Falcons: The Athletic pundits weigh in on who will win NFC South


Coming into Sunday’s tilt in Atlanta, the Falcons had an opportunity to take a stranglehold of the division with a win over the Buccaneers.

They’d own a sterling 4-0 record in the NFC South and somewhere north of an 80% chance of a postseason berth. Instead, they sit behind Tampa Bay with less than a 30% chance of ending their playoff drought.

The division is wide open as the Bucs sit atop with the Falcons and Saints right behind them. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine as to who will eventually host the Wild Card game as the winner of the NFC South.

The Athletic pundits — Mike Jones, Ted Nguyen, and Dan Pompei — weighed in, and they’re as split as the general public.

Jones: This will come down to the wire, and it might be too close to call. But I’m going to say Tampa Bay. I have more confidence in Baker Mayfield — and the connection he has with his receivers — and the Bucs’ defense than I do in Desmond Ridder and the Falcons or Derek Carr, who doesn’t seem quite right, and the Saints’ offense. All three teams have multiple division games left, and nothing has come easily for any of them this season. The Saints even made a 28-6 win over the hapless Panthers look challenging at times. But making the playoffs will hinge largely on a team’s ability to make plays on offense and defense and limit mistakes, so the Bucs rank slightly higher on my confidence meter.

I think anyone with even an inkling of football IQ could make a case for one of the Falcons, Buccaneers, or Saints for winning the division. Jones’ reasoning is fair. Baker Mayfield and the Bucs offense isn’t anything to write home about, but an argument could be made that it’s the one worth betting on out of these three.

‘Mistakes’ is the important note here for me. Though Atlanta’s defense has consistently come up in big moments this year, their counterparts on offense have consistently shot the team in its foot. Not that Carr or Mayfield haven’t made their fair share of mistakes, but Falcons fans can practically count on Ridder to commit a handful of turnover-worthy plays.

Nguyen, on the other hand, is still taking Atlanta because of Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Bijan Robinson.

Nguyen: The Falcons still have the best shot at winning the division. They have the most explosive offense of the group, but they can’t stop turning the ball over. Ridder threw an interception and was sacked for a safety Sunday, which proved to be critical mistakes, but is there hope he can clean things up with more experience? Then again, I’ve said this after all of his starts, so maybe not. The Saints might be the best overall team, but they’re dealing with a ton of injuries on offense and defense and Carr has been underwhelming. The Buccaneers have a strong defense and an inconsistent offense, but they seem to be running the ball better, which could be a good sign later. I know I started this paragraph saying the Falcons will win it, but I’ve realized there is no favorite. All these teams are equally flawed and inconsistent.

“… is there hope he can clean things up with more experience?” That’s been the theme of the Falcons season for Desmond Ridder, but it just hasn’t changed. The one consistent facet of Ridder’s game has been inconsistencies. The evolution of the offense has been non-existent, and his development has been marginal at best. Nguyen’s last quote is the most accurate, “All these teams are equally flawed and inconsistent.”

Pompei: It could be any of the three but will likely come down to which team plays the best defense and gets the best quarterback play. The Bucs could be that team, but they probably have the toughest slate, with games against the Green Bay Packers (away) and Jaguars before finishing with the Saints and Panthers. The Falcons have played the best defense in the division, which gives them an edge. But how will Ridder play with the season on the line? The Saints have the potential to be the most well-balanced team of the three. The best guess is they beat the Falcons at home in the season finale to take the division.

More of the same here — quarterback play and defense will define the winner. The Falcons are limping into the stretch run and might not be getting any healthier, so I wouldn’t put my money on Arthur Smith’s team. However, I wouldn’t put it on Dennis Allen and the Saints or Todd Bowles and the Buccaneers either.

Photographer: Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

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