NFC South takes spotlight as NFL's best Week 17 drama

This is the first time The Saints are heading to the playoffs since 2013.

Punch playoff tickets for the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.

With a 23-13 victory over the visiting Atlanta Falcons, the Saints clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. And with a 22-19 comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers will return to the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons.

The NFC South remains up for grabs, however. The Saints needed a win and a Panthers loss to clinch the division. But because that didn’t happen, the division will not be decided until the final week.

New Orleans plays at Tampa Bay, while the Panthers play at Atlanta.

That game in Atlanta carries great importance for the Falcons as well because the defending NFC champions would need help to get into the postseason if they don't prevail.

The Panthers are breathing a sigh of relief this evening. They trailed the Buccaneers the entire fourth quarter until Cam Newton scored on a run up the middle from 2 yards out with 39 seconds left on the clock.

The defense then sacked Jameis Winston and caused him to fumble with 30 seconds left to clinch the victory.

You can often throw records out the window in those divisional games, but the 4-11 Bucs probably shouldn’t have posted as much of a threat as they did. However, Carolina struggled on offense, managing only 140 passing yards on the day. But the Panthers defense forced three turnovers to keep their team in the game.

Although the Panthers now own a 3-1 record this month, they’re still a difficult team to figure. Just when they seemed to have regained their effectiveness on offense last week, their inconsistencies returned this week. Obviously, they’d prefer to be clicking on all cylinders as they head into the playoffs. They’ll try to figure things out this week and end the regular season on an authoritative note.

Meanwhile in New Orleans, defense also came up big, although Drew Brees and his offense didn’t need the same kind of help that Newton & Co. did.

The defense produced two goal-line stands, five sacks and two takeaways to help hold Matt Ryan and the Falcons in check.

The Falcons did hold the Saints' usually prolific rushing attack to just 86 yards, and New Orleans converted on just three of 13 third downs. However, New Orleans still looks like the most well-rounded team in the division and the squad with the best chance of making a postseason run.

Atlanta, meanwhile, has some of the same problems as Carolina when it comes to consistency on offense. The Falcons have the tools to compete with the best of them. But far too often, they fall short. Sunday they converted just two of 13 third downs, and struggles in the run game (67 yards on 20 carries) were glaring.

Julio Jones had a big day with seven catches for 149 yards. But this offense just isn’t the same without Kyle Shanahan. Even if the Falcons do manage to claw their way into the playoffs, they could really struggle to make much noise.

© 2018 USATODAY.COM


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