December 8, 2023 9:00am

Who wins the NFC South?

Is this the year for Atlanta to return to the top of the NFC South?

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

Since 2017, 20 different NFL franchises have won division titles. Atlanta has not been one of those teams – but the Falcons have some believers in 2023.

The Falcons lead the NFC South with a 6-6 record with five games remaining. The New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are both a step back at 5-7. The Buccaneers won the South last season…but with a losing record (8-9).

Only seven NFL teams have ever qualified for the playoffs with a non-winning record. The 1985 Cleveland Browns, 2008 San Diego Chargers and 2011 Denver Broncos all snuck in as division winners with 8-8 records. But since 2010, four teams have qualified for the playoffs as division winners with sub-.500 records: the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9), 2014 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1), 2020 Washington Redskins (7-9) and those 2022 Bucs.

So in this week’s NFL Power Poll, we asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters to identify what team and what record wins the South this season. We offered up six options – Atlanta with nine wins or more, the Falcons with eight wins or less, New Orleans with nine wins or more, the Saints with eight wins or less, Tampa Bay with nine wins or more and the Buccaneers with eight wins or less.

Our voters decided the Falcons should manage their first winning season since 2017 and their first division title since 2016, receiving 72 of the 178 votes cast. Atlanta at 8-9 or worse received 47 votes, followed by New Orleans at eight wins or less with 27 votes.

All three of the NFC South front-runners play each other down the stretch and all have a game remaining against division patsy Carolina (1-11). Only Tampa Bay has a division leader outside of the NFC South left on its schedule – Jacksonville.

“It's hardly surprising that the NFC South winner is likely to be the fourth seed in the playoffs -- and get a home game versus a much better wild-card team,” said Hall-of-Fame voter Barry Wilner. “While not one of the division's clubs has shown much consistency nor seems a threat in the postseason, Atlanta appears to have just enough staying power to win the South. But no staying power beyond that.”

Last season, the Buccaneers captured the the fourth seed and a home field but were blown out by the Dallas Cowboys, 31-14, in the opening round of the playoffs.

Our second question involves the Cowboys, who play the key game in the NFL schedule this weekend against the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. The importance of the game has heightened by Philadelphia’s loss to San Francisco at home last weekend. That dropped the Eagles to 10-2, just one game ahead of the 9-3 Cowboys. The Eagles won the first meeting between the two teams a month ago, but that game was in Philadelphia. The rematch is at Dallas – and the Cowboys enter with a four-game winning streak.

The Cowboys need a victory to have a chance for the NFC East crown. If they fall back by two games with four to play, it will likely be a hill too difficult to climb – what with games the next three weeks against fellow Super Bowl contenders Buffalo, Miami and Detroit.

The Cowboys were tabbed by our panel to win the game, outpolling the Eagles, 117-61.

“Easy one,” said Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Drew Pearson. “Go Cowboys!!!”

But the matchup doesn’t excite former Hall-of-Fame voter Vito Stellino.

“Since the 49ers scored 42 points against both Cowboys and Eagles, it probably doesn't matter which team wins the division,” Stellino said.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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