NFC South Preview

NFC South Preview

NFC South

This division is the place to come for entertainment with Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Drew Brees all ply their trade here. It also produced the highest scoring offence from 2016 and last season’s Super Bowl losers – the Atlanta Falcons. Expect plenty more fireworks over the course of this season.

Atlanta Falcons

There are huge question marks over how the Falcons, in particularly quarterback Matt Ryan, will respond to the crushing Super Bowl 51 overtime defeat they suffered in February, arguably the biggest throw-away in NFL history. Having lead 28-3 with the game seemingly over they allowed Tom Brady to do what he does best and work his offence down the field, moving the chains with deadly efficiency. The defeat was solely down to the Falcons’ offensive ego being too big. Leading 28-20 with less than four minutes on the clock they were on the Patriots’ 22-yard line and well within field goal range on first down, a successful kick would have put them two scores ahead, game over. But no, they continued with their bold approach and Ryan was sacked on third down for a loss big enough to take them out of FG range, forcing them to punt. We all know what happened next.

So the big unknown is will they bounce back or will there be a delayed Super Bowl hangover? Common sense says they may be slow at the start but then the fire from last season will burn once more and they will become an unstoppable force once more. However, in the wake of the defeat to the Patriots Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator who masterminded the Falcons’ incredible run, left to take over as head coach of the 49ers so it’ll be interesting to see how new appointment Steve Sarkisian handles the task. If Julio Jones stays fit and Taylor Gabriel puts up 1,000 yards opposite him, his task will be made a lot easier for him. Expect the Falcons not to live up to last season but still deliver a high scoring and entertaining brand of football.

Prediction: 10-6

Carolina Panthers

For several reasons the Panthers would like to forget last season ever happened. They finished bottom of the division with a losing 6-10 record after winning 15 games the season before. They were the defending NFC Conference Champions but injuries mixed in with poor on-field performances saw them slump to new lows, becoming the first Super Bowl runner-up since 2008 to start the season 1-5.

If their fall from grace was fast, their recovery should be almost as fast. Cam Newton had off-season surgery on a shoulder injury which affected him throughout the season, highly rated rookie running backs Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel brought in through the draft the offense should start firing once more. Too much pressure was on Cam to deliver much of the teams running game last season as well as through the air, ultimately spreading himself too thin. But the drafting of a talented tandem should let him get back to playing the free and eye-catching ways of the 2015 season. The Panthers should push the Falcons hard for the division title but they have a lot of work to do in order to close that gap in the space of a season.

Prediction: 9-7

The Saints have one thing in mind this season, ending the three-year playoff drought. Their offense, lead by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, is one of the best in the league, topping the stats on yards per game with 426 and coming second overall in scoring with 29.3 per game. The issue is the defence which may as well not be on the pitch for the majority of plays, ranking worst for passing yards allowed per game with 273 and 29th in overall defence.

The good news for Saints fans is they used all of their first three picks in the draft on defensive players but the entire unit must improve to allow the team to reap the rewards of having such a potent offense. For the fifth time in the last six seasons Drew Brees was first in total passing yards, the only quarterback to break the 5,000-yard mark in 2016. A big blow for the Saints came at the end of June as star left-tackle Terron Armstead underwent shoulder surgery which ruled him out for 4-6 months. This will leave Brees hugely exposed on his blindside and he could take a pounding early on, a slow start is not something they can afford in this division. The Saints should improve on their 7-9 record from last season but not by much.

Prediction: 8-8

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For the first time since 2008 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t finish bottom of the NFC South, coming an unpredicted and astounding second behind the Falcons. They capitalised on the overall weaknesses of the Panthers and the defensive woes of the Saints to finish the season 9-7, a huge achievement.

If the Bucs are going to have any chance of clinching such a strong division then quarterback Jameis Winston has to put in an MVP-worthy season, which is very unlikely. If the rest of the offense can reduce the load off Winston they stand a chance of putting up a fight but, again, they would likely require other teams around them to stumble in order to stand a chance at the top spot. It’d be nice for Tampa Bay to do it after so many years of misery but they just don’t have the depth in quality to challenge the rosters of their divisional rivals. Stranger things have happened…

Prediction: 7-9

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