The defending NFC Champs reside in the NFC South, which otherwise, on paper, is a weak division. However, despite the general lack of recent success, that’s not to say that each team is devoid (100% unsure of whether I used that word right) of any talent. Each team has a guy you could consider a ‘superstar’, and each team is worthy of watching deep into the season, whether they have playoff aspirations or not.
A few years ago, it looked like the Falcons were on the up and up. They had a young quarterback, they had just traded up in the draft to go get the epitome of a game-changing wide receiver, and their defense was solid. It looked like the NFC would eventually be theirs for the taking, but they never truly capitalized.
Well, as Kenny Chesney says, “don’t blink”. Now, Matt Ryan is 31, and while I don’t think he’s declining, or think that 31 is an old age for a quarterback, he can only improve so much from here. Atlanta is smack-dab in the middle of his prime, and they haven’t won anything. I’m not saying Julio Jones wasn’t worth trading up for, but he’s only played a full 16 games twice. He’s only had double-digit touchdowns once. The Falcons’ window to win is small, even if it doesn’t look that way with their two franchise cornerstones being 31 and 27, respectively. Devonta Freeman burst on to the scene last year, and he’s a huge cog to this offense. Adding Mohammed Sanu is absolutely an upgrade over Roddy White, as weird as that was to type. I’m confident in the Falcons’ offensive line. Yet, they’re still coming off a season in which they were 21st in points scored. 21st. Basically, to summarize, I’m not worried about the Falcons’ ability to score points.
With head coach Dan Quinn, a former Seahawks defensive coordinator, their defense should be prominent, as well. The team isn’t loaded with defensive talent, but they’re not barren either. The line is okay, anchored by end Adrian Clayborn. The linebackers are okay, with the biggest name being Alabama product Courtney Upshaw. They have Desmond Trufant, who’s a top-10 cornerback in all of football. I think Keanu ‘Reeves’ Neal was a good first round pick to help out their secondary. But they were 14th in points allowed. 14th. And for some reason, they can’t avoid giving up the big play.
The Falcons should be a good team. They should be a playoff team perennially, especially considering their division was considered wide open until a year ago. Either way, I don’t see them doing any better than .500.
I had Carolina as a 10-6 team last year, but then Cam Newton decided to say, “shut up Tyler, you’re an idiot”. Can they replicate last year’s success, a season which they only lost on two occasions (including Super Bowl Sunday)? Well, that’s doubtful. And for a 15-1 team, they’re only at 14-1 odds to win the Super Bowl this season, which I think is a good bet for those of you gamblers out there.
Cam Newton won the MVP, and in my opinion, there was no other candidate even as close to as worthy as him (that’s coming from a Tom Brady fan). But that’s not what people remember. Football fans everywhere remember him being ineffective in the Super Bowl, and they remember him not diving on his own fumble in crunch time to basically seal a Broncos victory. Finally, they remember him walking off the interview podium because he could hear Denver’s players celebrating in the not-too-far distance. My point is that Cam has to prove himself again, because people view him as a sore sport, as a choker, and as a pussy (to put it really bluntly). I’m not sure he can put up last year’s staggering numbers just because of who he’s working with – ‘Third Leg’ Greg Olsen is still his most reliable target. Corey Brown and Ted Ginn are okay, but they’re not great receivers. Kelvin Benjamin is coming back, but you have to wonder how much his ACL will affect his game. Plus, considering his style of play, Cam is always a threat to get hurt. If he goes down, so too do the Panthers.
The biggest offseason noise that Carolina made was losing Josh Norman, even though he was initially cool with the franchise tag. I may or may not be misremembering, but it basically seemed like he was staying in Carolina for at least another season. Then, poof, he’s gone. Norman might not be the best man-cover corner, but he worked like a charm in that defense. Now, the defense isn’t going to struggle. They still have the game’s best linebacker in Luke Kuechly, which counts for a ton. Their secondary took one step down, but Tre Boston and Kurt Coleman will help any of their corners over the top. Despite being hurt last year, Robert McClain has a history of being a solid cornerback. Carolina’s line is stupid good, too, with Charles Johnson and Star Lotulelei holding it down.
