Why the NFC South is the most likely division to have four teams in the playoffs

Four playoffs teams in NFC South?

By: Eli Grabanski

When the NFL decided to expand the NFL playoffs for the 2020 season from six playoff teams in each conference to seven playoff teams per conference, it opened up an interesting possibility – having a division sending every team in it to the playoffs. It didn’t happen in 2020, but it very well could in 2021 with the way some divisions and matchups are shaping up. One division that has a great shot at being the first to send all four teams to the playoffs is the NFC South, consisting of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers. Let’s dive into why this division may be the most likely to accomplish this feat.

NFL Schedule

While the NFL schedule has yet to be officially released, we do know that the NFC South teams will play 6 divisional games, four games against all the teams in the AFC East (Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and the New England Patriots), and four games against all the teams in the NFC East (Washington Football Team, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys).

NFL Schedule Division Matchups
DivisionNFC OpponentAFC Opponent
NFC SouthNFC EastAFC East
NFC NorthNFC WestAFC North
NFC EastNFC SouthAFC West
NFC WestNFC NorthAFC South
AFC SouthNFC WestAFC East
AFC NorthNFC NorthAFC West
AFC EastNFC SouthAFC South
AFC WestNFC EastAFC North
2021 NFL Schedule Matchups
NFL Schedule 17th Game Opponents
TeamOpponent
New Orleans SaintsTennessee Titans
Tampa Bay BuccaneersIndianapolis Colts
Carolina PanthersHouston Texans
Atlanta FalconsJacksonville Jaguars
NFL Schedule 17th Game Opponents

Each of these teams getting four games against the worst division in the league last year in the NFC East provides a major boost in chances for the NFC South sending four teams to the playoffs. The NFC South has a more favorable schedule in 2021 than other top candidates to send four teams to the playoffs, the NFC West and the AFC North, and that gives them a significant boost in potentially sending four teams to the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions and managed to retain all 22 of their starters from the championship-winning team last year. This was an incredible feat to accomplish considering that guys like Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, and Antonio Brown were all free agents after the season. In addition, there were no major coaching staff shakeups with Bruce Arians, Byron Leftwich, and Todd Bowles all coming back for the 2021 NFL season as well. Having all this talent still in place for the 2021 season makes it difficult to see the Buccaneers missing the playoffs and once again a threat to win the Super Bowl.

New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints will not have their future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees for the 2021 season…but the team has actually done remarkably well without him the past couple of years. The Saints went 5-0 in Brees’s absence with Teddy Bridgewater during the 2019 season, and they went 3-1 with Taysom Hill in Brees’s absence during this past season. They still have skill-position talent on the offensive side of the ball, with Alvin Kamara (RB) and Michael Thomas (WR) being two of the top players at their respective positions. They still have one of the better offensive lines in the league, ranking as the 8th best offensive line in 2020 according to PFF and keeping many of the line’s key members. And while they no longer have Drew Brees, they have a couple of competent quarterback options in Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston to keep the offense performing at an above-average level. Their defense ranked as a top-five unit last year and should be a solid unit once again under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Overall, the Saints may not be quite as good as the 12-4 team last year, but they maintained enough talent to be a good playoff team in 2021.

Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons may have finished 4-12 last year, but things are looking up for the 2021 season. The Falcons hired Arthur Smith to be the team’s new head coach and Smith has directed one of the best offenses in the league the past couple of years.

YearGamesTeam Passing Att.Team Passing Yds.Team Passing TDsTeam Rush Att.Team Rush Yds.Team Rush TDs
2019 Tennessee Titans1628247.251.8127.81138.941.31
2020 Tennessee Titans1630.31239.132.0632.56168.131.63
Arthur Smith Career Averages (OC)3229.16243.191.9430.19153.531.47
Arthur Smith Per-Game Stats As An Offensive Coordinator

Arthur Smith will make the Falcons a more balanced team between passing and running, and will utilize a ton of play-action to maximize the team’s efficiency. The Falcons offense will have the opportunity to go from a ‘very good’ offense to an ‘unstoppable’ offense in 2021 under Smith’s direction.

Besides Arthur Smith, the Falcons did a phenomenal job on filling out the rest of the team’s coaching staff. Perhaps the biggest member of the coaching staff that Smith hired was defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who has been an above-average defensive coordinator over the course of his career.

YearGamesPoints AllowedTotal Yds Given UpPlaysYards/PlayTurnovers Forced
2006 New England Patriots1614.81294.3859.384.962.19
2007 New England Patriots1617.13288.3158.314.941.94
2008 New England Patriots1619.3130957.55.371.38
2009 New England Patriots1617.81320.1958.815.441.75
2012 Baltimore Ravens1621.5350.9467.885.171.56
2013 Baltimore Ravens1622335.564.55.201.5
2014 Baltimore Ravens1618.88336.9464.635.211.38
2015 Baltimore Ravens1625.06337.3862.55.400.88
2016 Baltimore Ravens1620.06322.1362.065.191.75
2017 Baltimore Ravens1618.94325.0665.314.982.13
2018 Tennessee Titans1618.94333.3862.565.331.06
2019 Tennessee Titans1620.69359.5665.451.44
Dean Pees’ Career Averages (DC)19219.59326.0662.455.221.58
Dean Pees Per Game Stats As A Defensive Coordinator

Besides adding talent on the coaching side, the Falcons added some very talented players in the 2021 NFL Draft such as Kyle Pitts (TE), Richie Grant (S), Jalen Mayfield (OT), Darren Hall (CB), and Drew Dalman (C). All of these offseason moves by the Atlanta Falcons give the team a legitimate chance to compete for a playoff spot in 2021.

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers are the biggest stretch to make the playoffs from this division, but they have a couple of things working for them. Last year, the Panthers had 11 games within eight points…and they went 3-8 in those games. The team was certainly better than they appeared last year and they have made some changes to the roster that may give them a much-needed boost to take the next step. They made a change at quarterback by moving on from Teddy Bridgewater and bringing in Sam Darnold to be the team’s new starting quarterback. Darnold has more upside than Bridgewater does at this stage of his career and raises the ceiling of the Panthers team – especially with two strong offensive minds in Matt Rhule & Joe Brady working with him. They made a flurry of moves in free agency, picking up guys like Haason Reddick (LB), A.J. Bouye (CB), Denzel Perryman (LB), and Da’Quan Jones (DT). They also added some great talent through the NFL Draft drafting Jaycee Horn (CB), Terrace Marshall Jr. (WR), Tommy Tremble (TE), and Chuba Hubbard (RB) among others. Given how many close games the Panthers played in during 2020 and the team’s upgrades in talent, they could make a run for one of the final playoff spots in the NFC for 2021.

Conclusion

Some divisions have the talent to potentially send four teams to the playoffs – like the NFC West or the AFC North. Other divisions have a schedule that makes it easier to send four teams to the playoffs but lacks the talent. But the NFC South is the division that has the best of both worlds for the 2021 season. Because of this, if any division is going to send all four teams to the playoffs for 2021, it will be the NFC South.

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