Who will win the NFC South? Not the Falcons

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The head coach is putting Sunday's home loss to the Buccaneers in the rearview mirror.

None of the NFC South’s teams are better than average. There’s a three-way tie for first place among 6-7 teams. The eye test confirms the mediocrity. The Bucs, Falcons and Saints look like playoff teams only in the sense that NFL rules stipulate the division champions automatically qualify for the postseason.

So, one of the South’s teams will make the postseason. It could be two. The Packers, also 6-7, currently are in position for the NFC’s third wild card. There’s a chance a South team will end up earning it. Two teams from the division in the playoffs would be an indictment of the NFL’s obsession with creating equally mediocre teams, but I digress.

The exercise here is predicting which South team will end up on top. It won’t be the Falcons because they have the worst offense among the South’s top three. The Falcons rank 24th in points (19.3 per game), 20th in yards per play (5.1) and 25th in DVOA (adjusted for tempo, situation and opponent). The Arthur Smith and Desmond Ridder play-caller/quarterback combination isn’t working as well as the Smith/Marcus Mariota tandem of 2022.

Ridder is indecisive in the pocket and still puts the ball in danger too often. That’s probably why Smith has been conservative with his calls. Per Pro Football Focus, the Falcons throw the ball less often in passing situations (based on down, distance and score) than any team in the league. That might not be a problem if the Falcons rushed the ball as effectively as last season, but they rank 22nd in Expected Points Added per rush.

Smith pointed out that the Falcons are one of three teams to gain 400 yards or more in five games. It wasn’t a boast.

“I can sit here and try to pump us up but, ultimately, (we) just didn’t get it done,” Smith said a day after the Falcons lost to the Bucs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “Yes, there’s a lot of progress. We’ve invested in these young guys, and we have to continue to work. Like I said, this opportunity, let’s finish this thing and build off of it.

“Let’s fix these things that have (cost) us from getting 30-plus (points) and consistently staying in rhythm.”

The season-high in points for Smith’s offense is 26 against Minnesota in Week 9. The Falcons lost that game when the Vikings, led by a quarterback (Josh Dobbs) they acquired days earlier, drove 75 yards in 2:08 for the go-ahead touchdown. The next week the Cardinals, led by a quarterback (Kyler Murray) just recovered from an ACL tear, beat the Falcons by driving 70 yards in 2:33 for the winning field goal.

Giving up those leads is why I don’t believe the Falcons are as good as their rankings in points allowed (12th) and yards per play (10th). They allow too many important yards and points. That’s reflected by the defensive DVOA ranking of 24th. The Falcons aren’t good enough to win when their offense stinks, which is most weeks.

Defense is probably the best reason to pick the Saints to win the South. They have the division’s best unit, which means it’s better than average. They also have the best offense in the South, which meant it’s not terrible. The Saints have the easiest remaining game among the South’s top three, at home vs. the Giants on Sunday.

But I can’t back the Saints to win the division because Dennis Allen is the coach and Derek Carr is the quarterback.

Allen is 21-45 as an NFL head coach. Most don’t get so many chances to lose. Carr is the most accomplished quarterback in the South, but it’s an open question on whether he’ll finish the season. Carr said he’s suffered rib fractures three times this season and he also had at least one concussion.

The Saints won’t win the South because of questionable coaching and a fragile quarterback. The Falcons aren’t good enough to do it. That leaves the Bucs as my choice to win the division. They are in first place now because of tiebreakers and they’ll still be on top after the regular season’s final weekend.

Before the season, I predicted that Tampa Bay would be better than expected in the wake of Tom Brady finally calling it quits. That forecast looked good when the Bucs started 3-1 with victories at Minnesota and New Orleans. The Bucs looked finished when they subsequently lost four games in a row, but they’ve won three of five games since.

Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield is quietly having a solid year two seasons after the Browns gave up on him. Mayfield ranks ninth in EPA per pass attempt. His interception percentage (eight on 438 attempts) is the lowest since Mayfield went to the playoffs in 2020. And Mayfield doesn’t have to be great because Tampa Bay’s defense is good again after it slipped last season.

The Bucs are the only South team on a winning streak. It’s just two games, but that qualifies as a surge in this division.

“The plays we won (Sunday) with and the week before with in Carolina, we weren’t winning (those plays) in late October and November,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles told reporters. “The maturity factor has kicked in, the mental toughness factor has kicked in and the believing in each other and playing for each other has kicked in. That’s what you want to see in December football.”

The South’s top three teams will spend the next four weekends determining which of them is the best of an unimpressive bunch. The only certain thing about the South is that the Panthers (1-12) are terrible. There’s not much separating the other three teams. None of them are great at anything and all are bad in a few areas.

By rule, one of those three teams will make the playoffs, anyway. I say it will be the Bucs.

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