The NFC South used to be one of the worst divisions in football. In fact, since 1990 when the first wild card team was added to the playoff format, the NFC South has only had 7 qualifiers, with 5 of those 7 coming in 2010 or later. But the division isn’t a laughingstock anymore. They’ve boasted the champion of the NFC twice since 2015 and last year the Saints were a historic bad call away from becoming the third. The division should be incredibly competitive this year, as all four teams are planning to compete for the post-season. The injury-riddled Falcons are healthy again and should bounce back after a poor 2018, the Panthers are trying to make the most of a championship window with Cam Newton, and the Bucs are feeling the pressure to produce a winner.
New Orleans Saints (Over/Under: 10)
The Saints are the obvious front-runners in the division, missing a shot at the Super Bowl by a pass interference non-call for the ages. They’ll be back with another year of valuable experience for their young defense, but also another year of tread on the tires for QB Drew Brees. He’s literally 40 years old now, and because of what Tom Brady has been able to do it’s been one of the most under-reported stories of the pre-season, but Brees’ longevity has been incredible. Because of this, the sense of urgency within the franchise to win before his retirement is at an all-time high, and last year felt like the year. New Orleans extended star wide-out Michael Thomas in the off-season, but they let RB Mark Ingram, presumably leaving the undersized but still electric Alvin Kamara to seemingly carry the load. The addition of Latavius Murray from Minnesota should help alleviate Kamara’s usage, as his running style is much like that of Ingram’s – and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of dual-threat nightmare Taysom Hill. The expectations couldn’t be higher, and if the Saints stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine they’ll fail.
Atlanta Falcons (Over/Under: 8.5)
The 2018 iteration of the Falcons were a team riddled with injuries from the word go, and their season seemed like it was over before it began. Players put on IR last season include LB Deion Jones, S Keanu Neal, RB Devonta Freeman, RB Ito Smith, S Ricardo Allen, G Brandon Fusco, G Andy Levitre, and DE Derrick Shelby – all significant, if not key contributors to the team. Their injury luck last season was unfathomably bad, but those players are back, and they’ll be able to wipe the slate clean on Sunday when they take on the Vikings. Atlanta should be much more competitive because of it and they’ll also be operating under a new offense after firing OC Steve Sarkisian, who finished 14th and 10th in scoring offense in his two seasons. The Falcons biggest obstacle is in Louisiana with the Saints, but assuming health, the two teams are very close talent-wise, and it should make for some great football this fall when the two teams meet. If Atlanta is to realize its Super Bowl aspirations, they’ll need to stay healthy and improve in the red zone, but this group has already proven it has the talent.
Carolina Panthers (Over/Under: 8)
The Carolina Panthers find themselves in somewhat of an odd situation as we enter week 1 of 2019. They aren’t the Super Bowl contenders they were in 2015 when they went 15-1, but they’ve also managed to reload well after moving on from much of that roster. Christian McCaffrey is everything they hoped he’d be when they drafted him eighth, DJ Moore showed promise as a rookie, and they still have enough talent on the defense to be taken seriously. Cam is obviously a franchise QB, but I think it’s fair to wonder, especially after Luck’s retirement, how much longer can he do it? He’s fought various injuries going on two years now and a lot of his value is tied to using his tall, athletic frame running the ball. He isn’t the best pocket passer to begin with and if he’s limited to purely passing from the pocket as he ages, the Panthers can’t love their chances. Carolina has wisely made a contingency plan, picking up QB Will Grier in the draft, who could become one of the more underrated selections. The team under Ron Rivera has plenty of pressure to get back to its winning ways, but the window relative to the division and the roster doesn’t seem to match up. They’re good enough to compete, but not good enough to win a Super Bowl, and that’s what they have yet to figure out with the way they’ll build the rest of their squad.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Over/Under: 6.5)
One of the biggest shake-ups in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be an intriguing watch, at least in September. After Dirk Koetter was fired and subsequently hired to be the Falcons OC, Tampa Bay made the move to hire Bruce Arians out of retirement in a last-ditch effort to save Jameis Winston and this core group of players before it’s too late. If anyone can do it, it’s Arians, who has coached Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, and Andrew Luck over the span of his successful career. He was also able to turn the Arizona Cardinals into a yearly contender, something that hasn’t really been done before in the franchise’s history. They’ve been to the playoffs just 10 times and won only 7 games total, and even their latest Super Bowl appearance saw them squeak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. The fact that Arians was able to have success there proves that he should be able to succeed anywhere, even in Tampa. However, it may not be this year and I’m not sold it’ll be with Jameis Winston under center. Winston has racked up the yards in recent years, but his decision making is horrid both on and off the field and he isn’t exactly a new player anymore. I severely doubt his ability to change his game drastically from what it’s been his entire career, and I doubt he would even be able to make the commitment necessary to do so. If anyone can turn him around it’s Arians, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The rest of the team needs a makeover as well. They’ve never been able to give Winston a running game, and Ronald Jones has looked like a miss so far. Defensively they were one of the worst units in the league, and teams consistently carved them up through the air. While I’m a believer in Arians and his abilities, I look at the Bucs as more of a long-term turnaround as opposed to an instant fix that’s just a few key pieces away.
New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Carolina Panthers (8-8)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)