NFL: NFC South Preview

One of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, the NFC South is always a battle. Last season, the New Orleans Saints reigned supreme, winning the division with a 13-3 record. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers both had disappointing seasons that saw them finish at 7-9 respectively. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers limped to a 5-11 last-place finish.

Coming into the 2019 season, expectations are high for the top-three in this division. The Saints, Falcons and Panthers will all be vying for the top spot. The Buccaneers will be looking to start anew under a new head coach and a fresh outlook. Regardless of how the standings shake up, each game should be intense between the divisional foes.

With that in mind, here is the division preview for the NFC South:

Atlanta Falcons

Last Year

In 2018, the Falcons were coming off three-straight playoff appearances and a recent Super Bowl loss. The expectations for this team were very high, considering they still had a lot of players from their Super Bowl run. Furthermore, the Super Bowl was hosted in their own stadium, making them favorites by many to make it back.

However, they stumbled out of the gate, going 1-4 in their first five games. This was due in large part to the massive amount of injuries they incurred, losing seven starters to the IR. At one point, Atlanta was 4-9, a far cry from their recent regular season successes. Yet, they were able to win their last three games to finish the year with a respectable 7-9 record.

There were a few silver linings in last year’s tumble. Julio Jones put up his usual All-Pro numbers, leading the league with 1,677 receiving yards. Rookie Calvin Ridley was a standout on offense, along with tight-end Austin Hooper. Matt Ryan put up amazing stats, considering the circumstances, throwing for 4,924 yards and 35 touchdowns to only 7 picks. In the end, it was their bottom-ranked defense that did them in. The Falcons defense allowed 26.4 points-per-game, good for 25th in the league.

Offseason Moves

The Falcons had a few pressing issues that they begun to address in the draft. In the first round, Atlanta drafted guard Chris Lindstrom and offensive tackle Kaleb McGrady. These two pieces will be essential in trying to keep Matt Ryan untouched throughout the season. To address the defense, the Falcons resigned defensive stalwarts, like Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones.

Yet, they created some new problems, mainly by releasing veteran kicker Matt Bryant. Without an All-Pro kicker, the Falcons will look for his replacement in the open market. Until this major issue is resolved, the lack of a reliable kicking unit may end up haunting Atlanta this season.

What to Expect

There is no denying that Atlanta has one of the best offenses in the NFL. Ryan is a top-tier quarterback and Jones is one of the best wide-receivers. With Ridley, Hooper and Mohamed Sanu, they arguably have the best receiving core in the league. If their defense can get back to its 2017 level, the Falcons will be favored to make it back to the playoffs.

Furthermore, their health will be a determining factor in how they do this year. Pro-Bowlers like Devonta Freeman and Vic Beasley had limited playing time. The Falcons need difference-makers like those two to come back strong in 2019 for them to compete.

However, their schedule doesn’t do them any favors. In the first eight weeks, Atlanta will face the Vikings, Eagles, Colts, Titans, Texans, Rams and Seahawks. Then, after their Week 9 bye, they play all of their six divisional games, plus the 49ers and Jaguars. That is one brutal schedule, but the Falcons should expect coach Dan Quinn and company to get a winning record this year.

Carolina Panthers

Last Year

The Panthers had a polar opposite season to the Falcons, yet they ended with the same record as them. Carolina started off 6-2 with hopes of eclipsing their 11-5 record from the year before. Yet, they immediately fell on a 7-game losing streak, finishing the year going 1-7 for a mediocre 7-9 record.

Cam Newton had a very good season, completing over 67 percent of his passes for 3,395 yards. However, he had been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury all year, which eventually sidelined him after Week 15. This was definitely the biggest reason for their second-half decline. Couple this with a middle-of-the-road defense, and the Panthers really stood no chance at competing for the division.

Along with a healthy Cam, Christian McCaffrey had a breakout season to carry the offense. The dual-threat running back rushed for over 1,000 yards and caught over 800 yards for a combined 13 touchdowns. Carolina’s offense scored 23.5 PPG, which was tied for 14th in the NFL. In the end, their offense couldn’t overcome their lackluster defense and salvage their season.

Offseason Moves

Seeing their franchise quarterback get battered and bruised, the Panthers had to improve their offensive line this offseason. They were able to do so in landing the top free-agent center in Matt Paradis. The former Bronco is a key veteran piece that will surely help Cam stay upright.

To bolster their defense, Carolina signed Bruce Irvin and Gerald McCoy to one-year deals. Irvin was an integral part of the ‘Legion of Boom’ as a steady defensive linebacker. McCoy, meanwhile, is a six-time Pro-Bowler who used to torture the Panthers as a member of the Buccaneers. These two veteran defensemen will play a big part in Carolina’s defensive scheme in 2019.

Moreover, the Panthers were able to further address their defense, as well as get a backup quarterback in the draft. In the first round, Carolina took linebacker Brian Burns. Burns was first-team All-ACC as a Junior for Florida State. In the third round, the Panthers then selected Will Grier. Grier posted up impressive numbers for West Virginia and will be a very capable emergency starter for Carolina is Cam gets hurt again.

What to Expect

If Newton can remain healthy over the course of 16 games, then there is no reason to think that the Panthers won’t make the playoffs. They are a better team on paper and have an easier schedule compared to other teams in their division.

Coach Ron Rivera will have a lot to prove this season. The Panthers have the chance to have a top-15 offense and defense this year, a combination that would breed success. If Rivera can lead his team back to prominence, then Carolina will be a fearsome threat once again in the league. Expect the Panthers to be playoffs contenders in 2019.

