Every year there is one division that trails the rest in overall quality. The NFC East has often been that division in the past, but this year it’s the NFC South. No team will finish with more than nine wins, and there is a strong chance the division champ is under .500 going into the playoffs.
The Bucs beat the Cardinals on Sunday Night Football on an overtime field goal. With the win, the Bucs are now 7-8, sitting a game up on the Panthers and Saints heading into Week 17. The Bucs and Panthers face off in Tampa next weekend and the Bucs would clinch the division with a win. The Panthers can still win the division with a 7-10 record if they beat the Bucs in Week 17, the Saints lose to the Eagles in Week 17, and then Week 18 brings a Bucs loss to the Falcons and a Panthers loss to the Saints.
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The Panthers beat the Lions 37-23, the Saints beat the Browns 17-10, and the Falcons lost 17-9 to the Ravens. The Panthers and Saints are now 6-9 while the Falcons are 5-10. The Bucs play the Cardinals on Sunday. If Tampa wins, they remain a game up on Carolina and New Orleans. If they lost, they drop into a three-way tie for first. Carolina would have the tiebreaker edge while Tampa would be in second place.
The NFC South standings break down as follows heading into Week 16:
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-8 (3-1 in division)
- Carolina Panthers, 5-9 (3-1 in division)
- New Orleans Saints, 5-9 (2-3 in division)
- Atlanta Falcons, 5-9 (1-4 in division)
The Falcons and Saints have one division game remaining while the Bucs and Panthers each have two division games remaining. The Bucs have the one-game lead, but they’re facing the Panthers in Week 17 and the Falcons in Week 18. The Panthers face the Bucs and then face the Saints in Week 18, with both being road games. Carolina has the division record edge on Atlanta and has the edge for now on the other two squads.
We’re likely to see an eight-win team clinch the division, although the Bucs can still win nine games if they sweep their final three games. There’s also a scenario in which a 7-10 Panthers squad takes home the division title.
Here’s how each team can clinch the division over the remaining three weeks.
Remaining opponents: @ Cardinals, vs. Panthers, @ Falcons
Key tiebreakers: Clinched H2H over Saints, lead Falcons 1-0 in H2H, trail Panthers 1-0 in H2H, can claim best division record
If the Bucs win this weekend against Arizona and Carolina loses, the Bucs could theoretically lose out and still clinch the division. They would need the other teams to lose out as well, but they have some necessary tiebreakers. The Bucs have swept the Saints. They still have one game left with Atlanta, but having won the first one of the two, the Bucs have already clinched the division record tiebreaker with them.
If the Bucs lose and Carolina wins, the Panthers would move into first place. If the Bucs lose, it opens the door for Carolina to take over first place next week when they meet the Bucs in Tampa on New Years’ Day.
How Bucs can win division with 7-10 record
The optimal Bucs chaos scenario would see Tampa beat the Panthers in Week 17 and lose to the Cardinals and Falcons in Week 16 and Week 18. If the Panthers lose to New Orleans, the Saints lose to either Cleveland or Philadelphia, and the Falcons lose at least one of their remaining three games, the Bucs get into the playoffs with a 7-10 record.
Remaining opponents: vs. Lions, @ Bucs, @ Saints
Key tiebreakers: Split H2H with Falcons, lead Bucs 1-0 in H2H, lead Saints 1-0 in H2H, can claim best division record
Carolina could win one more game the rest of the season and get to the playoffs with a 7-10 record. The key game is Week 17 on the road against the Bucs. Of course, if they lose to the Lions this weekend on Saturday and the Bucs beat the Cardinals on Sunday, the road to the division title becomes much more difficult. Carolina would need a Bucs loss on top of winning in Week 17. If Carolina can beat Detroit and then Tampa Bay, they would control their destiny in Week 18.
How Panthers can win division with 7-10 record
The optimal chaos scenario would have the Panthers beating the Bucs in Week 17 to get their seventh win, but losing to Detroit and New Orleans. If that happened, and the Bucs lost to Arizona and Atlanta, and the Saints lost to either Cleveland or Philadelphia, and the Falcons lost to either Baltimore or Arizona in the next two weeks, the Panthers would win the division thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tampa and the division record tiebreakers over New Orleans and Atlanta.
Remaining opponents: @ Browns, @ Eagles, vs. Panthers
Key tiebreakers: Clinched H2H over Falcons, Bucs clinched H2H over them, Panthers lead H2H 1-0, Saints can tie division record tiebreaker with TB and CAR
The Saints need help to win the division. They don’t get the first place Bucs the rest of the way, but there is a chance Week 18 vs. the Panthers could end up being for the division title. It’s not highly unlikely given that the Bucs have the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Saints, but two Bucs losses and two Saints wins in Week 16 and Week 17 open the door for that being a possibility. The Saints have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Falcons, but need to finish a full game up on the Bucs to win the division.
How Saints can win division with 7-10 record
New Orleans would need to split their pair of games against the Browns and Eagles, and then beat the Panthers in Week 18. They would need the Bucs to lose their remaining three games, the Panthers to beat the Bucs and lose to the Lions and Saints, and the Falcons to lose one of two to the Ravens or Cardinals and beat the Bucs. They cannot finish tied with the Bucs because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. They cannot finish tied with the Panthers because of the division record tiebreaker. They can finish tied with the Falcons due to the head-to-head tiebreaker edge.
Remaining opponents: @ Ravens, vs. Cardinals, vs. Bucs
Key tiebreakers: Saints clinched H2H over them, split with Panthers, Bucs clinched H2H over them, cannot match TB and CAR in division record tiebreaker, but can tie NO in it
The Falcons are tied with the Saints and Panthers, but sit in last place due to trailing in the tiebreakers. They have to win at least two of their remaining games to clinch the division, and one of those two wins has to be in Week 18 against the Bucs. If they lose to the Bucs, they would be guaranteed to be able to finish no worse than tied with them and Tampa would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
How Falcons can win division with 7-10 record
Atlanta would need to beat the Bucs and then one of two against the Ravens and Cardinals. Additionally, they would need the Bucs to lose their three remaining games, the Panthers to beat the Bucs and lose to the Lions and Saints, and the Saints to lose to the Browns and Eagles and beat the Panthers.