Two more divisions to go! Let’s take a closer look at the NFC South.
First: Atlanta Falcons (12-4)
Even though they didn’t win the division a year ago, the Falcons are clearly the best team in the NFC South. Quarterback Matt Ryan has so many weapons with two good running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, one of the league’s best wide receiving corps led by arguably the most talented receiver in Julio Jones, to go along with a solid offensive line. Even though their offense wasn’t as good as advertised a year ago, especially in the Red Zone, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian should be much more comfortable in Year 2, and thus will get the most out of Falcon’s impressive offensive talent. On defense, Atlanta has a great, young pass rush duo of Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley, a great linebacking core, and a solid secondary. They also have one of the best head coaches in Dan Quinn, which means they have no weakness what so ever. Atlanta’s schedule is also the easiest in the division (13th hardest), which means they are in great position to run away with this division.
Second: Carolina Panthers (9-7)
No matter what, it always seems as the Panthers are able to contend no matter how they’re team shapes up. This year, Carolina should once again have a record above .500. They’re still led by Cam Newton, who despite all the criticism towards him, still carries a very solid 62-45-1 record for his career. He has a little more help than usual after Carolina drafted receiver DJ Moore in the first round and traded for receiver Torrey Smith. Running back Christian McCaffrey will have a much bigger role in his second year, so he’s also primed for a huge breakout season. The main issue with the offense is the offensive line, where the left side is a mess, as left tackle Matt Kalil struggled mightily in his first season and his now injured, while All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell signed with the Jaguars in the offseason. That could hurt them when going up against premier pass rushers, such as Cameron Jordan of the Saints, the Falcons young duo, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins of the Bengals, and the Eagles vaunted defensive line. On defense, similar to the offense, there are some positives, but one costly negative. They arguably have the best front seven in football with defensive tackles Dontari Poe and Kawann Short leading an impressive defensive line and with the best linebacker in the NFL in Luke Kuechly. However, their secondary is very thin, as they are relying on a lot of young corners and safeties that are past their prime, which is not a good combination. There is a lot of talent on this team, but having holes in crucial spots will prevent them from making the playoffs in a stacked NFC.
Third: New Orleans Saints (7-9)
Last year, the Saints broke out and won the NFC South due to a stacked rookie class with running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Marcus Williams, and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Those four rookies are still there, along with generational talents in quarterback Drew Brees and defensive end Cameron Jordan, but they are going to regress for one major reason: a brutal schedule. New Orleans has the second hardest schedule this season and has a brutal end of their season that could cost them the playoffs. They also are without running back Mark Ingram the first four weeks, which will hurt their amazing offense dynamic from a year ago. Plus, the rookies will regress a little as the league figures them out, and the Saints are relying on them and a 39-year-old Brees too much to make the playoffs if any of them don’t produce at a high level.
Fourth: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)
The Buccaneers look like a complete mess heading into the season. Their quarterbacks come with so much uncertainty with quarterback Jameis Winston suspended for the first three games and with backup Ryan Fitzpatrick being as inconsistent as it gets. Since second-round rookie running back Ronald Jones failed to win the starting job, Tampa also doesn’t have a capable running game. Add in the fact that their tackles are subpar and it sure looks like there is no way they’ll be able to score enough points to keep up with the big dogs in the NFC. It also looks like there is no way they’ll be able to stop the big dogs from scoring as well, as the league’s worst pass defense from a year ago remains the same. The additions of pass rushers Jason Pierre Paul and Vinny Curry will help, but they’re both past their primes. They also have the fourth hardest schedule in the NFL, which gives this season the makings of a disaster.