It’s the age old question of the mediocre North American professional sports team: to tank or not to tank? We’re currently heading into week 13, and it seems like no one wants to win the NFC South. The Atlanta Falcons are currently first in the division at 4-7, tied with the New Orleans Saints and currently owning the tiebreaker. The Carolina Panthers were the real week 12 winners: they were on a bye and every other NFC South team lost, they sit a half game back of first with a 3-7-1 record, but with only a 1-2 record against the division (both of those losses coming at home to Atlanta and New Orleans). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently one game out of having the number 1 overall pick, and two games out of the division lead, with a 2-9 record.
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Recently, NBCSports.com published an article saying that the winner of the NFC South would be the real loser come draft day. It does make sense: the winner of the division can have no higher than the 21st overall pick, while the other three teams will more than likely be picking in the top 10 (a rule established after the 2008 San Diego Chargers won their division with an 8-8 record, and ended up having a higher draft pick than a number of teams that missed the playoffs). However, it’s absolutely ridiculous to argue the notion that a higher draft pick is worth giving up a playoff spot and a home playoff game.
The draft is an absolute crapshoot, there’s really no way to guarantee that a player taken in the top 10 will be better than someone taken in the 20s. Sometimes there’s a sure fire prospects who everyone knows will turn out to be all pro in the NFL, players such as Andrew Luck and Calvin Johnson. That being said, these absolute sure fire prospects are normally drafted before the back end of the top 10 (where the Falcons will probably be picking if they finish second in the division), and there really aren’t many of those in this draft other than maybe Amari Cooper (a receiver who the Falcons wouldn’t get anyway).
The Falcons already picked in the top 10 last year. They wasted a year of Matt Ryan’s prime, and would do so again if they didn’t win this terrible division. Revisiting the notion that the draft is a crapshoot, let’s look at the Jacksonville Jaguars: a team that has picked in the top 10 year in and year out since 2008. They currently own the NFL’s worst record (1-10), and were mathematically eliminated from the playoff hunt with their loss to the Colts last week. You can be sure that they’d take the 21st overall pick and a playoff appearence over another top 10 pick, which could end up being yet another bust. Even the Falcons’ own top 10 pick last year, Jake Matthews (who was considered one of the safest prospects in the draft), has struggled immensely this year. This team has special talent in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, why waste another year of that for a blind chance at a lottery?
Furthermore, making the playoffs is something all teams strive to do. That’s the goal, because anything can happen in the NFL playoffs. The New York Giants won the superbowl with a 9-7 record in 2011, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record and then proceeded to upset the defending champion New Orleans Saints on wildcard weekend. Before last year, the superbowl was won by a wildcard team three years in a row. Am I saying that these Falcons will win the superbowl? No, I wouldn’t bet on them. But then again, noone was betting on the 2011 Packers, 2012 Giants, or 2013 Ravens, all teams that not only didn’t have a first round bye but were playing on the road during wildcard weekend.
Come playoff time, there will be 12 teams left standing, and all of those teams will believe that they can win it all. All it takes is getting hot at the right time. The Falcons are 4-0 against the rest of the NFC South this year. They face division rivals during the last two weeks of the season in the Saints and Panthers; to win the division Atlanta will probably have to win both of these games (and I would bet on that happening). Winning both of those games would also give the Falcons some valuable momentum going into the playoffs if they did indeed win the division. Combine momentum with a home playoff game and, well, anything can happen.