The Rams can relax. The Eagles can exhale. The Vikings can do a victory lap.
But when it comes to the NFL playoffs, there is no southern comfort.
Seven divisions have been decided, but the NFC South remains a mosh pit heading into the final Sunday of the regular season. It’s entirely conceivable that New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta could claim the three remaining postseason berths in the NFC.
It’s somewhat uncommon for one division to hoard three spots, but not rare. It happened last in 2014, when AFC North teams Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore made it. The year before that, three AFC West teams got in — Denver, Kansas City and San Diego.
What is unusual is the experience disparity between the three teams that have already clinched, and the four still jostling for position — including Seattle, which needs some help to secure a berth.
Quarterbacks Jared Goff (Rams), Case Keenum (Minnesota), and Nick Foles (Philadelphia) are in. They have one postseason start among them, by Foles three years ago.
On the other side are the last two NFL most valuable players, quarterbacks Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and Cam Newton (Carolina), and two Super Bowl winners, Drew Brees (New Orleans) and Russell Wilson (Seattle). They have 37 playoff starts among them.
“The biggest thing we have going for us in the [NFC] South is that everybody has a franchise quarterback,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week, according to the Charlotte Observer. “I think that’s one of the keys.”
In terms of experience, the head coaching situation is just as lopsided, with the Rams’ Sean McVay, the Eagles’ Doug Pederson and the Vikings’ Mike Zimmer on one side; and on the other, the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, Saints’ Sean Payton and the past two NFC champions, the Falcons’ Dan Quinn and Rivera.
The Saints and Panthers have already clinched playoff berths. New Orleans would claim the division title with a win at Tampa Bay, or a loss by Carolina at Atlanta.
The Panthers, meanwhile, would need to beat Atlanta and get a New Orleans loss to clinch the division. Carolina has a sliver of a chance to secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, although that would require a win, plus losses by New Orleans, Minnesota (versus Chicago), and the Rams (vs. San Francisco).
“I guess it’s put-up or shut-up time come Sunday,” Newton told reporters this week. “That’s the only time when no talking can ever affect the game play. It’s all about the outcome of the game. And that’s what I’m hoping: Our outcome is great.”
The Falcons would clinch a playoff berth by beating Carolina, or a Seattle loss to Arizona, or in the highly unlikely chance both the Falcons and Seahawks games end in ties.
“We’re in the position we’re in,” Ryan said. “We believe, and we know that we’re capable of playing our best football. Now we just have to go out and do it.”
Seattle needs to beat the Cardinals, and get an Atlanta loss to sneak in as a wild card.