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Around the NFC South: Tight race to the finish


Once again, three NFC South teams are in line to make the playoffs, meaning there will be lots on the line in the seven remaining games that feature division teams.

The playoff scenarios for the Panthers, Saints and Falcons are dizzying with three weeks left. All three are still capable of winning the division, and all three are still capable of missing the playoffs altogether (and no one can clinch a spot this week). It's possible that the winner of the Week 17 game between the Panthers and the Falcons wins the division while the loser doesn't make the playoffs at all.

"The only thing really that I've worked out is we will take them one at a time and then see what happens," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We could sit here and drive ourselves crazy, but the thing we have to focus on really is what we do. We can't count on anyone doing anything for us; we have to do it for ourselves."

The irony of that last statement is that the Panthers are the only team of the three that doesn't control its own destiny in regards to winning the division. Win out, however, and Carolina knows it's at least in the playoffs as a wild card.

SAINTS: Just when it seemed like New Orleans has seized control of the division with its Week 13 victory over the Panthers, the Saints slipped against the Falcons to make it a three-team race again.

New Orleans and Carolina now have the same record (9-4), but the Saints hold the tiebreaker and still have to be considered the favorites: They host a Jets team that will have Bryce Petty under center Sunday and visit a reeling Buccaneers team in Week 17. In between they host the Falcons (8-5), and the Saints could even absorb a loss there and still come out on top. No other team has that manageable of a schedule and that bit of wriggle room.

The Saints looked like a different team with rookie running sensation Alvin Kamara sidelined by a concussion against Atlanta, but he's got a good chance of returning coming off a Thursday night game.

FALCONS: Atlanta kept its division hopes alive and moved back into a playoff spot with its victory over the Saints combined with Seattle's loss to Jacksonville. It was a bizarre game in which Matt Ryan again struggled to protect the football, but the Falcons somehow found a way.

They're the only NFC South contender with only division games remaining, starting with a trip to Tampa for Monday Night Football.

BUCCANEERS: At 4-9, Tampa has been mathematically eliminated from the race (Houston at 4-9 is technically still alive in the AFC), but the Buccaneers' remaining schedule means they could still have some say-so.

Tampa hosts Atlanta this week, visits the Panthers in Week 16 and hosts the Saints in Week 17. The Buccaneers' first three division games weren't very close: They lost by an average score of 27-11, failing to lose any of the games by less than two touchdowns.

View the top photos from Panthers vs. Vikings by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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