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

Wednesday, Mar 20
NCAAB
#715 North Dakota State 133
#716 NC Central -5.5
6:40pm
View Pick
#717 Toledo 140
#718 Xavier -6
7:00pm
View Pick
#719 Norfolk State
#720 Alabama
7:00pm
View Pick
#713 Arizona State -1
#714 St. John's 151
9:10pm
View Pick
MLB
#901 Seattle Mariners
#902 Oakland Athletics
5:35am
View Pick
Tuesday, Mar 19
NBA
#551 Philadelphia 76ers 223.5
#552 Charlotte Hornets -1
7:05pm
View Pick
#553 Houston Rockets -7.5
#554 Atlanta Hawks 232.5
7:35pm
View Pick
#555 Golden State Warriors
#556 Minnesota Timberwolves
8:05pm
View Pick
#557 Los Angeles Lakers 236.5
#558 Milwaukee Bucks -13
8:05pm
View Pick
#559 Brooklyn Nets 230.5
#560 Sacramento Kings -3.5
10:05pm
View Pick
#561 Indiana Pacers 220
#562 Los Angeles Clippers -5
10:35pm
View Pick
NCAAB
#669 Fairleigh Dickinson -2.5
#670 Prairie View A&M 150
6:40pm
View Pick
#673 Hofstra 158
#674 NC State -10
7:00pm
View Pick
#681 Campbell 142
#682 UNC Greensboro -10.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#705 IUPUI 163.5
#706 Marshall -6.5
7:00pm
View Pick
#893 Wright State
#894 Clemson
7:00pm
View Pick
#685 San Diego 148
#686 Memphis -5.5
8:00pm
View Pick
#675 South Dakota State 152
#676 Texas -7
9:00pm
View Pick
#687 Arkansas 140
#688 Providence -5.5
9:00pm
View Pick
#689 Loyola - Chicago 134
#690 Creighton -10
9:00pm
View Pick
#693 Cal State Northridge 156
#694 Utah Valley -13
9:00pm
View Pick
#671 Belmont -3.5
#672 Temple 154.5
9:10pm
View Pick
#691 Dayton 135
#692 Colorado -3.5
11:00pm
View Pick
NHL
#9 Washington -230
#10 New Jersey 6
7:38pm
View Pick
#13 Edmonton 5.5
#14 St. Louis -205
8:08pm
View Pick
#17 Florida 5.5
#18 Dallas -155
8:38pm
View Pick
Thursday, Mar 21
NCAAB
#773 Minnesota 134
#774 Louisville -5
12:15pm
View Pick
#767 Yale 160.5
#768 LSU -8
12:40pm
View Pick
#781 New Mexico State 143
#782 Auburn -6.5
1:30pm
View Pick
#763 Vermont 133
#764 Florida State -10.5
2:00pm
View Pick
#775 Bradley
#776 Michigan State
2:45pm
View Pick
#783 Northeastern 144
#784 Kansas -7
4:00pm
View Pick
#761 Murray State 148
#762 Marquette -4.5
4:30pm
View Pick
#777 Florida 132.5
#778 Nevada -2
6:50pm
View Pick
#771 Abilene Christian
#772 Kentucky
7:10pm
View Pick
#757 Saint Mary's 129
#758 Villanova -5.5
7:20pm
View Pick
#779 Montana
#780 Michigan
9:20pm
View Pick
#769 Seton Hall 142.5
#770 Wofford -3
9:40pm
View Pick
#759 ODU 129
#760 Purdue -13
9:50pm
View Pick
#787 Baylor 135
#788 Syracuse -2.5
9:57pm
View Pick
Friday, Mar 22
NCAAB
#805 Iowa 139
#806 Cincinnati -3.5
12:15pm
View Pick
#803 Oklahoma 142
#804 Ole Miss -2
12:40pm
View Pick
#819 Northern Kentucky
#820 Texas Tech
1:30pm
View Pick
#827 Cal Irvine 118
#828 Kansas State -5
2:00pm
View Pick
#807 Colgate
#808 Tennessee
2:45pm
View Pick
#801 Gardner-Webb
#802 Virginia
3:10pm
View Pick
#825 Oregon 116
#826 Wisconsin -1
4:30pm
View Pick
#811 Washington 134
#812 Utah State -2.5
6:50pm
View Pick
#815 Georgia State 142
#816 Houston -12
7:20pm
View Pick
#821 Liberty 135
#822 Mississippi St -7
7:27pm
View Pick
#809 Iona
#810 North Carolina (UNC)
9:20pm
View Pick
#799 UCF -1.5
#800 VCU 124.5
9:40pm
View Pick
#813 Ohio State 140
#814 Iowa State -5.5
9:50pm
View Pick
#823 St. Louis 126
#824 Virginia Tech -10.5
9:57pm
View Pick