Carolina should win the AFC South rather easily. I’m confident they’ll get back to the playoffs and possibly make some noise, even if they won’t be as flashy as last season’s run.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are rebuilding, but I’m not convinced they’ll ever be fully rebuilt again. I think it’ll be a long, long time before New Orleans is relevant in football again (truly unfortunate, such a great city). That being said, they’re interesting because they quietly have some good players.
Sean Payton is still the coach and Drew Brees is still the quarterback. It’s not like they’ve ever been uber-talented on the offensive side of the ball anyways, but when you look closer, they’re not going to be a bunch of slouches. Even at 37, Brees can still sling it with the best of them. They have Brandin Cooks, who really disappointed me in fantasy football last year, but is still an all-world player in terms of pure talent. They drafted Michael Thomas out of Ohio State, so stretching the field won’t be a problem, On a low key, Willie Snead had a nice number of 69 catches in only 8 starts. Colby Fleener is a reliable receiving option as a tight end, though he’ll obviously never put up Jimmy Graham-type numbers. Other than throwing? Mark Ingram is alive and well in their backfield. Though I personally don’t hear about him much, he’s quietly productive if he remains on the field.
The Saints are stacked at the safety position, with Jarius Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, rookie Vonn Bell and Roman Harper all vying for playing time. Depth at safety, however, is a really good problem to have, especially when you consider that one of those guys could be expendable if a team is willing to make a trade It’s an even better problem to have when you consider how bad their cornerbacks are. I like their defensive line though, which is anchored by Cameron Jordan, newcomer Nick Fairley, and rookie Sheldon Rankins. I don’t think their linebackers are anything special, but signing James Laurinaitis helps them out for sure.
The Saints won’t be a cakewalk for any team to play. Some would even give them a super, super, super outside shot at the playoffs. I think that’s to ambitious for where they are now, but at least you know they’ll be out their busting their asses.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are basically the NFC’s version of the Jaguars. I think they’re still one year away, but they’re capable of surprising you. I think they had a really good draft, they’ve got good cornerstones to their franchise, and this time next year, you’ll be talking about them as a potential playoff team.
Jameis Winston really surprised me last year. I have never doubted his talent, but I’ve been the biggest hater in terms of his maturity and leadership skills. Supposing he doesn’t do anything really stupid off the field, the Bucs seem to have found their franchise man; 28 total touchdowns is very solid for any rookie quarterback, and while you’d rather not see 15 picks out of your starter, it’s a good number for a rookie who had turnover problems in college. He’s got talent around him too, with the most notable name being Texas A&M product Mike Evans. When he’s healthy, Evans is an athletic freak and a fringe top-15 receiver in the NFL. The catch is that he’s the only receiver worth noting outside of Vincent Jackson, who is solid but aging. The Bucs also enjoyed a career-saving season from Doug Martin, who reminded everyone why he was once regarded as one of the best, well-rounded backs in the league. I hope for his sake he can build off of last year, because I absolutely love the way he plays.
Like the Jaguars, the Bucs are still figuring it out on D, though Tampa Bay is farther along. Alterraun Verner is a pretty good corner who can handle top receivers while rookie Vernon Hargreaves gets his feel for the NFL. Hargreaves should eventually be one of the best corners in football, but it’s huge that he doesn’t have to learn the game against the likes of a player like Julio Jones, who he most likely won’t be responsible for. Their line will get a boost from rookie Noah Spence, who Tampa Bay is hoping can stay out of trouble despite his checkered past. Robert Ayers and Gerald McCoy are both solid enough, despite the fact that you won’t hear them mentioned as the game’s best talents.
First-year head coach Dirk Koetter inherited a very good roster. I think he’s under pressure to improve on last year’s record, especially since Lovie Smith was making such great progress. I’m still lost as to why they fired him, but if Koetter can get them around the .500 mark, no one will be missing Smith.
My NFC South Standings Prediction
Panthers (11-5), 3
***Italicized numbers indicate predicted playoff seeding.
Cover photo courtesy of Sporting News.