On Saturday, the Atlanta Falcons will head to Philadelphia for a divisional playoff game against the winners of the NFC East. On Sunday, the Saints will head north on Sunday as well to face the NFC North-winning Minnesota Vikings in the other NFC divisional contest. Should both the Falcons and Saints prevail, the following weekend's conference championship game would be an all-NFC South affair.
It's uncommon for two teams from the same division to meet in their conference's title game. Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams and realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002, it's happened just three times. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in the 2008 playoffs to advance to Super Bowl XLIII, Green Bay topped Chicago after the 2010 season to make it to Super Bowl XLV, and Seattle prevailed over San Francisco in the '13 postseason to win a spot in Super Bowl XLVIII. All three of those teams, coincidentally, went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
The 2017 NFC South had better odds to match that feat because it provided half of the conference's postseason field. New Orleans is moving on to its date with the Vikings thanks to a 31-26 win over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers – who beat New Orleans in Week 17 and had down-to-the-wire three-point losses against Carolina and Atlanta in Weeks 15 and 16 – did not make the playoffs but did have an eventful December doing battle in the only division to send three teams to the postseason this year.
On Thursday, NFL.com's Gil Brandt identified the Buccaneers as a prime worst-to-first candidate in 2018 despite the top-to-bottom competition in the division. The 16-year history of the NFC South provides both hope and caution for that possibility. On one hand, the Bucs' division has long been known for worst-to-first transitions; on the other hand, there is almost always more competition in the NFC South than the NFL's other divisions.
The NFC South – which was formed during the '02 realignment by taking three geographically-misaligned teams from the West and adding the Bucs from the former NFC Central – has already seen a team go from last place one season to first place the next on six occasions. The NFC East has also had six worst-to-first transitions since '02, while the other six divisions have combined for just seven such occurrences. Admittedly, the South got its worst-to-first reputation early in its existence, as that happened four five straight seasons from 2003-07, then again in 2009. Still, while it doesn't count here due to a divisional tiebreaker, the Carolina Panthers just concluded a rebound from last place in 2016 to a tie for the best record (11-5) in the NFC South in 2017.
The standings can change frequently in the Buccaneers' division, but its overall strength rarely does. Beyond the anomaly of the 2013 season, in which the Panthers won the division with a 7-8-1 record, the NFC South has a history of sending strong teams to the playoffs. For example, if either New Orleans or Atlanta makes it to Super Bowl LII, it will mark the third straight year that the NFC's representative came out of the South.
Since the league went to eight division, the NFC South is the only one to place all four of its teams in a conference championship game and the only one to have all four make it to a Super Bowl. Along with the AFC North (Pittsburgh and Baltimore), the NFC South is also the only division to have two different franchises win the Super Bowl in the 32-team era.
In some ways, the eight divisions have been relatively equal in postseason appearances in the eight-division era. The AFC North has the most total appearances thanks to the general excellence of the Steelers and Ravens. The North, South and West divisions in the NFC are all tied for second behind that. However, there are some numbers that make the NFC South stand out. The following table shows how many times since 2002 each division has had a team in the playoffs, a team in the conference championship game, a team in the Super Bowl and a team that won the Super Bowl.
This year's playoff field is included into the first column below, but the conference championship games, and the Super Bowl have obviously not been determined yet.
(Key: PO – playoff appearances; CC – conference championship game appearances; SB – Super Bowl appearances; CH – Super Bowl championships)
The only division with more Super Bowl appearances in the eight-division era is the AFC East, and the New England Patriots have accounted for all seven of those. The NFC West has matched the NFC South with five Super Bowl appearances and has put three of its four teams into the final game (Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle). No other division has put more than two of its teams into the Super Bowl since 2002. Only the NFC South (Tampa Bay and New Orleans) and the AFC North (Baltimore and Pittsburgh) have had two different teams win the Super Bowl in that period.
When it comes to winning the division, the NFC South has easily been the most competitive division. The eight-division alignment has been around for 16 seasons, and the Bucs' division is the only one in which every team has already won at least three division titles. It's also the only one where no team has yet won six or more division titles.
Division Titles by Team
|**Division**||**Div. Titles**||**Division**||**Div. Titles**|
|**AFC East**||**NFC East**|
|**AFC North**||**NFC North**|
|**AFC South**||**NFC South**|
|**AFC West**||**NFC West**|
|Kansas City||4||St. Louis/L.A.||2|
In the ultra-competitive NFC South, which has been won in the last three years by Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans, it is now the Buccaneers who have gone the longest without a division title. Tampa Bay won three of the first six NFC South crowns but has been shut out since 2007. If the 2018 Buccaneers can put together the latest worst-to-first transition in a division known for exactly that, they would not only end their drought but make it so that every team in the South has at least four titles.