The Panthers have won three of four. They’re 5-8. They rushed for 223 yards in their victory over Seattle on Sunday. (The 7-6 Seahawks were 0-4 against the NFC South. How does that happen?) If Carolina wins out, which would entail beating the Bucs on New Year’s Day, it’ll win the division.
FiveThirtyEight gives the Falcons a 5% chance of taking the South. Carolina has a 21% shot. If both teams finish 9-8, the Panthers will be 5-1 in division play to the Falcons’ 3-3. There’s your tiebreaker.
The Falcons’ remaining schedule: The Saints this weekend; the Ravens, perhaps without Lamar Jackson, on Christmas Eve; the Cardinals on Jan. 1 and the Bucs here on Jan. 8.
The X-factor in a division that contains zero givens is Ridder. He hasn’t played an NFL down. The idea, at least for the moment, is to let him play as many NFL downs as he can handle over the final four games. But what happens if the Bucs keep losing and the Panthers return to reality and the Falcons arrive at their final Sunday with a chance to win the South. Do they dust off Mariota for the clincher? Or do they roll with Ridder?
Regarding Mariota: He’s part of the reason the Falcons, who didn’t figure to win many if any games, won four of their first eight; he’s also part of the reason they’ve lost four of the past five. Starting a rookie quarterback carries risk, but it isn’t as if Mariota, who just presided over losses to teams working with Taylor Heinicke and Kenny Pickett, is Joe Montana.
Some bad seasons are unwatchable. These Falcons have become fascinating. Even if they finish 5-12, they’ll have overachieved, and A. Smith – who’s great fun, if not always G-rated fun, to watch while he’s working – could bleed out another win or two, rookie QB notwithstanding. Who else but the Flowery Branch crew could time it so that Ridder’s audition dovetails with what could be a playoff drive?
Say what you will about these Falcons, but I dare you to look away.
The above is part of a regular exercise, written and curated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
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