The Panthers’ win over the Falcons showed just how easy the Buccaneers’ path to the NFC South title is

There have been three teams in NFL history to win a division title with a losing record. The Washington Commanders in 2020 were the last to do so.

Maybe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers get above .500 by the end of the season. They are probably the only team that can prevent the NFC South from being the fourth division not to produce a winning team.

The Atlanta Falcons entered Thursday night in a tie for first place in the NFC South. Anyone who watched Thursday night’s game against the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t mistake the Falcons for a future division champion. But it’s NFC South 2022, and the Falcons will be in the hunt for at least a few more weeks, simply because no one else has shown they can separate themselves from the pack.

The Panthers beat the Falcons 25-15 in a rainy, lousy game Thursday night. Neither offense did much. Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota had a brutal night. Atlanta had a chance to equalize after the offense showed signs of life and scored, then won the ball with less than three minutes left. Mariota took a bad sack on second down and the Falcons quietly turned it around in tries with another sack on fourth down. The Falcons fall to 4-6, half a game behind the Buccaneers 4-5.

The Panthers are bad, but they were much better than the Falcons on Thursday night.

An ugly, low-scoring contest

When fans tuned in Thursday night and saw pouring rain in Charlotte, they must have known what was in store for them.

Both teams struggled to move the ball. The Panthers have found some success on the field.

In the second quarter, the Panthers had a perfectly timed play call against the Falcons blitz. The Falcons blitzed from the left of Panthers quarterback PJ Walker, he threw a back pass to Laviska Shenault, and Shenault only had to get through his blockers and down the sideline for a touchdown from 41 yards.

At halftime, the Panthers had 159 yards. Walker had just 38 passing yards. On the other side, the Falcons had 96 total yards. The second half was more of a rehearsal. The Panthers could run a bit. Onta Foreman had 130 yards on 31 carries. The Falcons couldn’t do much.

Towards the end of the first half, the Falcons entered the red zone. They led 13-0. It was clear that they wouldn’t have many chances to score. With 21 seconds remaining, the Falcons threw a two-yard pass to Cordarelle Patterson and ran time for a field goal. It really didn’t make much sense. But it’s not like the Falcons offense is going to make a play anyway.

The Panthers are bad enough to have fired their coach this season. The Falcons are theoretically a bit better but you wouldn’t have known that on Thursday night. All the Buccaneers have to do is not trip over themselves to win the NFC South. But if you’ve seen the Bucs play this season, you know there’s no guarantee they can even break that low bar.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. runs for a touchdown past Atlanta Falcons linebacker Troy Andersen. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)

The hawks fall behind the buccaneers

The Falcons played strong early in the season and had a few wins, but they were limited. In general terms, they act like the forward pass should be banned, probably because they don’t trust Mariota.

Mariota has mostly been a safe low-volume passer this season. Thursday night, he made several bad decisions. A wild interception led to a Panthers field goal in the second quarter. Atlanta’s offense was stalled all night, prompting Mariota to press even harder. He tried to throw a pass from his back onto a sack and it was intercepted, but Mariota was saved from being on the highlight reels forever because he was pushed aside before throwing. Her whole night was terrible, and it can’t all be blamed on the rain. The way the Falcons are trying to hide Mariota makes it clear that he’s not their quarterback of the future, and it’s pretty hard to win in the present as well.

The New Orleans Saints are 3-6 and they could still be hot, but that seems unlikely. The Panthers are even less likely to get hot, despite having played better under interim coach Steve Wilks. The NFC South probably boils down to the Falcons or the Buccaneers. Midway through the season, the Buccaneers have a good defense and the blind hope their offense with all those star names will turn things around. Atlanta’s chance of stealing an unlikely division title dwindles as we see their weaknesses exposed.

The winner of the NFC South will host a playoff game. But none of the four teams seem to deserve it.

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