Tuesday, March 21 2023

The NFC South playoff picture is down to three teams — sorry, Falcons — and while the Saints are still alive, much of the division title is on the line for Sunday’s BucsPanthers game in Tampa (1 p.m. ET on FOX).

The outcome scenarios range from very simple to fairly complicated, with a tiny chance that a division without any teams with a winning record could still manage to put two teams in the playoffs, with wild-card possibilities still in play. Any NFC South champ is locked into the No. 4 seed and hosts the lesser of the Eagles or Cowboys, likely the Cowboys.

If the Panthers and Saints win this weekend, all three teams — Carolina, Tampa Bay and New Orleans — would have a shot at a division title on the final weekend of the regular season.

We’ll start easy and let things unfold from there. Deep breath … 

If Bucs win Sunday

If the Bucs win Sunday, they win the NFC South. At 8-8, regardless of the final game, they’d have the head-to-head tiebreaker edge on the Saints and would win the tiebreaker over Carolina on a better record against common opponents. On that, credit the Bucs for going 3-1 vs. the NFC West, while the Panthers went 1-3. In this scenario, the Bucs can even rest key starters in the finale in Atlanta — that game’s outcome won’t change their playoff seeding, though there’s value in being able to avoid a losing record.

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If Panthers win Sunday

Carolina wouldn’t clinch the division by beating the Bucs, but the Panthers would set themselves up to clinch by beating the Saints in Week 18. 

If Carolina wins Sunday but loses to the Saints in the finale, the Bucs can still win the division by beating the Falcons — they’d be 8-9 and the Panthers would finish 7-10, and they’d have the tiebreaker on the Saints if New Orleans won its remaining two games.

If Carolina wins Sunday and the Saints can upset the Eagles, that sets up the most chaotic of scenarios — three teams alive for a division title. If the Bucs lose to the Falcons and the Saints beat the Panthers, New Orleans wins the division — the Saints would be 8-9, Bucs and Panthers would both be 7-10.

If Carolina beats the Bucs and the Saints lose Sunday, then both the Bucs and Panthers lose in Week 18, you have a three- or four-way tie atop the NFC South at 7-10 — not a great look. Carolina wins this tiebreaker with a 4-2 division record, ahead of the Bucs and Saints at 3-3 each. Even if the Falcons win out, they’re 2-4 in division, which is why they’re already eliminated.

Wait, there are wild-card scenarios

For all the grief the NFC South has rightfully taken as a division that will have four teams all under .500 as January begins, there are scenarios in which the division can produce a wild card and somehow a second playoff team.

Needless to say, they need help — you have the Giants (8-6-1) and Commanders (7-7-1) currently taking the final two NFC wild cards, and you have the Seahawks, Lions and Packers all in contention at 7-8, ahead of the 6-9 Panthers and Saints. No NFC South team can catch the Giants as a wild card, and they need the Commanders to lose their remaining two games.

How do the Bucs get in as a wild card? The Panthers win their remaining games to win the South, and the Bucs beat the Falcons in the finale to get to 8-9. For that to get them in, they need lots of help — the New York Times playoff simulator gives them a 7% chance of making the playoffs at this point. 

Again, they’d need the Commanders to lose both of their remaining games, for starters. Then they need the Packers, Lions and Seahawks to each lose one of their remaining two games. If the Packers win one to finish at 8-9 with the Bucs, Tampa Bay needs Detroit to also finish 8-9, so the Lions can eliminate the Packers on a better division record, so that Green Bay’s head-to-head win over the Bucs doesn’t come into play.

For instance: Vikings beat Packers, Jets beat Seahawks and Bears beat the Lions in Week 17 — all possible — and Lions beat the Packers in Week 18. Bucs’ 8-4 conference record gives them the edge, and Packers losing two avoids them having a head-to-head win over the Bucs. Seahawks can lose either of their final two games in this scenario, and as long as the Lions go 1-1, it doesn’t matter where the wins and losses come from.

If you don’t see the Bears knocking off the Lions, then Detroit can win there and lose to Green Bay. Detroit still eliminates Green Bay first with a better division record, so Green Bay’s head-to-head win over the Bucs never comes into play. Either way, that’s still seven outcomes that must fall Tampa Bay’s way after they lose to the Panthers.

Panthers accumulate 320 rushing yards in win over Lions

The Panthers made a statement, rushing for 320 yards and three TDs in a 37-23 victory over the Lions on Christmas Eve.

How do the Saints get in as a wild card? They win their last two games to get to 8-9 but don’t win the division — the Times gives them a 4% shot at that point. Same deal as Bucs, needing Commanders to lose both games, then Packers, Seahawks and Lions to lose once, and Lions beat Bears to get into tiebreaker and eliminate Packers. Saints can win a series of tiebreakers with multiple teams at 8-9 and sneak into the playoffs.

Dizzy yet? Just remember, if the Bucs win Sunday, they win the South, and if the Panthers win their last two, they win the South. That basically covers 75% of the outcomes before you get into the complicated what-if 25%.

Top stories from FOX Sports:

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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