Road map to chaos: How five wins could take the NFC South

BY Sam Gardner • November 24, 2014

Scroll through the NFL standings and you’ll find one division that’s quite obviously not like the others.

The NFC South has been abysmal this season by virtually every measure, with no teams above .500, a 4-6 team in first place and just 13 wins among the Saints, Panthers, Falcons and Bucs combined heading into division-leading New Orleans’ matchup with the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night.

And of those 13 victories, seven have come within the division, leaving just six out-of-division wins among the four teams, all of which are amazingly still in contention for a division crown and a home playoff game. (The NFC North, bless its heart, has lost four games to teams from the NFC South this year, or that mark could be even worse.)

At plus-nine, New Orleans is the only team in the NFC South with a positive point differential, and even that might not be the case by Tuesday morning. Though the Saints are considered to be a home favorite Monday night in Vegas’ eyes, giving three points in most books, they’re 1-4 all-time against Baltimore. Quarterback Drew Brees has never beaten the Ravens, with six touchdowns and seven interceptions in three career games against them, including one while playing for the Chargers.

Extrapolate even further and you’ll find that, at minus-188, the NFC South is one of just two divisions, along with the AFC South (minus-152, thanks to the woeful Jags and Titans), with a negative combined point differential on the season. The Panthers and Bucs are losing by an average margin of 7.7 and 8.5 points per week, respectively. Basically, it’s a hot mess all around.

But rules are rules, so someone is going to have to win the division and go to the playoffs. Sure, the Saints could rattle off a six-game winning streak and win the division in a landslide at a respectable 10-6, but that’s no fun. So we decided to take a look at how much worse it can get — and if you think it’s ugly now, just wait.

We’ll start with Monday night: If the Saints beat the Ravens, they’ll be alone atop the division at 5-6 heading into next week. But that’s not what we’re looking for — we’re rooting for chaos here, remember — so we’ll assume they lose, making Atlanta the division leader at 4-7 (winning the tiebreaker by virtue of its overtime win over New Orleans in Week 1).

In Week 13, all four NFC South teams play out of division, with Tampa Bay hosting Cincinnati, Atlanta hosting Arizona, New Orleans traveling to Pittsburgh and Carolina playing at Minnesota. If we assume they all lose — not an entirely far-fetched scenario, really — the Falcons would still be in first place at 4-8, with the Saints (4-8), Panthers (3-8-1) and Bucs (2-10) rounding out the division.

Week 14 features one division game, with Carolina visiting the Saints. The Panthers are just 1-4 in their last five games at the Superdome and got smoked by New Orleans at home in a Thursday night game earlier this year, but we’ll give them the win -- because why not? (After all, I’m driving this bus.)

Factor in losses by the Falcons and Bucs to the Packers and Lions, respectively — another likelihood, even in real life — and Carolina, at 4-8-1, takes control of the division with three games left to play, the percentage points from a Week 6 tie in Cincinnati giving them the slight advantage over fellow four-win teams New Orleans and Atlanta.

The lone division game in Week 15 pits the Bucs against the Panthers in Charlotte. With a Tampa win — they’re due! — and losses by New Orleans at Chicago and Atlanta at home against Pittsburgh, Carolina still holds on atop the division at 4-9-1. The Saints (4-10), Falcons (4-10) and Bucs (3-11), meanwhile, are all still amazingly in contention.

Week 16 features one critical NFC South battle, with the Saints and Falcons squaring off again, this time in New Orleans. We’ll give the edge to New Orleans at home — redemption for Week 1 — and the Saints move into first place at 5-10, ahead of Atlanta (4-11) and Carolina (4-10-1), which loses at home to Cleveland. You’ve got to give the Packers the win against Tampa in a battle of the Bays, leaving the Bucs (3-12) officially out of the division race.

That doesn’t mean that Tampa Bay can’t play the role of spoiler, however, so in Week 17, we’ll give the Bucs a win over New Orleans in the regular-season finale. (CHAOS!) Meanwhile, the Panthers continue on their slide, losing on the road to Atlanta, leaving the final regular-season standings looking like this:

New Orleans — 5-11

Atlanta — 5-11

Carolina — 4-11-1

Tampa Bay — 4-12

In this scenario, the NFC South crown would come down to a tiebreaker between the Saints and Falcons. New Orleans and Atlanta would have each beaten each other once, so the secondary tiebreaker would be winning percentage in division games, perhaps the perfect way to decide something as ridiculous as this nightmare scenario.

Assuming all of the results played out as described above, the 5-11 Falcons would get the nod as division champs, thanks to their 5-1 record in NFC South play — making the playoffs and hosting a January wild-card round game despite not winning a single game outside their own historically awful division.

Of course, as with any exercise like this, there are certainly other ways you could manipulate the final few weeks of the season to get literally any result you want in this standings sudoku (including the Bucs winning the division, though that would require a couple truly stunning upsets). But this seems like the NFL’s ultimate disaster scenario, not to mention a reasonable way for everything to go down the tubes.

Of the non-division games remaining involving the NFC South’s four teams, only two come against teams currently under .500, and only one (Carolina’s week 13 matchup with the Vikings) is against a team that wouldn’t currently be in at least a tie for first in the NFC South — and even that might not be true by the time Monday is over. Plus, these teams have proven time and time again that no win or loss is a given when they play each other.

Heck, even with a Saints win Monday against Baltimore, there’s still a chance the NFC South could have a five-win division champ; in that scenario, New Orleans would lose out and Carolina would advance to the playoffs at 5-10-1.

Essentially, almost nothing is out of the realm of possibility — great news for the teams involved in this division-wide pillow fight, bad news for the NFL, and awful news for whichever team finishes third in the NFC West and ends up on the outside of the playoffs looking in, despite being 11-5. Sorry, Niners.

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