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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.
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.
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.
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.