New Orleans Saints

Last Year

At 13-3, the Saints were tied for the best record in the NFL and were one missed pass-interference call away from making the Super Bowl. Under the tutelage of coach Sean Payton and future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees, New Orleans have been consistent winners. And in 2018, they won a lot, boasting a nine-game winning streak at one point.

Although they were unceremoniously knocked out by the Rams, there was much to love about their season. Michael Thomas proved himself as a number-one threat for Brees, as he led the league in receptions and totaled 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns. Alvin Kamara continued to produce, albeit injuries limited his production towards the end. If it weren’t for Patrick Mahomes, Brees would’ve won his first MVP–he broke the NFL record for highest completion percentage in a season with 74.4 percent.

Brees’ historic career has kept the Saints relevant in recent years. His incredible stats will most likely translate for at least another three years. After tasting defeat in the NFC Championship game, Payton and Brees were rightly furious and are now highly motivated coming into the new year.

Offseason Moves

Not satisfied with just missing out on the big game, New Orleans decided to hit the open market to help. The Saints were able to snag veteran tight end Jared Cook, as well as defensive tackle Malcolm Brown. Cook had an outstanding year for the Raiders with Derek Carr throwing to him. Now, Brees will have yet another offensive talent to target.

To help keep their defense from regressing, the Saints resigned All-Pro Cameron Jordan to a three-year deal. New Orleans had a surprisingly solid defense, and Jordan played a huge part in that.

The biggest loss for the Saints was Mark Ingram signing in free agency with the Ravens. However, they were able to land Latavius Murray on a four-year deal to replenish their backfield. The former Pro-Bowler will be a serviceable second-option for coach Payton. If Murray can reignite his play from his days as a Raider, then the Saints will undoubtedly have the best offense in the NFL.

What to Expect

On paper, this team is arguably better than the team that lost in the NFC Championship. There is no reason that they can’t make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009. Anything less than a 10-win season would be considered a failure for New Orleans.

Expect the Saints to have another top-three offensive season, as Brees will have Thomas, Kamara, Cook and Murray to work with. Although their schedule is a bit harder than last year, they have the ability to outscore and beat any team in the league. If their defense can continue to improve from last year’s 14th rank, then the Saints will be Super Bowl favorites.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last Year

Last year, the Buccaneers had one of the most prolific offenses behind the dual-play time that was split between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston. ‘Fitzmagic’ was back for the first two games due to Winston’s suspension. In his absence, Fitzpatrick and Tampa Bay beat the Saints 48-40, then the Eagles 27-21 to start off a shocking 2-0. They had a chance to win their third game, but Ryan threw three interceptions in a crushing loss to the Steelers.

After ‘Fitzmagic’ turned into ‘Fitztragic,’ the Buccaneers decided to give Jameis another shot in Week 4. The two would trade spots throughout the season, with Winston ending up with 9 starts to Fitzpatrick’s 7. After sitting at a respectable 5-7, Tampa Bay would go on to lose their last four games.

Their offense remained a force no matter who was under center, as the Buccaneers had the third-most yards-per-game and the most passing yards. Mike Evans made another Pro-Bowl, raking in over 1,500 yards and eight touchdowns. Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson all had 700+ receiving yards, which made Tampa Bay’s aerial attack one of the most potent in the league. Their lack of a running game and porous defense hindered their chances at winning many of their games.

Offseason Moves

Perhaps the biggest move of the offseason for the Buccaneers was not player acquisitions but coaching hires. Tampa Bay signed Bruce Arians to be head coach, as well as Todd Bowles to be defensive coordinator. The hope is that Arians and Bowles will be able to instill their tough-nosed defensive tactics into their lackluster defense.

Nonetheless, the Buccaneers still were able to make a few changes. After losing McCoy to the Panthers, Tampa Bay went out and signed veteran linebacker Ndamukong Suh. Alongisde Jason Pierre-Paul, Suh should be able to help out the Buccaneers like he did with the Rams’ defense. To further strength their defense, Tampa Bay used the fifth pick in the draft to get linebacker Devin White. White was a defensive beast for LSU, leading the SEC in tackles two years in a row.

What to Expect

Although the Buccaneers did make some improvements, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the team. The jury is still out on Jameis as a franchise quarterback, and they’re playing under a whole new offensive and defensive system.

Alas, even a decent year would most likely see them finish last in the division again. The NFC South just has too many good teams for there to be a legitimate way for them to make the playoffs. Expect a competitive team that will be close in many games, but lose a lot of nail-biters.

Division Winner

Popular Opinion

Most experts have the Saints winning the division again, although many agree that it will be much closer than it was last year. New Orleans has the best coach and quarterback in the division, which almost always give you the best chance to win.

The consensus is that the Falcons and Panthers will have bounce-back years and that the Saints will remain at the top. There is almost no one outside of Tampa Bay who expects the Buccaneers to win the division, let alone make the playoffs.

My Pick

I agree with the majority and believe the Saints will win, but the Falcons and Panthers won’t be too far behind them. It’s hard for me to see the Saints winning 13 games again since the Panthers and Falcons will be much-improved foes. Also, the Buccaneers will be no slouches either. This may very well end up being the most competitive and closest division in football.

I see the Saints topping the NFC South with 11 wins, followed by the Falcons with 10, the Panthers with 9 and the Buccaneers with 7. These win-totals would be improvements for everyone except the Saints, but 11 wins is still great for New Orleans. Depending on how the other NFC divisions play out, I can see the Saints, Falcons and Panthers all making the postseason. It just goes to show how strong the NFC South is.

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