Bradley’s Buzz: Could the Falcons still win this lousy division?

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Over their bye week, the Falcons decided to give Desmond Ridder, rookie quarterback, a chance to show he might grow in a franchise quarterback. This could be interpreted – I’m sure Arthur Smith, parser of words, has thoughts on the matter – as a concession they’re pulling the plug on the 2022 season.

Funny thing, though. The 2022 season isn’t quite done with these Falcons.

Since October, we’ve operated under two assumptions: That the NFC South is terrible – more than an assumption, that’s a big fat fact – but that the cream (Tampa Bay and the GOAT) will rise to the top, such as it is. It has become clear that the Buccaneers are no better than the rest of this motley lot. If not for Tom Brady’s latest and maybe last wonder in the 14-points-in-three-minutes victory over New Orleans, the South would sport a four-way tie for first/last place.

As is, the 6-7 Bucs lead by a game, although Sunday’s 35-7 drubbing by San Francisco, as quarterbacked by Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy, suggests T-Brady and T-Bay are staging an epic collapse. Even with the greatest player ever, the Bucs are last – it’s not even close – among NFC South clubs in scoring. The Falcons, who are so pleased with their offense they’re benching Marcus Mariota, are first.

Tampa Bay can win the division by winning out, but there’s little chance of that. They play Cincinnati next; the Bengals are rolling. Believe it or not, the NFC South team of the moment is Carolina, which fired its head coach and offensive coordinator, dumped Christian McCaffery and Baker Mayfield and is, in Sam Darnold, deploying its third No. 1 quarterback.

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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