Upcoming Free Picks

NFC South Preview: Can the Saints Go Marching In to Another Division Crown?

Image licensed from USA Today Sports

The NFC South achieved a rare feat in 2017 when the division produced three playoff teams. The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers both finished the season at 11-5, but the Saints’ two regular-season victories over the Panthers gave New Orleans the title. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons season went down to the wire, but they managed to snag the second NFC Wildcard spot with a Week 17 win over Carolina. With a 5-11 record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were just a footnote. So, how is the NFC South shaping up this year? Will they once again boast three playoff teams?  We’ll take a look at the teams, based on order of finish last season.

New Orleans Saints

2017 Record: 11-5 (won NFC South, lost in NFC Divisional Playoff 29-24 to Minnesota)

New Orleans had their shot at advancing to the NFC title game last season only to see it slip away on a last-second Hail Mary that sent them home. The Saints bring back the majority of the critical components from an offensive unit that finished fourth in the league in points and second in yards. If the defense can step up and match, or even improve upon, last year’s numbers, it could be another good season for the team down in the bayou. The Saints are poised to make a run in the NFC but can they get the necessary stops?

Offensively, the Saints bring back veteran QB Drew Brees, who connected on 386 of 536 passes for 4,189 yards with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. Even at age 39, he’s accurate and dangerous, so expect another big season. The run game has the two-headed monster of Mark Ingram II (230 carries, 1124 yards, 12 TD, 58 catches, 416 yards) and Alvin Kamara, who exploded as a rookie last year. The versatile back from Tennessee contributed 120 carries for 728 yards and eight scores while grabbing 81 passes for 826 yards and five scores. With Ingram II suspended for the first four games, Kamara will get a chance to shine right out of the gate. The passing game features Michael Thomas (104 grabs, 1245 yards, five TD) along with Ted Ginn Jr. (53 receptions, 787 yards, four TD) back from last year. The team also picked up Cameron Meredith, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, via free agency from the Bears. He hauled in 66 balls for 888 yards and four scores in 2016. The line will do its job clearing holes in the run game and protecting Brees.

Defensively, the team bid farewell to safety Kenny Vaccaro and will replace him with former Panthers safety Kurt Coleman. The team traded up in the first round to get edge rusher Marcus Davenport from UTEP to try and generate more of a pass rush. In addition to those changes, the Saints picked up former first-round pick Patrick Robinson to play the slot corner role and added linebacker Demario Davis from the Jets via free agency. New Orleans was 10th in the league in scoring defense last season but went just 3-3 when they allowed more than 21 points.  They were 1-1 in the postseason in those situations. The team has to tighten up on third down: they were 27th in the league last season as opponents converted 41 percent of their chances last season.

Carolina Panthers

2017 Record: 11-5, lost NFC Wild Card Game 31-26 to New Orleans

The Panthers were expected to have a bounce-back year in 2017, and they did. However, some of those wins were very close. They will likely have a similar 3-3 record within the division again this year, and they look to do no worse than split their games against the AFC North portion of their schedule. Road games in Washington, Philadelphia, and Detroit will be a challenge as will their home games against Baltimore and Seattle. The Giants and Ravens won’t be pushovers either.

With Devin Funchess expected to take the next step and the additions of Torrey Smith and rookie D.J. Moore, Cam Newton looks to have reliable targets. The news gets even better if Greg Olsen stays healthy. Running back Christian McCaffery had a good rookie campaign last year, but he needs to be much stronger after contact. Carolina has brought in C.J. Anderson from Denver to back him up. The Panthers’ offensive line, combined with Newton’s ability to scramble, will keep opposing defenses on their heels.

The defensive line notably added Dontari Poe, and along with Kawann Short and Mario Addison, this lineup should be able to apply plenty of pressure. Let’s not forget about the ageless Julius Peppers who isn’t ready to pack it in yet. Their linebackers are led by Luke Keuchly and look good but their defensive backs are mediocre at best although they drafted a couple of guys who will wait for their chance to shine.

Atlanta Falcons

2017 Record: 10-6, lost in NFC Divisional Round 15-10 to Philadelphia

Atlanta ended up as a wild card team in 2017 despite their ups and downs. They took down the Rams in the wildcard round before losing a defensive struggle against the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. The Dirty Birds were 4-2 in divisional matchups last season, sweeping Tampa Bay and splitting with both the Panthers and Saints. However, another year in the books means the window of contention for the team has closed another inch or two. The question is, can coach Dan Quinn find a way to prop things back open before it slams shut for good?

