Latest NFC South Preview: Who will win the NFC South?

Are the Buccaneers a lock to win the NFC South

By: Andy Davies

Welcome to the NFC South. This is a division that has seen three of its four teams reach a Super Bowl during the past six seasons. The Panthers lost in Super Bowl 50, the Falcons lost in Super Bowl 51 and Tampa Bay go into the season as champions after winning Super Bowl 55.

Can we see a team from the division once again reach the Super Bowl in Los Angeles? Here is a preview of the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons (2020 Record: 4-12. Missed out on playoffs)

The Atlanta Falcons found new ways to lose last season. They lost four games by four points or less and even lost a game by accidentally scoring a touchdown. They have seen a franchise legend in Julio Jones depart this summer, as he made the move to the Tennessee Titans. This gives Calvin Ridley the chance to show he can become a WR1 for the franchise. The 3,061 yards and 26 touchdowns during his first three seasons in the NFL show that he is very capable.

Atlanta has also drafted Kyle Pitts, who can also be deployed as a wideout due to his excellent receiving skills. He recorded 12 touchdowns and 770 yards in his final college season. With Hayden Hurst likely to be the backup tight end, the Falcons have the facility to deploy Pitts in the receiver position and use Hurst as the tight end. This gives new head coach Arthur Smith flexibility in his new offense. He did an excellent job as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, playing a big role in Ryan Tannehill’s career resurgence. Falcons fans will hope that he can do the same for their quarterback Matt Ryan. Despite his tenth consecutive 4,000 yards plus season, people still have their doubts about how long he has left. Smith can turn the former MVP into a Comeback Player of the Year contender and silence the critics. Running back Mike Davis has joined this summer and will hope that he will be the back they have needed for a couple of years.

Last season, the offense wasn’t the issue. It was the defense. Only three teams allowed more total yards than the Falcons (6,374). They were dead last in passing yards allowed (4,697) but only allowed more rushing yards than five other teams (1,677). They added five defensive players in the draft. Defensive backs Richie Grant, Darren Hall and Avery Williams were taken in the second, fourth and fifth rounds respectively. Defensive linemen Ta’Quon Graham Adetokunbo Ogundeji were both taken in the fifth round.

Two games against each of their division rivals as well as Washington, San Francisco and Buffalo are equally met with winnable games against the Lions, Jaguars, Giants, Jets and Eagles. Can they overcome their recent troubles and get back to the team they once were? Matt Ryan is my tip for the Comeback Player of the Year award and Pitts is a generational tight end talent that can play in multiple positions. Atlanta will make it back to the playoffs to the surprise of many, but they are nowhere near being Super Bowl contenders. A loss in the Wildcard Round is more than likely.

Prediction: 2nd in NFC South

Carolina Panthers (2020 Record: 5-11. Missed out on playoffs)

The Panthers are another interesting team. Their star player in running back Christian McCaffrey missed the majority of last season through injury. He is back this season and has a new QB to work with. Sam Darnold was traded from the New York Jets after a difficult three seasons for the 2018 third overall pick. Going to the Panthers will allow everyone to see whether the Darnold we saw in New York is a bust or if he was hindered by the coaching of Adam Gase.
Wideout Curtis Samuel has left this summer, with the Panthers drafting LSU receiver Terrace Marshall in the draft. He will play alongside Robbie Anderson and DJ Moore, who both recorded over 1,000 yards and combined for 7 touchdowns. Running back Chuba Hubbard impressed in the preseason, particularly the first week where he recorded 80 yards from 7 carries.

The Panthers took all defensive players during the 2020 draft and ended up 18th in total points, passing yards and total yards allowed and were 20th in rushing yards allowed. This is despite the 9 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 21 quarterback hits and 58 total tackles from defensive end Brian Burns. Rookie safety Jeremy Chinn also recorded 117 total tackles, 1 interception in 2020. He also recorded two defensive touchdowns in ten seconds in a game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Their mixed schedule sees them play the Jets, Giants, Eagles and Texans but also the Bills, Washington as well as home and away games against Buccaneers and Saints. Head coach Matt Rhule showed promise in spells during 2020 but despite the young and exciting roster in Carolina, they will find it tough in their division.

Prediction: 4th in NFC South.

New Orleans Saints (2020 Record; 12-4. Lost in Divisional Round)

How do you replace a franchise legend? This is the dilemma facing the Saints going into the 2021 season. Quarterback Drew Brees retired after fifteen seasons with the franchise. Jameis Winston beat out Taysom Hill to the starting role and has the challenge of being the guy after the guy. Despite being the passing yards leader in 2019 with 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns, he also threw for 30 interceptions. He showed his deep ball in the Saints’ Divisional Round loss to the Buccaneers, albeit his only attempted pass of the game. Can he rebuild his reputation and pick up right where Brees left off?

