The NFC South has been one of the more competitive divisions in the NFL in recent years. While it is competitive this year as well, it is not for the right reasons. Every team in the division is under .500, and there is only a 1.5-game difference between first and last place.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6, 1st in the NFC South)
Safe to say that it has not been the greatest year for the Bucs. Tampa has spent the last few games trying to claw themselves out of the hole they put themselves in during October. The story of this team can be boiled down to “playing down to their competition.” Four of their six losses are against teams below .500 (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Cleveland).
Statistically, Tom Brady is not having a bad season; a 66.2% completion percentage, 14 touchdowns, and two interceptions. However, the 92.4 passer rating and 53.9 QBR may suggest differently, as it has been frustrating on & off the field for the future Hall of Famer. With Brady in his age-45 season, there is more of a reliance on the short passing game. As a result, they have not been very efficient there. Brady is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt, nearly a yard less than the 7.4 he averaged in 2021. Brady’s 277.4 yards per game, while top-five in the league, is a noticeable difference from the 312 he averaged last year. Not the greatest sign for a pass-heavy offense, especially one that only averages 73 yards on the ground, the worst in football. The rushing attack only averages 3.3 yards a carry, as the Bucs shift from Leonard Fournette to Rachaad White.
The saving grace for Tampa has been their defensive unit. They have the sixth-best passing defense, only allowing 192 yards per game. They are also sixth-best in yards allowed per completion, and third-best in sack percentage. The Bucs also only give up 18.5 points per game, seventh in the league and the best in the NFC South. That combined with Tom Brady’s well-earned reputation, even at 45, has earned the Bucs more leeway than other teams in the division.
Atlanta Falcons (5-7)
This Falcons team is different from other iterations in recent memory. In the first year of the post-Matt Ryan era, the Falcons have leaned heavily into the rushing game. And it may be the best in the NFC South. Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson, Caleb Huntley, and Marcus Mariota all have over 70 carries and 300 yards. However, as the record may indicate, Atlanta has a turbulent season.
While the Falcons boast a very balanced running game, their passing has struggled to take off. With Marcus Mariota, the Falcons have only attempted 276 passes, 31st in football. As a result, he averages a 28th-best 170.5 passing yards per game. In addition, while Mariota has 14 touchdowns, he also has eight interceptions and an eighth-worst 2.9% interception rate. The depth in the receiving corps also does not help. With Kyle Pitts on injured reserve, the group is down to Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus, Damiere Byrd, and MyCole Pruitt.
Similar to last year, the Falcons are competing with a team that had very few expectations. The Falcons are a unique offense in the modern NFL as a team trotting out four rushing threats. They can offer much through the air. And the defense is below average as well (25th in scoring defense). They are still very much in the running, but the Falcons have their limits.
Carolina Panthers (4-8)
The Panthers have seen a fair share of drama this season. From Matt Rhule’s firing to the exile of Robby Anderson mid-game, to the Christian McCaffery trade. It is honestly a miracle that Carolina still has a chance at first place in the division.
The most notable thing with the Panthers is their quarterback carousel. The Panthers have started three different quarterbacks this season: Baker Mayfield, PJ Walker, and most recently Sam Darnold. Mayfield was the original starter in his potential comeback season after being traded from Cleveland. Unfortunately for him, the season has been anything but. Mayfield has thrown six touchdowns and six interceptions and six fumbles. In addition, his 17.5 QBR is 35th in the NFL, dead last in the category. PJ Walker started five games when Mayfield was injured. While statistically better than his predecessor, Walker was not very good either. Walker also threw the same number of interceptions as touchdowns, throwing three of each. Carolina went 2-4 with Walker and 1-5 with Mayfield. Sam Darnold, last year’s opening starter, gets his turn at the carousel after beating Denver in Week 12.
The Panthers are most likely headed for a rebuild. They have not had great luck at the quarterback position since the Cam Newton era ended. They missed badly with the hire of Matt Rhule in 2020. And trade rumors have swirled around their two remaining stars, DJ Moore and Brian Burns. They are still in contention in the NFC South, but in a way that defies all logic.
New Orleans Saints (4-8, Last in the NFC South)
While Carolina and New Orleans have the same record, the Saints hold the dubious honor of last place. The glory days of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees years are now a memory. What the Saints faithful are now left has not treated them kindly this season.
The injury bug has not been well for the Saints. Particularly on offense, two of the top receivers, Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry, have missed 14 games combined. Two linemen, Eric McCoy and Trevor Penning are currently on IR. Marshon Lattimore has missed the last seven games, and Bradley Roby is on IR.
What may be more concerning is the production of Alvin Kamara. The five-time Pro Bowler has totaled below 50 yards in each of his last four starts. Also, he has averaged less than four yards a carry in his last five games. Most notably, he only had 13 yards on seven carries in the loss in San Francisco. To make matters worse, he fumbled twice in the game, including one at the goal line that the 49ers recovered.
The Saints may have the bleakest future. They do not have their first-round pick in next year’s draft, as that will go to Philadelphia. The quarterback situation, while not as ugly as Carolina, is not great between Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, and Taysom Hill. And their star receiver Michael Thomas has missed most of the last three seasons. There is still talent on the team, but it appears that they are headed for limbo.