The Falcons were just a middle of the pack team offensively last season, finishing 15th in scoring offense despite being eighth in total yards. Atlanta was -2 in the takeaway/giveaway battle and failed to capitalize on quite a few drives. Matt Ryan (342 of 529, 4095 yards, 20 TD, 12 INT) is back at QB and he hopes to get things back on track after a bit of a down year. The run game features the 1-2 punch of Devonta Freeman (196 carries, 865 yards, seven TD) and Tevin Coleman (156 carries, 628 yards, five TD) once again. Having both guys healthy and able to contribute would go a long way toward improving things. Julio Jones (88 receptions, 1444 yards, three TD) is back though he is disgruntled with his contract. He’ll work with Mohamed Sanu (67 grabs, 703 yards, five TD) and first-round pick Calvin Ridley from Alabama in the passing game. The Falcons were #1 in the league in third-down conversions last season, as they moved the sticks 44.7 percent of the time.

Defensively, the Falcons were solid as they were eighth in the league in scoring defense and ninth in total yards allowed. Atlanta has to replace their leading sacker of a year ago as Adrian Clayborn (9.5 sacks) signed a deal with New England. That means guys like Vic Beasley (29 tackles, five sacks), Takkarist McKinley (20 tackles, six sacks) and Grady Jarrett (55 tackles, four sacks) have to get after the quarterback. The team also has to replace DT Dontari Poe, who signed a deal with Carolina in the offseason. The secondary may be the best part of the defense, with corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, along with safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, shutting down opposing receivers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2017 Record: 5-11

It was a tough year for the Bucs as they were the lone team not to make the postseason last year in the division. Tampa Bay was awful in the division, going just 1-5 with their lone win a week 17 triumph over New Orleans. The Buccaneers have overhauled portions of things on both sides of the ball in hopes of turning things around. It would take a small miracle for Tampa Bay to even challenge for a playoff spot. Aside from the 6 divisional games, Tampa must also contend with Philly, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Dallas. All of those teams posted winning records in 2017. They visit Chicago, Cincinnati, and the New York Giants while hosting Cleveland, Washington, and San Francisco.

 

The Bucs are in a bit of a hole right off the bat with starting QB Jameis Winston suspended for the first three games. However, Ryan “The Harvard Suitcase” Fitzpatrick should be able to fill in adequately, assuming Tampa’s offensive line helps him out a bit. Whoever is under center will have some decent receivers to throw to in Desean Jackson and Mike Evans, as well as tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Peyton Barber appears to be the number one running back with Jacquizz Rodgers providing support and rookie Ronald Jones waiting in the wings. Tampa will need to improve on a pretty bad running game in 2017 and once again the offensive line will need to step it up.

Atlanta has to replace their leading sacker of a year ago as Adrian Clayborn (9.5 sacks) signed a deal with New England. That means guys like Vic Beasley (29 tackles, five sacks), Takkarist McKinley (20 tackles, six sacks) and Grady Jarrett (55 tackles, four sacks) have to get after the quarterback. The team also has to replace DT Dontari Poe, who signed a deal with Carolina in the offseason. The secondary may be the best part of the defense, with corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, along with safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, shutting down opposing receivers.

 

Season Outlook

There doesn’t seem to be a big difference in how this season will unfold in the division. The Saints seem to have patched up their biggest weakness from a season ago, which was the defensive side of the ball. Adding Coleman, provided he is 100 percent, and Robinson to the secondary can only help Marshon Lattimore. If New Orleans can improve on getting off the field on third down, their offense is more than capable of doing enough damage to carry the team to the division crown. Carolina has their issues on the offensive line and with two new coordinators, there could be a learning curve. Atlanta has to get after the passer better than they did a year ago and Tampa Bay has several issues. The Bucs have a brutal schedule to start the year and are missing Winston for the first three games. It is the Saints’ division to win in the end, at least on paper.

 

Betting Predictions

 Current Odds to Win the Division and Projected Order:

1st  New Orleans +150

2nd Carolina +300

3rd Atlanta +190

4th Tampa Bay +1000

Win Total Predictions

New Orleans: Over 9.5 (-160) – There’s little reason to expect much of a backslide for the Saints this season. Bringing back weapons like Brees, Kamara, Thomas, Ingram, Ginn Jr. and Meredith makes the offense as dangerous as ever. The additions defensively of Robinson and Davis help fill gaps that plagued the team last season. This team won 11 games a year ago, and there’s little reason to think they won’t hit double-digit wins again.

Carolina: Over 9 (+150) – Carolina catches a break as they don’t play the Saints until week 15 of the season. The Panthers open up against Dallas at home and Atlanta on the road before things settle down a bit. By the time Carolina faces Philadelphia in week 7, they have a chance of being healthier than they are now. Also, it gives them time to jell a bit under the Turner/Washington duo of coordinators. The Panthers should just get over the total but don’t expect much more than nine or 10 wins.

Atlanta: Over 9.5 (Even) – The Falcons have the weapons offensively to try and battle the Saints for supremacy in the division. Atlanta won 10 games a year ago as their defense failed at critical junctures in several games. An early season three-game slide hurt the Falcons last year. This season, they battle the NFC East, the AFC North along with Arizona and Green Bay outside of divisional play. Atlanta should end up right around last season’s win total again.

