Saints have enough firepower on offense and just enough D to topple Falcons

Saints have enough firepower on offense and just enough D to topple Falcons

August 22, 2017 3:01 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth of eight NFL division previews for the 2017-18 season.

For the second straight year the NFC South is the home of the defending NFC champion coming to grips with a crushing Super Bowl defeat.

This year it’s Atlanta, which infamously blew a 28-3 third-quarter lead in the title game to New England en route to a 34-28 loss, the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history. It also happened to Carolina in 2016 against Denver and the Panthers went on to finish last in the division.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has higher hopes than usual after ending its five-year run of last-place finishes. Giving the Bucs a boost is deep threat DeSean Jackson, who was acquired in free agency to give QB Jameis Winston another weapon. And New Orleans is upbeat after adding Adrian Peterson to an offensive directed by prolific QB Drew Brees. But can its defense take a step up?

Unlike three seasons ago when Carolina won the division with a 7-8-1 record, the South is now a more robust group. A wild card could easily emerge from here.

Here’s how the loop figures to play out. Odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas:

NEW ORLEANS (11-2 div, 50-1 SB): With a tip of the cap to the schedule maker, the Saints seem capable of becoming a division-winning Cinderella. There likely will be more of an emphasis on the run game this year with RB Mark Ingram joined by Peterson. Lost in a trade, though, is WR Brandin Cooks (78, catches, 1,173 yards), But Michael Thomas (92, 1,137) should fill in nicely.

A key will be if the Saints can adequately replace OT Terron Armstead (torn labrum). New Orleans has suffered defensively during three straight 7-9 seasons, but heralded LB coach Mike Nolan takes over a unit that should improve with the addition of ex-Panther A.J. Klein and an infusion of rookies. Encouraging is a defense that gave up only 4.1 yards per rush in 2016. It its previous five seasons, the norm was 4.6 or worse.

Note: New Orleans has a significant scheduling advantage in its two meetings with Atlanta, which is favored to win the loop. In their Thursday night meeting in Atlanta on Dec. 7, it will be the Falcons’ fourth game in 18 days. Then, on Dec. 24 in New Orleans, the Falcons will be coming off a game in Tampa Bay on short rest to face a Saints team that was home the week before against the Jets.

ATLANTA (7-5, 12-1): The Falcons are seeking to become the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to rebound from a Super loss and win the title. They’ll have to overcome a schedule that is fifth toughest in the NFL. As part of its first-place slate, Atlanta will face 2016 division champs Dallas and Seattle. And that Cowboys clash will occur well after Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension will end.

QB Matt Ryan, coming off an MVP season that saw him throw for 47 scores, including nine in the postseason with only eight INTs, will be back with often-unstoppable WR Julio Jones, who averaged 17 yards on his 83 receptions. Those two helped Atlanta score a league-best 540 points.They’ll be complemented by RB Devonta Freeman (concussion protocol) running behind a line headed by ex-Browns standout Alex Mack. Defensively, OLB Vic Beasley had a league-best 15.5 sacks, but was criticized in some circles for not providing consistent pressure on QBs. DT Dontari Poe was acquired from Kansas City and should prove to be a stout run stopper.

Note: Atlanta averaged 33.8 ppg, more than six teams managed to score even once.

TAMPA BAY (3-1, 40-1): Second-year Dirk Koetter’s team had a surprising 9-7 mark last year after the Bucs had gone 23-57 the previous five, including a 2-14 record in 2014 in which TB lost all its home games. Winston is entering his third year but apparently isn’t making strides as anticipated. Last season, his second year of full-time duty, he had seven more turnovers than his rookie year. Jackson had a league-best 17.9 yards norm on 56 receptions in Washington.

The run game is a question mark with RB Doug Martin, who had 1,402 yards two seasons ago but was injury-plagued last year and faces a three-game suspension. In 2016, TB had eight rushing TDs, tied for second fewest in the NFL. Defensively, the Bucs allowed three enemy QBs to have their best game of the year, including Atlanta’s Ryan. Tampa tied for last in the league in allowing the most pass completions of 40-plus yards and have six games against QBs in the division who ranked in the top 12 in that category in Ryan, Brees and Cam Newton. At least TB unloaded PK Robert Aguayo after a miserable 2016 season and two botched kicks in the first exhibition.

Note: Tampa Bay’s longest kickoff return last year was 26 yards. By contrast, the Eagles and Vikings averaged 27.3.

CAROLINA (12-5, 25-1): The Panthers dropped to 6-10 after their 15-1 season of 2015 in which they won the division by seven games. For the seventh straight year QB Newton will be in charge. But this time the league’s 2015 MVP is coming off rotator cuff surgery in March and has missed most drills in the offseason.

Compounding Carolina’s woes of late has been RB James Stewart’s injuries, which have kept him off the field 26 games over the past five seasons. The team hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2009, the longest drought in the league. On defense, the Panthers need All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly to stay healthy. He missed the final six games with a whopping concussion.

Note: Carolina’s record the past two seasons are almost identical to what happened to Philadelphia in 2004 and 2005, when the Eagles won the NFC East by seven games, lost in the Super Bowl and came back the next year with a 6-10 season. The Panthers would hope to follow their path, for Philly was the NFC East champ the next year at 10-6.

Next week: AFC West