The NFC South is at the very least a competitive division, if not one of the toughest in football. Three MVP’s for quarterback. 2 of the last 3 representatives for the NFC in the Super Bowl came in the division. And last year, 3 teams from the division made the playoffs. This year, it has a vibe that two teams really have a legit chance. But oddly, the NFC South always has that surprise squad that comes out of nowhere to win, and really be at the forefront of the NFC. And we’ve had three different champions each of the last three years.
Does that mean the 4th will win it this year? Probably not.
New Orleans won the division last year and edged out their divisional foe Carolina in the Wild Card round and lost in one of the most heartbreaking manners in the Divisional to Minnesota. Atlanta, after their Super Bowl run got back in as a #6 seed, defeated the upstart Rams with relative ease, but also lost in stinging fashion in the Divisional to Philadelphia. Tampa Bay had issues all year with injury and issues and was considered by many a major disappointment as some had them being the one that would be the Falcons from the year before.
So, how will it shape up? Will the Saints repeat and exact revenge on Minnesota? Will Carolina get over the hump against the Saints and Cam Newton look like his MVP self? Will Atlanta’s young defense start to be the feature of that team? And will Tampa Bay get out of their own way?
Here we go. Order by how I feel the teams will pan out.
(1) ATLANTA FALCONS
LAST SEASON: 10-6, 3RD PLACE; DEFEATED LOS ANGELES RAMS IN WILD CARD, LOST TO PHILADELPHIA IN DIVISIONAL
KEY ADDITIONS: TE-Logan Paulsen (FA-San Francisco), G-Brandon Fusco (FA-San Francisco), CB-Justin Bethel (FA-Arizona), S-Ron Parker (FA-Kansas City), WR-Calvin Ridley (Draft-Alabama), CB-Isaiah Oliver (Draft-Colorado), DT-Deadrin Senat (Draft-USF)
KEY LOSSES: WR-Taylor Gabriel (FA-Chicago), WR/KR-Andre Roberts (FA-New York Jets), TE-Levine Toilolo (FA-Detroit), DE-Adrian Clayborn (FA-New England), DT-Dontari Poe (FA-Carolina)
The Falcons entered 2017 with some high hopes of getting back to the Super Bowl and avenging their loss. They kept pretty much the team in tact plus adding a former Pro Bowler in Dontari Poe. However, things didn’t work out the way people had hoped. While the defense made huge strides and kept on building to be one of the best in the league, the offense fell back under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. And really, everybody on the offensive side including Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu, etc. were heavily criticized for not putting up the same numbers as their record breaking offense last year. Now this year is a little different as now Sarkisian has control of the offense and adds another weapon in Alabama receiving standout Calvin Ridley to go along with fellow Tide alum Julio Jones, who drew a lot of headlines of possibly holding out. He didn’t but people will look at Julio’s season to see if he can step up as he has gone to be one of the more polarizing figures in Atlanta sports right now. He had a big year, but only 3 TD’s and had key drops and mistakes in big games. The defense however, is where people are excited on with young rising stars of Deion Jones at linebacker, Vic Beasley returning to end where he dominated in 2016, Keanu Neal at safety, Grady Jarrett on the inside, and Takk McKinley opposite of Beasley. Many feel Atlanta quite possibly has a top 5 defense in the league, which to go along with an offense that can figure things out, it can be an exciting season in Atlanta. KEY QUESTION: Will Julio Jones have an MVP-caliber year at receiver? IF he stays healthy and makes those big catches like Falcons fans are accustomed him to having prior to 2017, then yes. To be effective, he needs to at least have 7 or 8 TD’s and be a beast in the red zone. But given how he wants an “update” to his contract, he will be playing with quite possibly a chip on his shoulder.
MY PREDICTION: 12-4. Atlanta doesn’t have an easy schedule, but the scary part was last year, they were in all of their games but one and 4 of the 6 losses they had a shot on the final drive to win, plus the playoff game against Philadelphia. If the offense gets it together, they won’t have to worry about a final drive coming up short.
