METAIRIE, La. -- The NFC South has been like a game of hot potato this season.
They all have thrown away their chance at first place more than once. Nobody has a winning record, and as the final month of the regular season begins, each team is within 1.5 games of each other.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6), the current division leader, dropped an opportunity to become the first of the four teams to win three games in a row this season when they lost to the Cleveland Browns in overtime Sunday.
“We’ve got five games,” said Saints coach Dennis Allen. “We’re going to go out and compete our ass off for five games and see what happens.”
As it turns out, anything could happen. With the Carolina Panthers (4-8) -- who are currently tied with the Saints but own the tiebreaker after beating them head-to-head -- on a bye, the Saints could jump from fourth to second if they beat the Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons (5-7) lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
The Falcons and Saints have byes in Week 14 and play each other in Week 15, creating an opportunity for any team who could string a few wins together.
“We have a losing record, but the best part is we’re still in first place in our division -- again -- which is hard to imagine,” Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady said on his podcast Monday. “It was like when Evander Holyfield got bit on both his ears and still won the fight against [Mike] Tyson. It wasn’t pretty, but he still got the job done.”
The NFC South faced a similar scenario midway through the season when the Bucs lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8, creating the possibility for a three-way tie in the division. The Falcons ultimately ended up the leader after a wild back-and-forth win against the Panthers in overtime.
That lead was short lived after they lost their next two games.
“It’s crazy that we’re still in this situation, I feel like a broken record,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Monday. “Where we were two weeks ago, where we were yesterday and the way the schedule is -- in a perverse way -- it’s you have a late bye, you’re a half-game back in the NFC South for however that worked out. So, it’s a unique opportunity I guess."
The division struggles have permeated each team’s thoughts so much that some Saints players chose to actively stop discussing it prior to their win against the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 20.
The players said the mindset was to relax and take care of their own problems first. It worked against the Rams, but the team’s mountain of issues flared back up in a 13-0 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
But with every other team dealing with its own flaws too, the Saints’ odds don’t seem quite as long. They faced longer odds last year when they beat the Buccaneers in Tampa as double-digit underdogs without former coach Sean Payton, who was out with COVID-19. Allen, who is in his first year as the team's head coach, stepped into head coaching duties in his absence -- which was likely a huge influence on him ultimately getting the permanent job when Payton stepped away in January.
The Saints shut down Brady that night and have been responsible for some of his worst games in Tampa Bay. Although the Buccaneers beat the Saints 20-10 earlier this year, it remains Brady’s worst game of the season in terms of passing yards (190) and rating (79.3).
That game was tied 3-3 before a scuffle that resulted in Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore and Bucs receiver Mike Evans being ejected in the fourth quarter. Three interceptions by Saints quarterback Jameis Winston and a touchdown by Brady tilted the game in the Bucs’ favor. Lattimore has been out since Week 6 but has recently returned to practice.
“I think we’ve had some pretty good battles with these guys over the last few years,” Allen said. “Obviously they’re defending champions in the division, and they’re leading the division right now. I think our guys will be motivated to play them Monday night."
The Bucs have struggled at times to put points on the board since then, averaging only 18.2 points-per-game, which ranks 28th in the NFL. Their most recent loss sounded a lot like the Saints: Missed tackles, penalties and offensive struggles.
A win won’t fix the struggles for the two flawed teams, but it will keep hope alive for the division title.
“Let's go. Like, that's the mindset. Let's go,” Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss said Tuesday. “I mean, yeah, we're a game behind, but at the end of the day, we get to see all three of our division opponents and we get two other games. We get five opportunities to go out there and right our wrongs.
“It's crazy that we still have the opportunity, but we do. So, I think that's the mindset. ... Let's go be the team that we've always said we're gonna be. And I know it hasn't been pretty so far, but the opportunities are still there, so let's do it.”