Uncertainty brings intrigue to NFC South race

December, 12, 2008
12/12/08
1:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Thirteen games into it -- make it 14 in the case of the New Orleans Saints -- and no one has run away with the NFC South title or completely fallen out of the playoff picture.

It's a logjam of a division with a race so tight that no one can clinch the division this weekend and, even at 7-7, the Saints still are not mathematically eliminated. Carolina is 10-3, Tampa Bay is 9-4 and Atlanta is 8-5.

There have been arguments made the NFC South is the best division in the NFL, but there's not much clarity. The NFC South could end up sending three teams to the playoffs or it could end up with only one representative.

What has been called the NASCAR Division is heading for a furious final lap with all sorts of scenarios possible.

"I hate the scenarios,'' Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph said. "I hate to look too far in advance.''

That's the nature of uncertainty, but there are five things we do know for certain in the NFC South:

1. The Carolina Panthers, who still have a shot at the No. 1 seed with a game against the New York Giants looming next week, can at least clinch a playoff spot this week. Initially, there were six scenarios for the Panthers to get in, but Chicago's victory against New Orleans on Thursday night, eliminated two of those.

That leaves the Panthers hosting Denver and needing any of the following to clinch a spot:

a. A Carolina win against Denver, combined with a Dallas loss or tie.
b. A Carolina win, combined with an Atlanta loss or tie.
c. A Carolina loss, combined with a Dallas loss, plus a Philadelphia loss or tie.
d. An Atlanta loss, combined with a Dallas loss, plus a Washington loss or tie.

2. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, even after an ugly loss to Carolina on "Monday Night Football," have a chance to clinch a playoff spot this week. That loss took Tampa Bay out of control of the division race, at least for the moment, but the Bucs still can put themselves in the playoffs. Two scenarios will do that.

a. A victory Sunday at Atlanta, combined with a loss or tie by Dallas.
b. A victory Sunday at Atlanta, combined with a loss or tie by Philadelphia.

"Making the tournament is a great accomplishment," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "I saw a team last year (the New York Giants) win the whole thing getting this position in the tournament. We've got to take care of business -- we've got to win a game. We haven't had a two-game losing streak this season; we want to maintain that. It's very important that we bounce back from a loss. I think that's what good teams do. But our goal is always to make the tournament. That gives you a chance to win the Super Bowl if you're in the tournament."

3. The Falcons have a chance to get into the playoffs, too. They just can't clinch anything this week. But Atlanta, one of the most surprising teams in the NFL, has a chance at anything from the division title to a wild-card spot. For Atlanta to win the NFC South, the Falcons would have to win their three remaining games and Tampa Bay and Carolina would have to lose out.

That's a long shot, but Atlanta could make itself an almost-certain playoff team if the Falcons can win all three games. Even if they win two, the Falcons would be 10-6 and have a shot at a wild-card spot.

4. The Saints might as well start getting ready for next year. They'll probably be mathematically eliminated by the end of the day Sunday. The Saints entered the season with perhaps more talent than any team in the division. But injuries and a brutal schedule have held them back.

There still will be some intrigue in the final two games as quarterback Drew Brees chases Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season. But the Saints should start looking ahead to next year and finding ways to put a solid team around Brees so that something like this doesn't happen again.

5. The home field means almost everything. Maybe it's a good thing Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta can't clinch the division this week. That means they all are still fighting for the title or, at least, a high wild-card spot. Either of those could get them a home game or games and that could be critical.

In case you haven't heard, NFC South teams are almost unbeatable at home. So far this season, they're 24-2 at home. Division teams have six home games left and, if Atlanta and Carolina win Sunday, the NFC South will clinch at least a tie for the best combined home winning percentage ever.

Beyond that, nothing else is certain in the NFC South this week. That's what makes the division so interesting.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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