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Panthers' win over Falcons showed how easy Buccaneers' path to 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 one to do it.

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

The Atlanta Falcons entered Thursday night tied for first place in the NFC South. Anyone who watched Thursday night's game against the Carolina Panthers wouldn't confuse the Falcons for a future division champion. But it's the 2022 NFC South, and the Falcons will be in the race for at least a few more weeks, just because nobody else has shown they can separate from the pack.

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

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

An ugly, low-scoring contest

When fans tuned in on Thursday night and saw pouring rain in Charlotte, they had to know what they were in for.

The two teams struggled to move the ball. The Panthers found some success on the ground.

In the second quarter, the Panthers had a perfectly timed play call against the Falcons' blitz. The Falcons blitzed from Panthers quarterback PJ Walker's left, he threw a backwards swing pass to Laviska Shenault, and Shenault had to just get through his blockers and go down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown.

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

Near the end of the first half, the Falcons got into the red zone. They trailed 13-0. It was clear they wouldn't have many chances to score. With 21 seconds left, the Falcons threw a two-yard pass to Cordarrelle Patterson and ran down the clock for a field goal. It really didn't make much sense. But it's not like the Falcons' offense was going to make a play anyway.

The Panthers are bad enough that they've already fired their coach this season. The Falcons are theoretically a little better but you wouldn't have known it Thursday night. All the Buccaneers have to do is not trip all 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 cross that low bar.

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

Falcons fall behind Buccaneers

The Falcons have played hard early this season and have pulled out some wins, but they're limited. In general terms, they act like the forward pass should be outlawed, presumably because they don't trust Mariota.

Mariota has mostly been a low-volume, safe passer this season. On Thursday night he made several bad decisions. One wild interception led to a Panthers field goal in the second quarter. Atlanta's offense was stuck all night, and that led to Mariota pressing even more. He tried to throw one pass from his backside on a sack and it was intercepted, but Mariota was saved from being on highlight reels forever because he was ruled down before he threw. His whole night was terrible, and not all of it can be blamed on the rain. The way the Falcons try to hide Mariota makes it obvious he's not their quarterback of the future, and it makes it pretty hard to win in the present as well.

The New Orleans Saints are 3-6 and they could still get hot, but that seems unlikely. The Panthers are even less likely to get hot, though they have played better for interim coach Steve Wilks. The NFC South is likely coming down to the Falcons or Buccaneers. About halfway through the season, the Buccaneers have a good defense and the blind hope their offense with all those star names turns things around. Atlanta's shot at stealing an unlikely division title is dwindling as we see their weaknesses exposed.

The NFC South winner will host a playoff game. But none of the four teams look like they deserve it.