(2) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS:
LAST SEASON: 11-5, FIRST PLACE, DEFEATED CAROLINA IN WILD CARD, LOST TO MINNESOTA IN DIVISIONAL
KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Tom Savage (FA-Houston), RB-Terrance West (FA-Baltimore), RB-Shane Vereen (FA-New York Giants), WR-Cameron Meredith (FA-Chicago), WR-Michael Floyd (FA-Minnesota), WR-Brandon Tate (FA-Buffalo), G-Jermon Bushrod (FA-Chicago), T-Don Barclay (FA-Detroit), LB-Demario Davis (FA-New York Jets), CB-Patrick Robinson (FA-Philadelphia) S-Kurt Coleman (FA-Carolina), DE-Marcus Davenport (Draft-UTSA), WR-Tre’Quan Smith (Draft-UCF)
KEY LOSSES: QB-Chase Daniel (FA-Chicago), WR-Willie Snead (FA-Baltimore), T-Senio Kelemete (FA-Houston), S-Kenny Vaccaro (FA-Tennessee), S-Rafael Bush (FA-Buffalo)
New Orleans had one of the most improved teams last year. It wasn’t just because Drew Brees is Drew Brees. Drew Brees is always Drew Brees. But what really got New Orleans going was they put more emphasis on the run game with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, which is one of the deadliest one-two punches in the backfield. And on the defensive side, they made huge jumps with Marshon Lattimore at corner and All-Pro Cameron Jordan at end with Alex Okafor on the other side. They went from being a joke on defense to at the very worst a respectable one and by the end of the year a tough one. Of course, we know the story to their end of the season and while they added good pieces of the off-season, they lose Mark Ingram to start the year for a PED violation. New Orleans loaded up on backs and receivers bringing in Terrance West until Ingram returns as well as Cameron Meredith and Michael Floyd. The defense added Demario Davis from the Jets and Patrick Robinson, both good moves I believe. But you wonder if the suspension of Ingram for four will sting them early on (two of the games are at Atlanta and the Giants) and knock their rhythm off. But this team should be in the thick of the NFC race. KEY QUESTION: Can the Saints defense be a top 10 defense to go with Brees? Yes. If they do that, you could see the Saints and Falcons be fighting for the division where 12 wins may not be enough to win. I think there will always be that second guessing on New Orleans and their defense as it hasn’t been the reason why they have won games. It has really been the reason why there is only one Super Bowl under Brees. But they have pieces. MY PREDICTION: 11-5. I believe the Saints are one of the three best teams in the NFC alongside Atlanta and Philadelphia and could be a 14-2 team really easy. The home schedule is an interesting one (Eagles, Steelers, Rams), and facing their rivals at home is always a dogfight.
(3) CAROLINA PANTHERS
LAST SEASON: 11-5, 2ND PLACE, LOST TO NEW ORLEANS IN WILD CARD
KEY ADDITIONS: RB-CJ Anderson (FA-Denver), RB-Kenjon Barner (FA-Philadelphia), WR-Torrey Smith (Trade-Philadelphia), WR-Jarius Wright (FA-Minnesota), G-Jeremiah Sirles (FA-Miami), DT-Dontari Poe (FA-Atlanta), CB-Da’Norris Searcy (FA-Tennessee), WR-DJ Moore (Draft-Maryland), CB-Donte Jackson (Draft-LSU), S-Rashaan Gaulden (Draft-Tennessee)
KEY LOSSES: QB-Derek Anderson (FA), RB-Jonathan Stewart (FA-New York Giants), TE-Ed Dickson (FA-Seattle), G-Andrew Norwell (FA-Jacksonville), DT-Star Lotuleilei (FA-Buffalo), DE-Charles Johnson (FA), CB-Kurt Coleman (FA-New Orleans), T-Daryl Williams (Injury), CB-Ross Cockrell (Injury)
Carolina’s last seasons have gone something like this: 2015 was GREAT. 2016 was BAD. And 2017 was somewhere in between. Yes, they won 11 games, but Carolina has a knack of winning games in some of the ugliest manners. And it seems wherever quarterback Cam Newton goes, Carolina goes. Newton is one of the most polarizing figures in football with his style and attitude. When he’s on, he’s dancing and having a good time and Carolina is winning. When he’s off, he is that kid you see outside at recess in time out, sulking and whining and you don’t want to be around him. Last year he was pretty much good and bad, but he can’t be pulling that card all the time. Cam has to be consistent all season similar to 2015. Now, partly because of Cam, it has a vibe Carolina is a bit of a house of cards. I don’t see them having the same depth as their rivals in Atlanta or New Orleans and while Christian McCaffrey is a good receiving running back, he isn’t a guy I would trust to run the ball 20 times per game and take over. Carolina gave Newton a couple of pieces in DJ Moore and Torrey Smith to help out and give him reliable hands and a