Who's Going to Win the Messy NFC South?

With the NFC South in shambles, who's going to climb atop the ruble and proclaim themselves as division champions?

Remember when, just 10 weeks ago, the NFC South was widely regarded as one of the best divisions in the NFL? And the Saints were a very popular Super Bowl pick? Ah, good times, good times. I mean, we heard it all.

“The Falcons are back. Last year was a fluke.”

“The Saints are arguably a top three or four team in the league. Rob Ryan plus Jairus Bryd equals nightmares for opposing offenses.”

“The Panthers have a top-five defense with Cam Newton at quarterback. They’ll be fine.”

“Watch out for the Buccaneers - they could be a dark horse to take the division crown this year with all their young talent!”

Well, the fantasy of preseason and the optimism and hope it brings with it, has worn off. And now there’s a new sheriff in town: reality.

Not a single team in the division is over .500, and a similar fate that was bestowed upon the 2010 NFC West seems imminent; it’s extremely probable this division will be ruled by a team at the .500 mark, give or take a game. With all that said, this doesn’t mean the pecking order in the division isn’t getting a little clearer as the weeks pass. It’s time to look at how the NFC South could - and should - shake out.

No Chance

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Record: 1-8
nERD (rank): -10.47 (31st)
Playoff Chances: 0.0%

Seriously, we at give the Bucs no shot at winning the division. According to our numbers, the Buccaneers have a 0.00 percent chance of making the playoffs, which obviously would entail not winning the division. The only thing they need to worry about at this point is who they’re going to select with their inevitable top-five draft pick. They’ve just been bad this year, and would have to go on a seven-game winning streak to close out the season just to have a chance.

Just how bad are they? Let me throw some numbers at you. They rank 30th in total offense according to our metrics, with a -29.11 Adjusted Offensive Net Expected Points (NEP) score. They rank 30th in total defense, with a 72.02 Adjusted Defensive NEP (positive numbers are bad in this category). And they rank dead last in terms of passing defense, with an Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP of 100.25. Now that you know that, know this: four of their remaining seven games are against teams that rank in the top half of the league throwing the ball.

Speaking of schedule, the road is only getting rougher. They still have to face our 3rd, 9th, 13th and 17th ranked teams, three of which are on the road. Using our nERD numbers as a loose guideline, they’d be underdogs in every remaining game, and favored to lose by about double-digits in four of them.

But not all is lost for Tampa Bay. While the claim that they’d make waves because of their young talent proved to be false, the reasoning for said claim was not. The Buccaneers do actually have a solid group of young talent starting with Gerald McCoy and LaVonte David on the defensive side, and rookie wide receiver Mike Evans, who ranks ninth in Reception NEP per target among all receivers with at least 60 targets.

At the very least, there's a bright future with some of the team's pieces.

Possible, But Not Probable

Carolina Panthers
Record: 3-6-1
nERD (rank): -5.18 (26th)
Playoff chances: 11.3%

The Panthers, as with the Buccaneers, are in a very precarious situation. Their team, as it is, just isn’t very good, and they’re going to have a tough hill to climb. They haven't been able to get anything going offensively, and it all starts on the ground, where they rank second-to-last in Adjusted Rushing NEP at -25.49.

The Panthers haven’t exactly been lighting it up passing the ball either. They rank a below-average 17th in Adjusted Passing NEP, and Cam Newton ranks 24th of 31 eligible quarterbacks in terms of Passing NEP with a measly mark of 4.52. I can’t completely put this all on Cam, however. The Panthers’ offensive line is in shambles, evidenced by their 31 sacks given up so far – a total that’s tied for second worst in the NFL. And not to mention what happened Monday night, when the Eagles had nine sacks. Newton looked like he was in Round 14 of a 12-round fight.

That’s not all. Just as stagnant as their offense has been this year, their defense has been even worse; with an Adjusted Defensive NEP of 59.76, the Panthers rank 26th in the NFL. They also hold the 25th spot against the pass. As if that wasn’t worrisome enough, half of their remaining six games are against teams that fall in the top 10 in terms of offensive passing efficiency.

The Panthers would only be favorites, according to out metrics, in just one of their final games, and that’s when the Buccaneers visit. However, as with the Buccaneers, the Panthers do have a bevy of young talent - this is a team that’s only one season removed from winning the division. If the front office can tidy up a bit, this could be a dangerous team in years to come.

Atlanta Falcons
Record: 3-6
nERD (rank): -1.54 (20th)
Playoff Chances: 18.8%

The Falcons are a top contender to the division title against our odds-on favorite, and the number-seven offense in the league. They have three offensive players who rank 21st or better at their respective position, two of which are in the top 10 – Matt Ryan is ninth, Julio Jones is ninth and Roddy White ranks 21st. What’s not to like, right?

Well, that’s all fine and dandy until we remember there are 22 starters on a football team, and not just 11. The Falcons have one of the league’s worst defenses according to our numbers. Wait, no, let me rephrase that. The Falcons have the league’s worst defense, as they rank 32nd in Adjusted Defensive NEP with a mark of 86.30. This shortcoming could be overcome by the potent offense the Falcons march out every week, but their schedule is doing them no favors.

The Falcons are still scheduled to eventually face the fourth-, sixth- and third-best offenses, in that order, in back to back to back weeks. Not only that, but two of those three games are on the road. It’ll be tough to do, but for now, the Falcons are only one game back and anything in the NFL is possible.

The Favorite

New Orleans Saints
Record: 4-5
nERD (rank): 3.2 (13th)
Playoff Chances: 70.1%

The New Orleans Saints are by far numberFire’s favorite to win the NFC South. Analytically, the Saints are without a doubt the best team in the NFC South, having the third-best Adjusted Offensive NEP score, bolstered by the second-most efficient rushing attack in the league. Drew Brees is our number eight rated passer, and Mark Ingram, on a per play basis, is our highest-rated running back in the entire NFL (minimum 90 carries).

However, the Saints do have many similarities to the Falcons – a top offense, efficient with both running and passing the ball, yet both have a sub-par defense and road deficiencies. The Saints do have a few things in their favor though. First, while the teams are similar in makeup, the Saints do rank higher than the Falcons in every Adjusted NEP category except rushing defense.

Second, the Saints have lost four of their games by a combined nine points. Now, don't get it twisted, I'm not saying they should have won those games, or that they should be 8-1. Great teams find ways to close out the close ones, and this Saints team isn't there yet, obviously. Yet, I say this to illustrate the point that they've been competitive in every game, except the beat-down versus the Cowboys.

And finally, the Saints’ schedule sets up much more favorably. Of the Saints remaining seven games, four are at home, four are against bottom-10 teams according to our metrics and using the nERD score as a guideline, they’d be favored to win six of the final seven games, four of which by at least a touchdown. What’s the one game they wouldn’t be favored in? Monday night, at home against the Baltimore Ravens, who only have a nERD score 2.3 points higher than the Saints; that one’s anybody’s game.

With the better team and a very promising schedule, I, like many others, believe this is the Saints division to lose.