NFC South nothing short of a disgrace this season
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
Heading into Week 16 of the NFL season, five of the six would-be playoff teams in the NFC impressively have double-digit wins on the season with two weeks to play. Unlike in the AFC where the playoff picture is a logjam and many teams are still alive, the NFC playoff picture is pretty steady and now seems to be more of a determination of seeding rather than deciding who will actually make the postseason.
However, the NFC South has been a major disappointment this season, as none of its four teams inhabit a winning record or will finish over .500 this season. At a lowly 6-8 record, the New Orleans Saints would right now win the division and host the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in a Wild Card weekend game. In case you were wondering, the Seahawks are 10-4 and one of the hottest teams in the NFL as of late. The likeliness of a scenario like this happening, where a worse team plays host to a far better team in the first round of the playoffs, has rekindled the debate over postseason reform, which we will come back to shortly.
First off, the division has taken a big step back from last season when it got two strong teams to the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs. Now, only one undeserving team will be one of the six NFC teams to play football in the month of January. Entering the season, the division-champion Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints were expected to contend for the NFC South crown once again, along with an improved Atlanta Falcons team. The only thing that has gone according to prediction in the NFC South, other than a neck-and-neck division race, is that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a battle for the top pick in next May's draft.
Due to the absence of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, constant injuries to running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and a complete revamp of the wide receiver department, the Panthers have trudged to a 5-8-1 record (it could have been 6-8 or 5-9 had it not been for a Week 6 tie against the Cincinnati Bengals). As a result of these inconsistencies, Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton has struggled at times this season. Despite Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly leading the league in tackles, the Panthers' defense has been nowhere near what it was last season when it was the second-best in the NFL.
The Panthers finish up the season with two big games against playoff-contending teams; home against the Cleveland Browns and at the Georgia Dome against the Falcons. The Panthers will need some help from Atlanta and Tampa Bay in order to capture back-to-back division titles.
With future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees having another fine season and a vastly-improved running game, the Saints' offense has been nothing short of strong this season. However, the Saints' have a minus-nine giveaway/takeaway difference which is one of the worst in the NFL.
In addition to turning the ball over too much, the New Orleans defense is one of the worst in the league and has suffered from key injuries, like Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, despite a great season so far from linebacker Curtis Lofton. The Saints will need to cut down on turnovers and step it up defensively if New Orleans wants to hold onto the NFC South lead.
The Saints close out the season at home in the Superdome this weekend against the Falcons and at Tampa Bay next weekend. Because the Saints control their own destiny, all New Orleans needs to do is win out to claim the NFC South.
While division champions normally deserve a home playoff game for their accomplishments, whoever wins the NFC South just does not deserve it one bit. Nevertheless, one of these teams will host a Wild Card game against a superior team that has had a much better season. Therefore, here's a possible way to improve the structure of the playoffs.
Like Brees and the Saints, Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons have been one of the best offensive teams in the league this season. However, despite the efforts of Ryan and Pro Bowl wideout Julio Jones, the Falcons have had one of the most lackluster running attacks in the NFL.
Not to mention the Falcons' defense is the worst-rated overall in the entire league with the worst-rated secondary in all of football. Playoff teams need to be able to run the football and play great defense, two things which the Falcons cannot do and could keep Atlanta out of the playoffs.
The Falcons wrap up the regular season at New Orleans this weekend and home in Week 17 against Carolina. While the Falcons are behind both New Orleans and Carolina heading into the final two weeks, the big advantage Atlanta holds over both teams is that they hold the best divisional record at 4-0 so far against division opponents.
If a division champion finishes with a worse record than its Wild Card opponent, especially if the team does not have a winning record, the lower-seeded team should host the Wild Card and be rewarded for having the better regular season. Implementing this policy could be difficult to do, but I believe it would make winning one's division strongly an incentive rather than trying to just win it in order to get a home playoff game. In addition, it would greatly impact the way division champions play at the end of the season once they have clinched the division title. Rather than just settling for any seed, it would hopefully motivate teams to play their guys through all 16 games to get the best possible playoff position.
Of these three teams, the last one any opponent wants to play on the road is the Saints in that always-raucous Superdome despite New Orleans' struggles at home this season. Hopefully, for the good of the NFL, whoever takes the NFC South title will prove to be a little less of a disappointment than it has been so far this season.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph