There is no way to escape the reality that the NFC South is going to be the worst division in NFL history.
Bad clock management by coach Mike Smith allowed the Cleveland Browns to come from behind and beat the Atlanta Falcons in the final seconds Sunday, dropping the Falcons to 4-7. The inability to stop the run against Baltimore on Monday night dropped the New Orleans Saints to 4-7. The Saints, who developed a recent history of losing on the road, have now lost three straight home games.
Normally, there is a predictability to bad divisions, but the NFC South -- which had two playoff teams in 2013 -- has become an exception.
Even the worst divisions win at least 25 percent of their games outside of the division. The 2008 NFC West went 10-30 against the rest of the league. The 2004 NFC West, 2010 NFC West, 2002 NFC North and 1984 AFC Central each went 13-27 in nondivision games.
The NFC South is 6-23-1 against the rest of the league. That's an embarrassing 21.6 winning percentage. Eight of the NFC South's 10 remaining nondivision games are against teams with winning records. The Falcons are 0-14 against teams with .500 records or better over the past two seasons and are 0-7 outside the division this year.
The 2010 Seattle Seahawks were the first team in NFL history to win a division with a losing record. They went 7-9 and ended up upsetting New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs. A 7-9 NFC South winner is possible, and it's not out of the question for a team to win the division at 6-10.
The Falcons play Arizona, Green Bay and Pittsburgh the next three weeks and could be looking at a 4-10 record before they play New Orleans in Week 16.
Believe it or not, the Saints have the best chance to win the division. They travel to Pittsburgh on Sunday, which could drop them to 4-8. But they might be able to get a leg up with three remaining divisional games -- Carolina and Atlanta at home and a season finale in Tampa Bay. Their last remaining nondivision game is in Chicago on Dec. 15. They might be able to get to 7-9.
Three remaining divisional games keep the Carolina Panthers' hopes alive. They are 3-7-1 but have winnable nondivision games against Minnesota and Cleveland. When the four NFC South franchises try to determine what went wrong, they will find that defense is the biggest problem. The Falcons are giving up 25.5 points a game, which is the best in the division. The Saints are allowing 26 points a game, while the Bucs and Panthers are allowing 27.3.
Things don't add up. In a quarterback-driven league, the NFC South has three good quarterbacks -- Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton -- but they can't produce the consistent wins. What also doesn't make sense is the division features three defensive head coaches and the defenses are horrible. Few figured this division was going to be this bad.
From the inbox
Q: From everything I've read, Chris Borland has been playing at way above replacement level in San Francisco. With some big roster decisions coming this offseason (Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox -- I'm assuming Frank Gore will not be re-signed), my prediction is that Patrick Willis has already played his last down as a 49er.
Jon G. in Los Angeles
A: I can't see that happening; Willis is arguably the best player on the team. I remember a couple of years ago when someone in the mailbag asked if the 49ers could give a big contract extension to NaVorro Bowman after Willis got his big deal. I said if Bowman is one of the best players on the team, they can afford to keep two high-paid inside linebackers. It would be a shame if Borland has to be a backup inside linebacker, but if Bowman and Willis can get back to their top level of play, Borland would have to sit. Still, there is no guarantee Bowman will be able to get to that top level coming off the knee surgery. It's a nice situation for the 49ers to have options.
Q: Just wondering if you think with all the turmoil in Washington and the pounding that Robert Griffin III was taking, that the OL wasn't giving full effort to protect him. I'm just glad the Browns didn't mortgage the farm for him.
Gerald in Cork, Ireland
A: Under no circumstance do I think the Redskins' offensive linemen didn't do their best to protect Griffin. Coaches would pick up on that were it true, and those linemen would have been benched. RG III is a mess from a fundamental and mechanics standpoint, and he was getting worse. You are right about the Browns -- they were willing to give up a lot for Griffin. But if they got this year's version of him, the franchise would be set back a long way.
Q: Will Aaron Dobson ever actually play (regularly) for the Patriots, or are they content letting him sit on the bench for his entire career despite showing the potential to be a good WR in this league? What's more, if they are content with that, why don't they just trade/release him?
Jay in Gaithersburg, Maryland
A: I see them keeping him until next summer, but if he doesn't make any moves toward getting playing time, I could see them shopping him. With so many good receivers in the 2014 draft, there was no chance the Patriots would get anything for him in a trade. Normally, if a non-first-round pick is just sitting on the inactive list after two years, he is on the way out. If the Patriots draft a receiver or two next year, his departure would speed up.
Q: I would like your feedback on unfairness in the player/NFL contracts. I use Ben Tate as the example. Better and more interesting teams had an interest in Ben Tate (i.e. the Colts), but for seeding reasons, the Vikings won out. They have been forthright that Tate is an insurance policy. Obviously, the Vikings were in a situation where Wednesday they had one back that could practice, so the timing of Tate being released and the opportunity for them to add a back, certainly it was good timing. I find this extremely unfair that the player has no choice in his destination. The player's contract is with the team. Waivers should exist, however the player should have an opportunity to either choose his waiver or have an opportunity to opt out. It just seems unfair that Tate is forced to go to Minnesota, where he already is being pegged a backup, when a team like Indianapolis may offer him a better chance to get carries and revive his season.
Jordan in Montreal, Canada
A: It is unfair, but that process won't change. Teams control the contracts of players. For that to change, it would have to be collectively bargained or individually negotiated. With rosters of 53 players and 10 practice squadders, teams can't create too many exceptions in having that control. If they want to trade the player for value, they can do that. If they aren't satisfied with the player, they can cut him. Had Tate been cut before the trade deadline, his contract would have been terminated and he would have been able to pick and choose where he wanted to go. By going on waivers, he maintained the salary he negotiated and the contract he signed, but he lost leverage on where he could play.
Q: When a player gets cut and signs with another team, just how much information does that new team gain on the other team? You see this a lot within divisions. Being a Dolphins fan, I've seen many cut players sign with the Pats, Jets or Bills. I'm curious if this ever actually works as an advantage. Most recently I think of LeGarrette Blount going back to New England. More than just being a fit, maybe the Patriots would like some info on the Steelers. Do you think teams gain any edge when signing cut players?
Jordan in York, Pennsylvania
A: Naturally, a team can gain some information on its opponent by picking up a former player, but the info usually isn't enough to change the outcome of games. The one thing that is great about division opponents is each team knows the others so well. I'm sure a smart coach can pick up some snap count intelligence or some intel on specific plays. Knowledge is important, but this is a talent acquisition game first.