The AFC West and NFC East have undoubtedly provided some of the best games of this NFL season. The Chiefs-Broncos Sunday night thriller rates as one of the most exciting contests this year while Thanksgiving’s Washington-Dallas tilt was not only highest-rated game of 2016, but FOX's highest-rated regular season game ever.
But one NFL division has been surprisingly—and oddly?—competitive this season. The NFC South only has two teams above .500 but each squad is separately by a game in descending order of the standings. The 7-4 Falcons lead the 6-5 Buccaneers by a game after splitting the season series with the 5-6 Saints lurking and a not-completely-out-of-it-yet Panthers team with several players remaining from the 7-8-1 division winner from two seasons ago.
You could call it a bunch of mediocre football and possibly be right. The NFC South quartet has some surprising wins, like Sunday’s 14-5 Tampa Bay win against Seattle, and some bad losses like Atlanta’s 33-30 home loss to San Diego. As we turn the December corner for the playoff push, most eyes will be on the AFC West and whether its three top teams can get into the playoffs.
For a poor man’s AFC West, go to the NFC South.
As fate would have it, this analogue works well this season since the two divisions were matched on the schedule. The NFC South is 4-9 against AFC West teams through 12 weeks, but the matchups have been some of the most competitive in the league. Of those 13 games, only one has been decided by more than one score (Tampa’s 27-7 loss to Denver). The AFC West holds a 28-point margin of victory in those games, which means the games have been decided by an average of just more than two points.
Take, for example, Oakland’s slate against the NFC South now that it’s complete. The Raiders, the AFC West’s top team by a game, went 3-1 against their NFC South counterparts but came out of it just plus-3 in points. Oakland suffered a 35-28 home loss to Atlanta but beat New Orleans 35-34 (on a risky 2-point conversion), topped Tampa Bay 30-24 in the final 90 seconds of overtime and bested Carolina 35-32 on Sunday after trailing in the fourth quarter.
Carolina’s loss to Oakland was the only blemish for the NFC South this week as the division got its combined record back to .500 at 22-22. The Saints destroyed the Rams 49-21 in a revenge game of sorts for New Orleans against former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (the Saints had a successful flea-flicker touchdown in the fourth quarter of the blowout).
The Falcons took advantage of every Cardinals mistake to bury Arizona’s playoff hopes in the 38-19 win. The 7-4 Falcons proved once again they don’t need a big day from Julio Jones (four catches for 35 yards Sunday) to win as long as MVP candidate Matt Ryan continues to spread the ball around.
And in Sunday’s biggest surprise, the Bucs took down Seattle in a game played after Thanksgiving, which is when Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are normally indefatigable. Tampa Bay controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides and harassed Wilson, 18-4 in regular season games on or after Thanksgiving, into two interceptions and just three points of offense for the 14-5 win.
The NFC South also boasts the best collection of quarterbacks—top to bottom—of any division in the league. The Panthers have the reigning NFL MVP, the Saints have a first-ballot Hall of Famer and former Super Bowl MVP, the Bucs have former No. 1 pick who continues to show promise and progression in Year 2 and the Falcons have Ryan, who should be a top-three candidate for league MVP. Ryan captains the league’s best offense while ranking in the top three in yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns and quarterback rating—all while facing four of the league’s top eight defenses already this season.
This isn’t some NFC South propaganda. Only one team from the division is going to make the playoffs. The division also has always been one of the league’s most competitive and unpredictable, as evidenced by the fact that no team won it in consecutive years until the Panthers did so two seasons ago. It’s a division comprised mostly of smaller-market teams that have gone through their share of ebbs and flows in recent years, so it’s easy to overlook.
So if you want good, competitive football, don’t be surprised if the NFC South gives it to you.