Final Word: NFC South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Scoreboard watching. This is going to be one of the big deals Sunday. Not necessarily for coaches, but for fans. For the most part, it’s pretty simple. If the Atlanta Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers, they win the NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. But New Orleans Saints fans will be rooting hard for the Panthers. If Carolina can somehow upset Atlanta, the Saints will claim the division and the top seed with a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Things are a little more complicated for the Bucs. They need a win against New Orleans and lots of help. If they can come out with a victory, the Bucs will be flying back across the Gulf of Mexico rooting hard for the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants to lose.

Fox’s last stand. John Fox, the best coach in Carolina history, quietly will coach his last game for the Panthers against Atlanta. (The Panthers officially announced Friday that he will not return.) Fox also might be keeping an eye on scores because several jobs might come open. Another late-season collapse in New York could mean the end for Tom Coughlin, whose team plays Washington. Once upon a time, Fox was a very popular defensive coordinator with the Giants. Fox likely will have other options, but the New York job would be a dream for him.

Angry Falcons. I wouldn’t count on Fox going out in a blaze of glory. The Falcons are still mad about losing to the Saints on Monday night. Coach Mike Smith has a rule about letting a game go after a day, but this one is sticking with Atlanta. I expect the Falcons will take out their frustration on the Panthers.

Changing of the guard? I don’t have a crystal ball and have no idea what’s going to happen with the labor situation. A quick resolution to that could make a lot of things more clear. But, at the moment, we must wonder if this could be the final game with their teams for some NFC South stalwarts. Tampa Bay’s Barrett Ruud and Cadillac Williams, Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith and New Orleans’ Pierre Thomas are guys who may leave through free agency or trades.

Rising stars. Speaking of changing scenery and coaching changes, there are a couple of NFC South assistants who could jump into the headlines in the coming weeks. Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s name already has been tied to some jobs, at least speculatively because other teams can’t talk to him now. I also think that New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will get mentioned somewhere.