There have been three teams in NFL history to win a division title with a losing record. The Washington Commanders in 2020 were the last to do so.
Maybe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers get above .500 by the end of the season. They are probably the only team that can save the NFC South from being the fourth division ever to not produce a winning team.
The Atlanta Falcons entered Thursday night tied for first place in the NFC South. Anyone who watched Thursday night’s game against the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t mistake the Falcons for a future division champion. But it’s the 2022 NFC South, and the Falcons will be in contention for at least a few more weeks, if only because no one else has shown they can separate themselves from the pack.
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The Panthers beat the Falcons 25-15 in a rainy and ugly game Thursday night. The offense didn’t do much either. Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota has had a brutal night. Atlanta had a chance to tie it after the offense showed some signs of life and scored, then turned the ball over with less than three minutes remaining. Mariota took a bad sack on second down and the Falcons quietly turned it around on downs with another sack on fourth down. The Falcons fall to 4-6, a half game behind the 4-5 Buccaneers.
The Panthers are bad, but they were much better than the Falcons on Thursday night.
An ugly, low-scoring race
When fans tuned in Thursday night and saw the torrential rain in Charlotte, they had to know what they were in for.
Both teams have struggled to move the ball. The Panthers found some success on the field.
In the second quarter, the Panthers had a perfectly timed play against the Falcons offense. The Falcons left Panthers quarterback PJ Walker to the left, he threw a drive pass to Laviska Shenault, and Shenault only had to get past his blockers and down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown.
In the first half, the Panthers had 159 yards. Walker had just 38 yards passing. The Falcons, on the other hand, had 96 total yards. The second half was almost a repeat. The Panthers could run it a little. D’Onta Foreman had 130 yards on 31 carries. The Falcons could do nothing.
Near the end of the first half, the Falcons drove into the red zone. They were outshot 13-0. It was clear that they would not have many chances to score. With 21 seconds left, the Falcons threw a two-yard pass to Cordarrelle Patterson and ran down the clock for a field goal. It really didn’t make much sense. But it’s not like the Falcons’ offense was going to make a play anyway.
The Panthers are so bad they already fired their coach this season. The Falcons are theoretically a little better, but you wouldn’t have known it Thursday night. All the Buccaneers need to do is not trip over themselves to win the NFC South. But if you’ve watched the Bucs play this season, you know there’s no guarantee they can even break that low bar.
The Falcons fall behind the Buccaneers
The Falcons have played hard early this season and have picked up some wins, but they have been limited. They generally act like the forward pass should be outlawed, presumably because they don’t trust Mariota.
Mariota has been primarily a low-volume, safe passer this season. On Thursday night he made some bad decisions. A wild interception led to a Panthers field goal in the second quarter. Atlanta’s offense stalled all night, and that made Mariota press even harder. He tried to throw a pass from his backside into a sack and it was intercepted, but Mariota was saved from being on the highlight reels forever because he was knocked down before he threw. His whole night was terrible and not all of it can be blamed on the rain. The way the Falcons try to hide Mariota makes it clear that he is not their quarterback of the future and makes it very difficult to win in the present as well.
The New Orleans Saints are 3-6 and could still get hot, but that seems unlikely. The Panthers are even less likely to get hot, although they have played better for interim coach Steve Wilks. The NFC South will likely come down to the Falcons or Buccaneers. About halfway through the season, the Buccaneers have a good defense and the Blind are hoping their offense with all those star names can turn things around. Atlanta’s shot at stealing an elusive division title is dwindling as we see their weaknesses exposed.
The winner of the NFC South will host a playoff game. But none of the four teams seem to deserve it.