First team to eight wins may take the NFC South
In case you were wondering — and if you’ve been watching the NFC South lately, you’ve been wondering — the only team with a losing record to make the NFL playoffs after a full season of play was the Seattle Seahawks.
After posting a 7-9 record, the Seahawks limped into the playoffs after the 2010 season. They actually won a game too (they beat the Saints, by the way).
Why the history lesson?
Sitting at the top of the division are the New Orleans Saints. But instead of winning on Sunday and moving above .500, they dropped an overtime heartbreaker to San Francisco. The Saints are still in the NFC South lead, but their 4-5 record leaves much to be desired.
For the rest of the season, they’ll try to fend off the 3-5-1 Panthers (who play the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football) and the 3-6 Falcons. Whoever comes out on top could become the second team in history to make it to the playoffs with a losing record.
With seven games left to play, it’s already time to start looking at which road is the most favorable. Which team has the advantage because of its remaining schedule?
It’s a close race between the Saints and Panthers as to which has the easier schedule moving forward, but the edge goes to New Orleans.
The Saints still have the Bengals (5-3-1), Ravens (6-4) and Steelers (6-4) over the next three weeks, but those are the only teams left on their docket with winning records. The final four games (Panthers, Bears, Falcons and Bucs) are against teams with a combined 10-25-1 record.
New Orleans is also the only NFC South team that isn’t scheduled to face a division leader (although that can change) the rest of the way. The combined record of the seven teams left for the Saints to play is 27-36-2.
The Panthers have just two games left against teams with a current winning record: Philadelphia (6-2) and Cleveland (6-3). After that, the Panthers play five games against teams with losing records and a combined 15-28 record.
The difference between Carolina and New Orleans when it comes to schedule difficulty is the games left against division leaders. While the Sainst face zero, the Panthers face three (including the Saints).
The Bucs don’t have much of a shot at catching the pack. If math wasn’t a telling tale there, the eye test is. That said, their road ahead is ranked third in difficulty with seven games left against three winning teams, four losing teams and two division leaders.
The combined record of teams left for Tampa Bay is 31-30-2.
Atlanta, by far, has the toughest remaining slate.
The Falcons face four winning teams still: Cleveland (6-3), Arizona (8-1), Green Bay (6-3) and Pittsburgh (6-4). And of the three losing teams left, one (New Orleans) is a division winner.
The combined record of teams left for Atlanta is 36-26-2.
A combined 155 seconds is what separates the Saints from their current 4-5 record and being 8-1.
Maybe that’s what Kennan Lewis meant when he told The Times-Picayune, "We’re 4-5, but we’re a scary 4-5."
The only loss on New Orleans’ schedule that was lopsided was its Week 4 breakdown on the road in Dallas. The other four Saints’ losses were by a combined nine points, and two came in overtime.
The slight margin of defeat isn’t the only reason why the Saints’ season could have gone in a much different direction. There’s more to it than just the fact that New Orleans is barely losing games.
They’re losing games with very little time on the clock.
Matt Bryant kicked a field goal for the Falcons as time expired to send the Week 1 contest into overtime. Billy Cundiff kicked Cleveland’s game-winning field goal with just three seconds on the clock.
Matthew Stafford connected with Corey Fuller on a 5-yard touchdown pass that allowed Detroit to win in Week 7. There was 1:48 left in the fourth quarter.
On Sunday, Phil Dawson connected from 35 yards on a field goal with just 44 seconds on the clock. Yet another game sent to overtime.
In the matter of just more than two and a half minutes, the Saints have lost four games. Give them back those 155 seconds, and New Orleans is still a strong Super Bowl contender.
The Falcons throw the football 63.5 percent of the time. Only Oakland (68.9 percent) drops back to pass more often when it comes to pass-run ratios.
With weapons like Roddy White and Julio Jones for quarterback Matt Ryan, of course that’s the case. But success doesn’t neccesarily come solely from a potent aerial attack.
In Atlanta’s three wins this season, the Falcons have rushed for over 100 yards as a team (123 vs. New Orleans, 144 in Week 3 vs. the Bucs and 110 yards on Sunday against Tampa Bay. The Falcons have only eclipsed the century mark rushing four times in 2014, and their record is 3-1 (the lone loss came after the Falcons banged out 123 yards on the ground in Minnesota).
There’s not much of a chance that Atlanta’s offense will near a 50-50 pass-run split any time soon. But look for the Falcons to become more efficient in the run game if they want more wins to come.
Last Thursday, Jenna Laine of Sports Talk Florida joined me on our Falcons podcast "Bird is the Word" and explained why Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans was about to emerge on the NFL scene.
"This is the first time he’s ever run on both sides," Laine said about Evans’ new grasp of running routes. "Before at Texas A&M he lined up only at one side. He didn’t run a full route tree. Now he’s finally doing that."
It boils down to the fact that Evans is now comfortable on both sides of the field and with every route the Bucs ask him to run. The results have been eye-opening.
In each of his last three games Evans has set a new career high in receiving yards. He went from 78 yards against Minnesota in Week 8, to 124 against Cleveland to 125 against Atanta. Over his last two games, Evans has caught three touchdown passes.