Tampa Bay: Under 6.5 (-150) – The Bucs have a brutal schedule to contend with this season and things are going to be a challenge for the team. Winston is out the first three games, which is at New Orleans then home against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. That’s a quick potential 0-3 start before he comes back. There aren’t many easy games on the slate this season. The Bucs are going to have a tough time trying to get over the number. Expect six wins as a potentially high water mark barring some massive change in fortune.

Chris Kubala

Christopher Kubala has been crunching stats and following sports for over 30 years. His in depth analysis and passion for sports have led him to writing books about sports, regularly being featured on sports talk radio and as the go-to person for any obscure trivia. He keeps an eye on transactions and statistics like a hawk, especially when it comes to football, both the NFL and college, the NHL, the NBA and college basketball and MLB.

Login

Forgot Password?
Forgot your password? Enter your email and we'll send you a reset token:

Return to login
Enter the token from your email and a new password. Don't forget to check your spam folder if you didn't get the email.

Upcoming Free Picks

Bank the Bet Podcast
Thursday, Jan 17
NBA
#541 New York Knicks 228
#542 Washington Wizards -6.5
3:05pm
View Pick
#543 Philadelphia 76ers 224.5
#544 Indiana Pacers -3
7:05pm
View Pick
#545 Sacramento Kings 230
#546 Charlotte Hornets -3
7:05pm
View Pick
#547 Phoenix Suns
#548 Toronto Raptors
7:35pm
View Pick
#549 Chicago Bulls 212
#550 Denver Nuggets -12
9:05pm
View Pick
#551 Los Angeles Lakers 226
#552 Oklahoma City Thunder -10
9:35pm
View Pick
NCAAB
#601 FAU 151
#602 Marshall -9
7:00pm
View Pick
#603 Charleston 139.5
#604 Northeastern -3.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#605 Georgia Southern -2
#606 Troy 161
7:00pm
View Pick
#607 UNCW 152
#608 Hofstra -12.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#609 James Madison 134
#610 Delaware -4
7:00pm
View Pick
#611 Towson 146
#612 Drexel -5.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#613 Wright State -5.5
#614 Youngstown State 141.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#615 Southern Miss -4.5
#616 Charlotte 122.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#617 Louisiana Tech 129
#618 ODU -6.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#619 Northern Kentucky -9
#620 Cleveland State 142
7:00pm
View Pick
#621 UTSA -3.5
#622 Middle Tennessee State 137.5
7:30pm
View Pick
#637 Georgia State -5.5
#638 South Alabama 141
8:00pm
View Pick
#635 UTEP 132
#636 UAB -8
8:00pm
View Pick
#633 Michigan State -1
#634 Nebraska 144
8:00pm
View Pick
#631 Illinois - Chicago -3
#632 Wisconsin-Milwaukee 142.5
8:00pm
View Pick
#629 IUPUI 163
#630 Wisconsin-Green Bay -4
8:00pm
View Pick
#627 FIU 163.5
#628 Western Kentucky -13
8:00pm
View Pick
#625 Arkansas - Little Rock 140
#626 Texas State -11.5
8:00pm
View Pick
#623 Arkansas State 139.5
#624 UT Arlington -4.5
8:00pm
View Pick
#639 Loyola Marymount
#640 Gonzaga
9:00pm
View Pick
#641 Stanford 138
#642 Washington -10
9:00pm
View Pick
#643 Oregon 130
#644 Arizona -4.5
9:00pm
View Pick
#645 San Francisco -6.5
#646 Pacific 138
9:00pm
View Pick
#647 Hawaii 148
#648 Cal State Northridge -2
10:00pm
View Pick
#649 California
#650 Washington State
10:00pm
View Pick
#651 Oregon State 141
#652 Arizona State -5.5
10:00pm
View Pick
#653 San Diego -10
#654 Portland 134
10:00pm
View Pick
#657 UCSB -3
#658 UC Davis 131.5
10:00pm
View Pick
#659 Santa Clara
#660 St Marys
11:00pm
View Pick
#661 BYU -2.5
#662 Pepperdine 163
11:00pm
View Pick
NHL
#31 New Jersey 6
#32 N.Y. Islanders -150
7:05pm
View Pick
#33 St. Louis 5.5
#34 Boston -175
7:05pm
View Pick
#41 Anaheim 5.5
#42 Minnesota -180
8:05pm
View Pick
#43 Los Angeles 5.5
#44 Dallas -175
8:35pm
View Pick
Saturday, Jan 19
NCAAB
#629 James Madison
#630 Drexel
2:00pm
View Pick
Sunday, Jan 20
NFL
#311 Los Angeles Rams 56.5
#312 New Orleans Saints -3.5
3:05pm
View Pick
#313 New England Patriots 58
#314 Kansas City Chiefs -3
6:40pm
View Pick