The NFC South Division has sent a representative to the past two Super Bowls. The Carolina Panthers in 2016 and the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, of course. And another team from the division won the Super Bowl in the past decade. That would be the New Orleans Saints, following the 2009 season. On Sunday, all three teams came into Week 13 as playoffs teams (if the season had ended last Sunday). But, they all didn’t leave the weekend that way.
The Falcons, who had scored an average of 28 points over the past five games, hosted the Minnesota Vikings. But the Vikings would sail out of town with 14-9 victory. Plus, the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC.
That game was a bit of shock to the Falcons. For starters, Matt Ryan and company went without a touchdown. The loss dropped them to 7-5 and now, they’re just on the outside looking in. But with four divisional games remaining, Atlanta is anything but out of the postseason conversation. Plus, two of them come against the Saints.
The bigger game on Sunday featured the Panthers at the Saints, as both teams came into the game at 8-3. Or in other words, tied for the division lead. The Saints had man-handled the Panthers in 34-13 in Week 3 of the season. Then they did it again on Sunday.
The Saints would take their great rushing attack against one of the better defenses in the league, piling up 148 net yards in a 31-21 win. The 9-3 Saints would also grab the solo lead in the NFC South. Currently, they are demonstrating a dominance that will make them tough to topple.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees (yes, he is still playing—and playing well—in his 17th NFL season) is at the helm. Somehow, this future Hall of Famer looks as though he hasn’t slipped a bit while passing Peyton Manning for second place on the NFL’s all-time pass completion list. Moreover, he is just 173 behind the all-time leader, Brett Favre. Brees has a pass completion percentage of better than 70 percent in nine of 12 games this season. His 25 of 34 completions against the Panthers was north of 73 percent.
Brees also has 17 touchdown passes to just five interceptions. He still gets rid of the ball quicker than just about any quarterback in the league. You’d think with all those numbers that Brees was doing it all himself this season. But while that has been the case in the past, it is not the story in 2017.
The Saints running game, which encountered some early-season obstacles (much like New Orleans’ record), has become a strength of this team that reeled off eight consecutive wins after starting the season 0-2.
The running game had an albatross around its neck in the first quarter of the season, when future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson joined veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara in the offensive backfield and basically dragged it down like a lead weight. The Saints had drafted Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft but still signed Peterson to a free agent contract that served to crowd the running backs room with strange bedfellows.
The Saints played the Vikings on the Monday night season opener and Peterson’s return to Minnesota made for a huge distraction that only got worse as he clamored for carries and did little with the limited opportunities that he did receive (six carries for 18 yards and several clouds of rubberized particles at U.S. Bank Stadium). The AP experiment lasted four games before he was traded to Arizona.
The trade eased tensions on the sidelines as well. And, allowed Kamara to get more carries, which has been a difference maker this season.
Ingram and Kamara, who typically hold side-by-side press conferences (that turn into comedy routines) following games, have formed a running back tandem that keeps opposing defenses on their heels. Ingram is the steely seven-year vet (he initially bristled at the signing of Peterson) who grounds out tough yards while still having the speed to make defensive backs miss in the open field. His nine rushing touchdowns are tied for third in the league for all touchdowns.
Kamara, meanwhile, can do it all. His prowess on the field now makes many wonder where the idea for Peterson came from in the first place. The Saints have rushed for an average of 182.2 yards per game in their past four contests. On Sunday, Kamara became only the third rookie runner to join the 600-600 club for rushing and receiving yards in a single season. Kamara has seven rushing touchdowns and four receiving scores, tying him for the league lead in touchdowns with Todd Gurley. Kamara is high in the conversation for rookie of the year honors.
Some observers have said the rushing game is back to where it was during the Saints’ Super Bowl season of 2009. Then, the rushing game would set up the passing game for Brees. And when it does, a receiving corps that includes Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Jr. and Willie Snead (when not injured) has been there to help him out.
The other key for New Orleans has been their defense. Down for years after being gutted due to “bountygate,” the defense has rebounded and is playing well. Their unit is ranked 13th in the league, allowing 330.1 yards per game and 12th in points with 20.3 allowed per game. Gone are the days when fantasy football players would start Brees and whatever players they had going against the Saints defense and then coast to a win.
The defense is strongest against the pass (ranked 11th with 217.3 yards per game against). Part of that resurgence is due to the acquisition of rookie corner Marshon Lattimore. Another rookie getting mentions for ROY honors, Lattimore has been one of the defense’s best players this season. He was out with an ankle injury against the Panthers. But, is expected to return soon.
So, the Saints are set on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, they have two games remaining against the Falcons (plus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Jets) that should really tell the tale for the division. But two wins separates the last three teams from the division to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. So in other words, anything can still happen.
It has been called the most competitive division in football, coming a long way in a short time since 2014 when the division-winning Panthers went to the playoffs with a losing record of 7-8-1. The NFC South has risen again.
And the civil war that will take place here in the final quarter of the season should be quite a battle to watch.