playmaker so that helps. But lost in the shuffle is the fact the Panthers lost All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell to Jacksonville and starting right tackle Daryl Williams, which means teams can pressure Cam more and when Cam gets pressured, he struggles immensely. On defense, Carolina will have that mix of veterans like Luke Kuechly, Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis (who is suspended for the first four games), and added Dontari Poe while they have a youthful group mostly in the secondary, notably Donte Jackson and James Bradberry. But it doesn’t seem like the Panthers defense is as dangerous as we’ve come to know them. They can still stop the run thanks to that line up front, but passing is a concern especially when you see Brees and Ryan for four games and this year having to see Big Ben, Wentz, and Goff will only hurt matters. But I just think Carolina’s defense isn’t as stout as what we’ve come to see and if Newton’s inconsistencies and immaturity show up, it will be a disappointing year in Carolina. KEY QUESTION: If the Panthers struggle and finish under .500 will we see an overhaul in the team with new ownership? Yes. Rivera has been coaching on a hot seat for the last 3 seasons it seems. And if Cam struggles and say the Panthers go 6-10, there may be some talk of deciding if Cam is their guy.
MY PREDICTION: 7-9. Carolina has a talented bunch, but not deeply talented like others. And I also don’t see Cam turning back the clock to 2015.
(4) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
LAST SEASON: 5-11, 4TH PLACE
KEY ADDITIONS: C-Ryan Jensen (FA-Baltimore), K-Chandler Cantanzaro (FA-New York Jets), DE-Jason Pierre-Paul (Trade-New York Giants), DE-Vinny Curry (FA-Philadelphia), LS-Drew Ferris (FA-Seattle), DT-Vita Vea (Draft-Washington), G-Alex Cappa (Draft-Humboldt State), RB-Ronald Jones (Draft-USC)
KEY LOSSES: RB-Doug Martin (Released-Oakland), K-Patrick Murray (FA), DT-Clinton McDonald (FA-Denver), DE-Robert Ayers (FA), DT-Chris Baker (FA-Cincinnati), DE-Ryan Russell (FA-Buffalo), CB-Robert McClain (FA)
What a difference a year makes. This time last year many thought in 2017 Tampa Bay would do what Atlanta did in 2016 and what Carolina did in 2015 and Jameis Winston would have an MVP-caliber year. It started out fine as Tampa Bay went 2-1, but then fell apart. Winston was injured and was showing signs of acting more like the controversial, immature guy that people believed he was at Florida State. While his numbers didn’t necessarily reflect it, it just seemed Winston didn’t take that next step. And once again, his off-field problems came back to hurt him as he will miss four games, including three against the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers. When he comes back, there is a good chance he comes back 0-4 (they get the Bears in Chicago too) and they have a road game in Atlanta after their bye. The sad part is, Tampa Bay is a talented team, especially with their defensive line of Gerald McCoy, William Gholston, and now Jason Pierre-Paul & Vita Vea in the fold. Tampa Bay will have a good defense to be reckoned with (though not to be confused with the Sapp-Brooks-Lynch years). That said, while the line is great, the secondary is a problem and being in the NFC South will not be easy and given how the defense is very conservative, it will be a bigger problem. But of course, it comes back to Winston. As the Bucs 2017 season became lost, the talk of tension between Winston and Dirk Koetter arose. And the local media downplayed it like “well, we are losing, it won’t always be peaches & cream.” Well, the problem is, if you are losing, the last thing needed is to have tension and to work together and it didn’t look like they were working together. So if Winston comes back to Tampa and sitting at 0-4, there will be a lot of dissecting with his communication with him & Koetter. And if it goes south, the Bucs season is really lost. KEY QUESTION: If Tampa has a losing season that they win less than 6 games, will this be Winston’s last season with the Bucs? No, but let’s face it, Koetter may be gone. And he may be gone if the Bucs are out if it by early November. The next head coach will probably give Winston a shot and if there are issues with him & Winston, you can bet 2019 will be Winston’s last.
MY PREDICTION: 4-12. Tampa has gaping holes in the secondary and at running back. And if there are too many issues in the locker room, it won’t help anybody.
That’s it for this week.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat