The NFC South will be decided this Sunday with a showdown set between two weak teams, each with losing records. The 6-8-1 Carolina Panthers will travel to Atlanta to face the 6-9 Falcons late on Sunday afternoon. Whoever emerges victorious will clinch the NFC South division championship and will get to host a wild card playoff game next weekend. The loser will go home and start the off-season earlier than wanted to expected.
The NFC South has been unusually weak this season. No teams in the division will have managed to produce a winning record in the regular season. In fact, no matter which team emerges as division champion after Sunday’s showdown, whether it is the Panthers or the Falcons, that team will have earned the distinction as only the second team in NFL history to reach the playoffs with a losing record, joining the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, who won the NFC West with a 7-9 record that season. Carolina and Atlanta have a combined record of 12-17-1, yet one of them will emerge as a division champion and, thus, as the fourth seed in the NFC playoffs.
This NFC South showdown between two weak teams set for Sunday will be more about who is not quite as inept as the rest of the teams in the division, rather than who is truly worthy of the playoff spot to be earned. The struggles faced by each team in the weak NFC South division has led to some criticism of the current playoff format, and led to some speculation that it should be changed. If the Philadelphia Eagles defeat the Giants, they will finish the season with a 10-6 record. Yet, despite having a far better record than either the Falcons or Panthers, they have no chance at making the playoffs no matter what. They will be forced to watch a team with a losing record emerge not only with a playoff appearance, but being able to host a game, to boot.
Carolina is trying to become the first team to have suffered a six-game losing streak to go on and qualify for the playoffs. In fact, the Panthers went over two months without a victory, from October 5 until December 7. However, the Panthers are on a tear now, having won their last three games to catapult themselves into first place in the division, although the Falcons are nipping at their heels, and will enjoy home field advantage for the big game on Sunday. Atlanta also suffered through a very long losing streak earlier in the season, losing five games in a row. They were winless from mid-September until mid-November.
There were points this season when neither team seemed to be a factor in the playoff race. Yet, they find themselves fighting for that final playoff opening this weekend. The NFC South showdown between these two weak teams set for Sunday is for the division title, and the right to host a playoff game, inevitably against a team with a much better record. Still, Falcons coach Mike Smith, who’s future in Atlanta may be questionable should they lose, says that the past games and losses this season do not matter. All that matters for both teams is this game, and how much the winner will stand to gain with a win. Oddsmakers have the Falcons favored by 3 1/2 points heading into Sunday’s big showdown.
Commentary by Charles Bordeau
Photo by Keith Allison – Flickr