The NFC South used to be the “other” division in the NFC. The division was the remnants of the NFC West, which of course made no sense, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the old NFC Central. It has only been around since the 2002 season.
The division started with a bang with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning the super bowl after the 2002 season. Then the next year the Carolina Panthers made Super Bowl XXXVIII and lost a close game to the New England Patriots. Then the Saints had their turn winning Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season over the Indianapolis Colts. The Carolina Panthers made it back after the 2015 season, losing to the Denver Broncos in a beat down. And who can forget the most recent super bowl where the Atlanta Falcons had a 28-3 third quarter lead….. we all know what happened after that.
With the success of this division over a short time (here is looking at you NFC East, except for the Giants), this season has a chance to be the best in the division’s history. The division and conference winner Atlanta Falcons had an 11-5 record, the league MVP Matt Ryan, an offense that was explosive, and an up and coming defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started the season 3-5 with new coach Dirk Koetter, however the team got a strong run behind top pick Jameis Winston and their offense and narrowly missed out on the second wild card berth. The New Orleans Saints finished a disappointing 7-9 on the season even though Drew Brees had another spectacular season. And at 6-10 the Carolina Panthers definitely took a step back last season, with the health of key players contributing to that. With that being said, here are my predictions for the 2017 season.
1. Atlanta Falcons 11-5, first in the NFC South, won the NFC, lost in OT to New England in Super Bowl LI
Key Additions: DT Dontari Poe, DE Takkarist McKinley (R) , LB Duke Riley (R), DE Jack Crawford , WR Andre Roberts
Key Losses: Kyle Shanahan Offensive Coordinator, DE Dwight Freeney, WR Eric Weems
The Falcons finally put it all together last season. We all waited on Matt Ryan to see if he was a pretty good quarterback or an elite one. He certainly proved himself to be elite with an MVP season. Julio Jones when healthy maybe the best WR in the league, and Mohammed Sanu had a rebirth as well. The running back tandum of Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman are back as well for the Falcons’ potent offense. On defense adding Dontari Poe was a major pickup to match up with to match up with Vic Beasley. The secondary will get back Desmond Trufant and his leadership is invaluable. The Falcons addressed the defense in the draft as well with their first round pick, DE Takkarist McKinley from UCLA and LB Duke Riley from LSU. Watch out the loss of Kyle Shanahan is big, he has always been a great play caller and his schemes lead to the best offense the Falcons have ever seen, Steve Sarkisian will have big shoes to fill. I expect the Falcons to open the Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a playoff berth, home field advantage is key.
Best W-L Record: 12-4
Worst W-L record: 7-9
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7, 2nd in the NFC South, missed the playoffs
Key Additions: WR Desean Jackson, DT Chris Baker, TE O.J. Howard (R), S Justin Evans (R), WR Chris Godwin (R)
Key Losses: none
In 2016, Jameis Winston’s second year was about as steady as his first. Winston’s big arm and fearless nature was always known. This did not however always help his team. Winston turned the ball over 24 times last season ( 18 interceptions 6 lost fumbles.) Mike Evans ascension to a top 5 receiver is about complete. Cameron Brate became a steady target for Winston, especially in the red zone. Last season the Bucs were on the cusp of reaching the playoffs. On a Sundayy night game versus the Cowboys however, the Bucs lost their chance to control their destiny, and fell a game short. Problems with a consistent running game, and trouble stopping people on defense became the Bucs issues. Enter Desean Jackson, a QB’s dream for opening up defenses ( just ask Kirk Cousins and Nick Folk.) Adding to maybe the toughest 1-2 combo of wide receivers, in the draft they added TE O.J. Howard from Alabama and Chris Godwin from Penn State. That draft alone may make this offense better than the one in Atlanta. The Bucs should be in the playoff hunt until the last week and this offense will give defensive coordinators nightmares.
Best W-L record: 11-5
Worst W-L record: 7-9
3. Carolina Panthers 6-10, 4th in the NFC South, missed playoffs
Key Additions: RB Christian McCaffery (R) , DE Julius Peppers, WR Curtis Samuel (R)
Key Losses: WR Ten Ginn Jr., S Tre Boston, Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott
The 2016 season is where superman finally met some kryptonite. Cam Newton has his worst season since coming into the league. His health was the major factor in the Panthers going from 15-1 and the super bowl, to 6-10 and regrouping. The other factor was the regression of the defense. Carolina’s defense was on par with Seattle and Arizona for the tops in the NFC. Health issues with linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis hurt the defense who wasn’t able to get pressure on QB’s like they used to. Losing Sean McDermott will hurt the defense as well. The Panthers know they can’t allow Newton to take as many hits this season, and helped him out with a dynamic rookie RB Christian McCaffery. Combined with speedster WR Curtis Samuel, the potential for the Panther Offense is crazy. Defensive End Julius Peppers returns to his former team, hoping to help generate the pass rush that was missing last season. Playoffs are a possibility here because of Newton, but it all falls on his health.
Best W-L record: 9-7
Worst W-L record: 6-10
4. New Orleans Saints 7-9 , 3rd in the NFC South, missed playoffs
Key Additions: RB Adrian Peterson, WR Ten Ginn Jr., LB Manti Te’o, G Larry Warford , LB A.J. Kline , CB Marshon Lattimore (R), OT Ryan Ramczyk (R) , S Marcus Williams (R)
Key Losses: WR Brandin Cooks, RB Tim Hightower, S Jarius Byrd, DL John Jenks
The 2016 New Orleans Saints were how shall I say…. not memorable. QB Drew Brees threw for 5,208 yards, WR Brandin Cooks had 1,178 receiving yards, and RB Mark Ingram had 1,043 yards rushing. Those are all great numbers. The defense also gave up over 6,000 yards (which ranked them 27) and 454 points (which ranked them 31st.) So that would lead you to believe that the Saints focused primarily on defense. The Saints had a large turnover on their roster on both sides of the ball. The headliners being Cooks who is now in New England, and RB Adrian Peterson who is looking to revive his career. You have to wonder how much he has in the tank. However Peterson and Ingram could be a powerful tandem to help Brees, who is breaking in different receivers. In the draft the Saints made some quailty picks with CB Marshon Lattimore- Ohio State, OT Ryan Ramczyk- Wisconsin , and S Marcus Williams-Utah. These moves were made leaning more towards a team building for the future, than the last ride for Brees and HC Sean Payton. With Brees anything is possible however it is too many better teams in the NFC for the Saints to make the playoffs.
Best W-L record: 8-8
Worst W-L record: 5-11