The Panthers still very much control their own destiny, but for now the Saints are in control.
New Orleans steamrolled Cincinnati on Sunday for the Saints' eighth consecutive victory, one that put the Panthers more than a game out of first place in the NFC South standings for the first time this season. A two-game deficit with both Panthers-Saints games still to come late in the season means Carolina doesn't require any outside help to win the division, but the Saints look pretty unstoppable at the moment.
It's probably too early to seriously talk about such things, but another result in the division did further brighten Carolina's wild card hopes, which will be in play if the Saints keep marching.
SAINTS: The Bengals had been struggling mightily on defense in recent weeks, so Drew Brees and Co. certainly weren't what the doctor ordered. The Saints racked up 509 yards in a 51-14 victory in Cincinnati that matched the biggest margin of loss in Bengals history and made Cincy's defense the first in NFL history to allow 500 yards in three consecutive games.
The Bengals responded by firing their defensive coordinator Monday, but they're not alone in struggling against the Saints. New Orleans (8-1) has scored 40 or more points in five games and 30 points or more in seven. Brees has thrown 21 touchdown passes against a single interception, and Alvin Kamara is second to Todd Gurley in touchdowns with 14 (11 rushing, three receiving).
Next up, the Saints host a desperate Eagles team.
FALCONS: While the Saints stretched out their NFC South lead, the Falcons did the Panthers a favor in the standings Sunday. Atlanta had been hot with three consecutive victories after a 1-4 start, but the Falcons' trip to Ohio wasn't as fruitful with a 28-16 loss to the Browns. Cleveland rolled under interim coach Gregg Williams, with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield tossing three TDs and rookie running back Nick Chubb rushing for 176 yards.
A Falcons defense that has been without linebacker Deion Jones since Week 1 and has lost both its starting safeties to season-ending injuries appeared to have righted itself relatively speaking since defensive tackle Grady Jarrett returned from a two-game absence. But after holding Washington to 14 points, the defense got dinged again. The good news for the Falcons is that Jones is eligible to return to action Sunday against the Cowboys.
The Falcons were among a trio of 4-4 NFC teams to tumble to 4-5 on Sunday, along with the Eagles and Seahawks. The Packers did improve to 4-4-1 to stand as the first team out if the playoffs started today, meaning Carolina (6-3) has more than a one-game lead in the wild card race. The Vikings are 5-3-1, followed by the Packers and then four NFC teams sitting at 4-5.
BUCCANEERS: Tampa Bay had a chance to improve to 4-5 but couldn't get the job done thanks to a hard-to-fathom statistical day. The league leaders in total offense kept that going with 501 yards against Washington, just eight fewer yards than the Saints put up while scoring 51 points. Somehow, the Buccaneers scored just three points.
The "somehow" is a familiar refrain in Tampa. The Buccaneers turned the ball over four times – including three in scoring range – to suffer a 17-6 home loss. Tampa has turned the ball over 25 times, most in the league, and the Bucs' six takeaways are the second fewest, with the 49ers needing two against the Giants on Monday Night Football to push Tampa into the cellar in that category as well.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, responsible for three of the turnovers against Washington, will remain in the starting role when Tampa visits the Giants next Sunday. The Bucs are pretty much out of the NFC South race thanks to the sizzling Saints but are fully equipped to play spoiler down the stretch. They have a home game left against each NFC South foe.