NEW ORLEANS For the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, there is little margin for error.
Any misstep over the last three games of the regular season could prove costly and mean the difference between a team winning the NFC South and earning a first-round home game in the playoffs or missing the postseason altogether.
Here’s the skinny on each team going into Week 15:
▪ New Orleans: The Saints (9-4) currently hold the No. 4 seed in the NFC. They share the division lead with Carolina (9-4) but own the all-important tiebreaker by virtue of their season sweep. The Saints can capture the division title by winning out, beginning Sunday at noon against the New York Jets (5-8) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Atlanta at home and Tampa Bay on the road in Weeks 16 and 17.
▪ Carolina: The Panthers currently hold the No. 5 seed. Even if they win out, they would need the Saints to lose at least one game to win the division. Carolina closes against Green Bay and Tampa Bay at home and at Atlanta.
▪ Atlanta: The Falcons (8-5) currently hold the No. 6 seed. Even though they trail New Orleans and Carolina by a game in the division, they can claim the South by winning out against Tampa Bay and New Orleans on the road and Carolina at home.
By the way, 4-9 Tampa Bay plays all three and will have a say in which team ultimately wins the division.
No doubt, coaches Sean Payton (New Orleans), Ron Rivera (Carolina) and Dan Quinn (Atlanta) are delivering similar messages to their teams this week as they prepare for what promises to be a riveting stretch run.
It probably goes something like this: “We control our fate. Don’t worry about anybody else. Win out and we’ll count ‘em up at the end.’’
I still like the Saints to win the South and host a wildcard game the weekend of Jan. 6-7, despite their recent 1-2 slide, and despite the recent rash of injuries to key players, most notably, rookie running back Alvin Kamara who claims he will be released from concussion protocol and play against the J-E-T-S.
Kamara’s absence was noticeable in Thursday night’s 20-17 loss at Atlanta. The offense looked out of sync without their versatile rookie. As I wrote weeks ago, excluding quarterback Drew Brees, Kamara is the one player the Saints could ill-afford to lose.
I suspect if Kamara gets medical clearance, he will play Sunday against the Jets who will be forced to start unproven quarterback Bryce Petty after losing 38-year-old starter Josh McCown to a season-ending broken hand.
And while getting Kamara back on the field would be a good thing, his presence against the Falcons and Tampa Bay in Weeks 16 and 17 is critical to the Saints chances of winning the South and setting themselves up for a potential deep run in the postseason.
It’s a three-game season in the NFC South.
May the best team win.
Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.