As far back as three weeks ago, the NFC South had devolved into something it once seemed it would never reach: predictability.
In my season preview, I noted what made the division particularly exciting was that each of the NFC South’s four teams has won the division title at least twice and made the Playoffs at least three times since 2002, which had not happened in any other division.
The malaise of New England’s decade-long domination of the AFC East or Cleveland’s perpetual stinkiness in the AFC North had not reached the NFC South, where the upward mobility that defines the NFL had always been embraced as possible.
But as of three weeks ago, the path of the division in 2012 seemed crystallized. The Falcons were undefeated with a four-game division lead (the largest in the NFL), well on their way to the division title and into a battle for Playoff home field advantage.
Since then, the Bucs and Saints have won three straight and Atlanta has suffered its first loss—while looking much weaker than its 9-1 record suggests.
The exposure of Atlanta’s weaknesses is just one of the reason’s that all eyes should be drawn back to what had been the most cut-and-dry division in the league.
Here is what is on the line for each NFC South team heading into this crucial Week 12:
One would hope Atlanta enjoyed their undefeated run, getting the chance to see themselves at the top of weekly power rankings due to nothing more than their spotless record. Now that their run at the top is over, it’s time for a dose of reality.
That reality is that the Falcons have not looked like the best team in football in six out of their last seven games. Coming off Atlanta’s first loss of the season, the team won on Sunday against Arizona but Matt Ryan threw an unreal five interceptions. Prior to that, the team had escaped with close win against Carolina, Washington, Oakland and Dallas—not exactly a Herculean schedule.
Atlanta’s road contest against Tampa Bay is the first of three consecutive division games they have, making their 3-game lead in the division seem far less cozy than it once did. If the Falcons can snuff out Tampa Bay’s four-game charge by knocking them off at home, the NFC South will surely be theirs. They can all but lock up the division this week at Raymond James Stadium.
But if they lose, they are opening themselves up to an entirely new level of scrutiny from the press and vulnerability among the division and the conference as a whole. If Atlanta drops this Sunday’s game to Tampa Bay, they will not only be opening up the division chase, but they will be ceding important ground in the search for homefield advantage to the surging 49ers and Packers.
Atlanta has earned nothing yet.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Imagine if this Mike Williams touchdown catch had been called a touchdown. Right now, Tampa Bay would be playing the Falcons at home with a chance to get within one game of the division lead and earn the inside track at a head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams.
But no matter how ridiculous some NFL rules are, the refs have to follow them (except when they don’t). That doesn’t mean Tampa Bay is not in an enviable situation, though. At 2-1 in the NFC South, the Bucs are tied with New Orleans for the best in-division record. A win over Atlanta this weekend would amazingly put them within striking distance of a division championship considering they would have two more divisional games to play.
With that being said, those two games are at New Orleans and at Atlanta, two notoriously difficult places to play. Throw in another late season game in Denver against red-hot Peyton Manning and Tampa Bay still has an uphill climb on its hands.
That is what makes this home game against Atlanta so essential. Tampa Bay is leading the charge ahead of New Orleans to challenge Atlanta for the NFC South crown. This is the apex that their season has been building towards since they began their four-game streak—and they need it to end in a win.
If they don’t, all the muscle hamsters in the world won’t save their season.
New Orleans Saints
At 5-5, the Saints are officially back in the mix. Head coach Joe Vitt deserves a ton of credit for being able to turn this lost season into at least a fight for respectability and at worst chance at the team’s fourth consecutive Playoff appearance.
But all the momentum New Orleans has built by winning five of their last six games, now is the point they should be kicking themselves for blowing early season games to Washington, Carolina and Kansas City. They will get San Francisco, fresh off a pasting of the Chicago Bears, at home this Sunday.
This weekend is literally New Orleans’ season. If they lose, they will drop back under .500 and behind four 6-4 teams in the NFC fighting for two Playoff spots. But if they win, they will keep pace with those teams and head into a Thursday night rematch with the division-leading Falcons.
Sean Payton will need to make an all-important decision at the end of the season about if and where he wants to coach. A late-season march towards Playoffs would certainly do more to sway the Super Bowl-winning coach back to the Big Easy and away from other potential suitors (ahem, Dallas).
Monday night, the Panthers will take the national stage for the second time this season. That’s two times too many for this team, which wide receiver Steve Smith summed up perfectly when he referred to this showdown against the equally disappointing Eagles as the “Battle of the Bads.”
It is a matter of respect more than standings for the 2-8 Panthers when they take the stage on Monday in Philly against the hapless Eagles. A season that began with promises of Super Bowl titles and projections of a Cam Newton MVP has been replaced with The Sulk as the image of 2012 in Carolina.
But with one more attempt on the national stage against a rookie quarterback and a team that knows its coach will soon be fired, the Panthers have one more chance to show that this group of players can get the team back on the right track come 2013.