Tom Brady with a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter was like Michael Jordan shooting the winning shot at the end of the game — it’s an automatic win.
Before Sunday, Brady was 218-0 with a seven-point or greater lead in the fourth. He always closed the game — always made the right play at the right time. He was the NFL version of former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
On the shores of Lake Erie on Sunday, Brady’s seven-point lead streak came to an end. And it wasn’t because he didn’t have chances. The Bucs offense had the ball three times in the fourth, gaining only two first downs and having to punt all three times. In overtime, they also had to punt the ball back to the Browns, which eventually cost them the game.
The Bucs offense scored in the second quarter with 7:42 remaining and from that moment forward only punted, never scored or even got close to scoring. They were shut down by the Browns defense, gaining fewer than 75 yards and six first downs the rest of the game. All it would have taken was one score against the Browns and the Bucs would be in control of the NFC South. Now they are fighting for their playoff life.
Now, who wins the South? If you say the Bucs, you didn’t watch them struggle to move the ball or protect Brady on Sunday. You didn’t watch Brady look completely frustrated with the offense and the lack of cohesiveness in their execution, which included his inability to make accurate throws. You didn’t watch the Bucs’ game management at the end, allowing the Browns more time to tie the game. You didn’t watch the Bucs struggle to stop Nick Chubb running, even though they knew Chubb was the Browns’ only chance of winning. The Bucs are the easy answer — and might prevail, but right now, they are not a playoff team.
The mighty South isn’t so mighty. There isn’t a quality playoff team in the South. Hell, there isn’t a quality team, period. All of them have faults — huge faults. All of them have been inconsistent on both sides of the ball — and all of them must play perfectly each week to win. What’s most alarming is that none of them can get their quarterbacks to play at a winning level. Brady isn’t the same Brady — not because of his off-the-field problems but because the team around him isn’t conducive for his game. Brady needs a tight end who can win one-on-one, he needs a slot receiver and he needs a pass-catching running back, none of which are part of the ‘22 Bucs offense.
The Bucs cannot consistently protect Brady, even though the ball comes out of his hand so quickly. And the defense isn’t the same this season as they cannot stop the run or create turnovers. They have the toughest remaining schedule of the teams in the South — even though they are the betting favorite at -330. They face New Orleans at home this week, then off to San Francisco, then home for the Bengals, at Arizona, home for Carolina and finish the season at Atlanta, which might decide the South.
Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota struggles to throw the ball consistently, struggles to make throws down the field and, unless the Falcons’ running game featuring him as one of the runners is humming, the Falcons offense stalls. And their defense always reminds me of when Kevin, the little kid left alone for Christmas in the movie “Home Alone,” looks at a picture of his brother Buzz’s girlfriend and says “Buzz, your girlfriend, woof.” Each time I watch Atlanta play defense, I feel the same. The Falcons might be my favorite to win the South had they beaten New Orleans on opening day, which they should have, and not lost to Bucs in Tampa. They have Pittsburgh this week at home, then the bye before closing with road games against New Orleans and Baltimore and home games with Arizona and Tampa. They are +750 to win the South, which seems like a great number, but because of their 1-3 divisional record, they will need to win four of the next five and get a little help. It's doable, and as long as the Falcons play their style, they are a tough team to beat.
Carolina fired Matt Rhule after Week 5 with a 1-4 record. The Panthers were never a bad team — they were an average team with bad quarterback play. They easily could have won their first four games had quarterback Baker Mayfield played halfway decent — it wouldn’t have taken much. He didn’t and it cost Rhule his job. Now, with a strong running game behind D'Onta Foreman and a good defense, the Panthers have a chance to win the South. They have already beaten the Bucs, Saints and Falcons, and their schedule for the remaining five games, (they are on a bye this week) has games they can win. None of them will be easy — at Seattle, home for Pittsburgh and Detroit, then on the road for Tampa and New Orleans. It will take a herculean effort to win four of those games along with quarterback Sam Darnold playing better, but it’s possible. Their betting odds are the longest in the South at +1600 because the best they can do is get nine wins. Would that be enough? Yes, but they have no margin for error, and a team that is as inconsistent as the Panthers makes too many errors. Yet it’s still worth a little pizza money for them to win the South.
New Orleans has been dealing with injuries all season, along with bad quarterback play. The Saints’ season is on the line this week when they face the Bucs in Tampa. In their first game, with Jameis Winston under center, the Saints committed five turnovers, losing 20-10. The Bucs struggled to move the ball in the game — like they always do against the Saints, and the game was tied at 3-3 entering the fourth quarter. Mike Edwards broke the game open when he intercepted a Winston pass for a pick-six. Expect the same type of game this time. After this game, the Saints have a bye, then are home against Atlanta, on the road for Cleveland and Philadelphia before finishing at home against the Panthers. Can they win four of those five games? Doubtful, but it won’t matter if they don’t win Sunday.
What often determines winning in December is a great defense and a hot kicker, which none of the four teams in the South possesses. Yes, the Panthers have the best defense, but trusting Eddy Pinero to make a clutch kick isn’t comforting. Therefore, that December formula might not apply to the South. Then alter the formula and go with the team with the best quarterback — which makes sense, right? Yet it’s hard to believe Brady and the Bucs will instantly come to life, and the other three quarterbacks can barely keep their heads above water. All four teams can make a case to win South and all four can easily fall flat. Which leads me to my final formula: Strong running game, good special teams and a great kicker, and Atlanta has all three.
Arthur Smith of the Falcons has done a great job of getting the most out of his talent. He won’t win Coach of the Year, but his work has been outstanding. He can run the ball on anyone, and if he can get some stops from his defense and kicker Younghoe Koo stays consistent, his team can be the best of the worst. They would get my money at +750 and if they beat Pittsburgh at home this weekend, that number will get shorter.