EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth of eight NFL division previews. Next week, the AFC South.
The NFC South was the powerhouse of the league last year with two wild cards for the first time in its current configuration. It was only the sixth time since 2002, the first season the league had four divisions in each conference, that three teams reached the postseason from the same grouping.
In all, the South was 10 games over .500, which is quite a change from three years previous when the loop was a cumulative 19 games under, just one off the NFL division futility mark. That was the season Carolina finished first at 7-8-1.
Things figure to remain on the uptick in the South this year, for it’s the only division that has three teams with a win expectancy of 9 or better, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Tampa Bay is the odd team out at 6.5.
The closely contested South also was the only division last season in which its champ, New Orleans, won via tiebreaker. The Saints edged out the Panthers at 11-5 by virtue of a season sweep that included a meeting in the wild-card round.
New Orleans has the making of another strong team this year, but won’t be catching anyone by surprise when listed at 100-1 for the Super Bowl a season ago.
Below is the predicted order of finish in the South. The odds are courtesy of Westgate.
1. Atlanta (11-5 to win division; 16-1 to win Super Bowl): The past two years Atlanta has suffered agonizing playoff losses against the eventual Super Bowl champ –New England in OT of the Super Bowl in the 2016 season and last year’s 15-10 loss at Philly in the divisional round when they couldn’t score the winning TD in the waning moments after having first-and-goal from the Eagles’ 9.
Fueled by one of best OLs in league and the passing combo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones (if he’s not moping over his contract), and with the addition of first-round pick Calvin Ridley, a WR from Alabama, the Falcons should earn the slot atop the South in 2018.
The running game is in good hands again with Devonta Freeman (865 yards last year) and Tevin Coleman (628), which will help the offense regain its swagger after it dipped from a league-best 540 points in 2016 to 353 last year.
Defensively, the Falcons moved pass-rush specialist Vic Beasley back to defensive end, where he played as a rookie in 2016 and led the league with 15.5 sacks. He’ll be next to solid DT Grady Jarrett. The secondary is strong, too.
Note: The Falcons won the average starting field position battle in only seven of 18 games last season. A year earlier in their Super run, they had an edge in 14 of 19 games.
2. New Orleans (5-4 div; 16-1 SB): The Saints were the only one of nine teams to open 0-2 last year and still reach the playoffs, but then came their excruciating exit in the divisional round on a Hail Mary in Minnesota. That’s got to leave a mark. Still, the season was a rousing success compared to three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014-16.
QB Drew Brees, 39, is back to lead the team for the 13th year. His 72 percent completion rate in 2017 was a league record, but then again he had 139 flips to RBs Alvin Kamara, the league’s offensive rookie of the year, and Mark Ingram, who will serve a four-game PED suspension to open the season. They were third and seventh, respectively, with YAC totaling 1,157.
But Brees did hit WR Michael Thomas 104 times for 1,245 yards and revitalized the career of Ted Ginn Jr. (53/787). And since Brees was sacked a league-low 20 times behind a solid line, he didn’t face too much wear and tear.
On defense they also had a rookie of the year in Marcus Lattimore at cornerback and pass-rushing phenom Cameron Jordan, who was tied for fourth in the league with 13 sacks. Looking good there.
Note: Four QB’s had their worst game of the season in 2017 vs. New Orleans (based on passer rating): Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Tyrod Taylor. All but Stafford led his team to the playoffs.
3. Carolina (11-5 / 30-1): After winning three division titles from 2014-2016, the Panthers finished second last year by a thread but still made the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. They might not be so fortunate this year.
Newton, who has taken a beating in his seven seasons, really needs to scale back the times he leaves himself open to poundings. Not only was he sacked 35 times last year but had 139 rushes, the most for any QB the past 45 years. He was second in the NFL with 16 interceptions and tied for second with six fumbles.
The Panthers will be counting on Maryland rookie WR C.J. Moore to give a boost to a pedestrian passing game. Speaking of blocking, the Panthers suffered tough losses in camp when ORT Darryl Williams and OLG Amini Silatolu went down with serious knee injuries. Not to mention the free-agency departure of Pro Bowl guard Andrew Norwell.
Defensively, LBs Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are key. But Davis will miss the first three games (PED suspension) and Kuechly has had concussion issues.
Note: The Panthers face four teams coming off an extended break after playing on a Thursday, the most for any team since 2012: Week 2 at Atlanta, W3 home vs. Cincinnati, W7 at Philadelphia and W12 home with Seattle.
4. Tampa Bay (14-1 /125-1): No team has taken a bigger plunge on the Westgate Super Bowl board than the Bucs, who opened at 40-1 and then saw a beleaguered QB Jameis Winston suspended the first three games for his Uber escapade. The next longest shot is at 100-1.
The Bucs, thus, seemed doomed to their seventh last-place South finish in the past eight years. Last season they were buried five games deep out of third.
In 2017 the Bucs made a big splash with the addition of deep threat DeSean Jackson, but he proved to be a relative dud with a career-low norm of 13.4 a catch. And on defense, the unit was last in the league in yards allowed.
In such a tough division, the Bucs’ hopes aren’t all that great.
Note: Tampa Bay hasn’t scored off a kickoff or punt since 2010, the longest dry spell in the league. But that’s nothing. From the Bucs’ inception in 1976 to 1993 they went 18 years without such a touchdown, the longest drought in league history.