He is not blessed with the most talented offense to throw the ball to. It is worth considering that the Buccaneers went 7-9 in 2019 just a season before they won the Super Bowl. He had Chris Godwin and Mike Evans to throw to who both had 1,000-yard seasons. He had the same defensive players in Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea and Shaquil Barrett. Whilst the Saints still have a great defense featuring Cameron Jordan and Kwon Alexander as well as an elite running back in Alvin Kamara, he has no one to throw to. With the loss of Emmanuel Sanders in Free Agency and the status of Michael Thomas unclear, Winston will have to rely on Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. If he couldn’t stop the interceptions when he had Godwin and Evans, it is hard to not see him repeating this feat with Callaway, Smith and Humphrey.

The Saints will not be able to play their home games in New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida. Their opener against the Green Bay Packers will be played in Jacksonville. They then face the Panthers and New England Patriots. This is a tough start and it doesn’t get any easier, with the Washington Football Team in Week 5, Seattle Seahawks in Week 7, Buccaneers in Weeks 8 and 15, Tennessee Titans in Week 10 and Buffalo Bills in Week 12.

If there is one man who could change Winston’s fortunes, it is head coach Sean Payton. Bruce Arians was Winston’s head coach in the aforementioned 2019 season and he is known as the “quarterback whisperer”. Payton is another individual with the personality and coaching skills to help Winston. Sadly, this experiment may not work out the way New Orleans fans hope.

Prediction: 3rd in NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2020 Record: 11-5. Won Super Bowl 55)

The Buccaneers became the first team to play a Super Bowl in their stadium, where they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9. Tom Brady, who is highly regarded as the best to ever do it, joined last summer and everything changed. His arrival attracted players such as tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Antonio Brown to join the franchise. The team took a while to gel and were inconsistent for the first half of the season, going 7-5 before winning their remaining eight games and continuing this momentum onto the playoffs and Super Bowl. The challenge they now face is whether they can go back to back. There is a reason that the last time a team retained a Super Bowl was in the 2004 season. It is a hard achievement to accomplish.

The Buccaneers have returned all their starters and added depth, which gives them a great advantage going into the 2021 season. Linebacker Joe Tryon was taken in the first round and receiver Jaelon Darden was taken in the fourth round, someone who could be a big sleeper pick. With a 3-4 scheme led by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, they have one of the scariest defenses in the NFL. Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, and William Gholston make up the front 3, with the 4 consisting of Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, Lavonte David, and Shaquil Barrett. Antoine Winfield and Sean Murphy- Bunting also add to a brilliant cornerback room. In 2020, White recorded 140 total tackles, whereas David recorded 117 and Winfield tallied up 94. Pierre-Paul had 9.5 sacks, White had 9 and Barrett had 8. Gholston had the most quarterback hits (20) and Pierre-Paul’s 4 forced fumbles were the most on the team. Cornerback Carlton Davis had 4 interceptions and White had the most tackles for loss (15).

Antonio Brown was involved in a training camp fight and the coaching staff will hope they are not going to see him go back to his old ways. He had a redemption year, causing no trouble and scoring 4 touchdowns in 8 games. He also scored in the Super Bowl win. His receiving teammates also played their part, with Evans maintaining his record of posting over 1,000 yards in every season of his career, including his two seasons in college. He also scored 13 touchdowns. Both Chris Godwin and Gronkowski caught 7 touchdowns, with Godwin recording 840 yards. On the ground game, Ronald Jones ran for 978 yards and 7 touchdowns. Fournette earned the nickname ‘Playoff Lenny’ and notched up 7 touchdowns in 2020.

Due to not winning the NFC South last season, their schedule is fairly favorable. Keep an eye out for their week four clash against the New England Patriots, with Brady and Gronk returning to Foxboro in what should be an emotional affair. Whilst they may face the Los Angeles Rams, Patriots, Washington, Indianapolis Colts, and Buffalo Bills, they also get to play the Chicago Bears, Eagles, Giants, and Jets. Tampa Bay should be aiming to win a second consecutive ring and will be the favorites for the NFC. Purely for how hard it is to retain a Super Bowl, the Buccaneers will reach the Super Bowl but ultimately fall short.

Prediction: 1st in NFC South and Losing Super Bowl 56 Finalists

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