
Believe it or not, the NFL does award an automatic playoff berth to the winner of each division. Normally, it’s a pretty good policy—it rewards winners of divisional matchups, making those rivalries more meaningful. But this year, it’s a bummer for a team like the Cowboys, who are 10-3 and absolutely rolling since the return of Dak Prescott, but happen to be in the same division as the 12-1 Eagles. The NFL made a gamble when it made this rule: How often is a division winner going to be legitimately awful?
As it turns out, somewhat regularly. The NFC South winner will be the fourth sub-.500 team to make the postseason, all since 2010. (All have also been in the NFC; for whatever reason, the AFC has never reached this level of collective awfulness before.) And once given home playoff games, these awful teams tend to make the most of them. In 2010, the 7-9 Seahawks beat the 11-5 Saints, scoring a season-high 41 points, including the famous “Beast Quake” touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch. In 2014, the 7-8-1 Panthers beat the 11-5 Cardinals (who, to be fair, were missing their top two quarterbacks). And in 2020, the 7-9 Washington Football Team put up a memorable fight against the Buccaneers—the eventual Super Bowl champions.
It just feels funny that one of these current NFC South teams must make the playoffs. Tom Brady seems cooked; the Panthers all but admitted that they were cooked; the Falcons have turned things over to an untested rookie; and, well, the Saints could hypothetically make the playoffs too. But I have a funny feeling that the NFC South champ is not just going to make the playoffs. One of these wretched teams is going to ruin a good team’s season, whether it’s the GOAT or whichever Panthers didn’t get traded.