NFC South Predictions

Posted: 08/28/2014 by levcohen in Football

Next up is the NFC South, which, like the North, has a clear favorite: the New Orleans Saints are the Green Bay Packers of the NFC South. Everybody and their mother is picking the Saints to win this division, and that’s for good reason: along with having one of the best offenses in football, they were also quietly good defensively last season. The difference between this division and the last one I previewed, though, lies in the teams that won’t win the division. Any order that the Tampa Bay-Carolina-Atlanta trio finishes in will not surprise me, assuming New Orleans. These three had very different seasons last year, as while Carolina broke out and went 12-4, the other two were among the league’s worst. That could conceivably flip this year, which is pretty crazy. The point is that all three are very high variance teams. If you told me that Atlanta will finish 5-11 I wouldn’t be surprised, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they went 10-6. The same goes for Tampa and Carolina. But where will they finish? That’s hard to predict, but I’m going to try to do that now:

1. New Orleans Saints (12-4): The Saints went 11-5 last year, and I think they could be even better this season. By that I mean first round BYE good. Maybe even #1 seed good. They’ll crack the 12-win barrier for a number of reasons. First of all, it needs to be said that the Saints, by virtue of playing their home games in the Superdome, have a great home field advantage. They are 37-11 at home since 2008, and that includes the quirky, Sean Peyton-less bountygate marred season of 2012, when they were just 4-4. In fact, they’ve gotten unbeaten at home in two of the last three years, with 2012 the exception. With all that said, it’s a good thing that most of the Saints’ toughest out-of-division games are in the friendly confines of the Superdome. They play the NFC North, and they get the Packers at home. They play the AFC North, and get the Bengals and Ravens at home. Their extra games are against the 49ers and Cowboys; naturally, they are home against the 49ers. Their toughest out-of-division road games are in Chicago and Pittsburgh. So the schedule works in their favor. They also have some pretty good players. Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in football, and he has plenty of weapons to work with. Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham return, and they are joined by the rookie wide receiver gaining perhaps the most positive buzz in Brandin Cooks. Cooks could well be the difference between a top-five offense (they finished 5th in DVOA last season) and rivaling the Broncos for the best offense in football. That’s how good I think he’s going to be. And when your offense is that good, it doesn’t take a great defense to win 12 games. Of course, the Saints defense isn’t too shabby. They finished 10th in DVOA last season and are poised to be just as good this year, thanks in large part to their safeties: after replacing Malcolm Jenkins with huge free agency coup and former Buffalo Bill Jairus Byrd, they have perhaps the best safety pair in all of football, especially now that 2013 first round pick and instant success Kenny Vaccaro will have had another year to develop. They might not finish in the top-10 again defensively, but they should remain in the top half of the league, and along with the expected offensive boost and relatively soft schedule, that will be enough for them to improve to 12-4.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8): Even predicting an 8-8 season for the Buccaneers requires a huge leap of faith, as they went just 4-12 last season and have only won as many as half their games once since 2008. But I think they’re going to bounce back in a big way. First of all, everything that could have gone wrong last year did. Josh Freeman, who was supposed to be the QB of the future, flamed out and started just three games before being cut. The team quit on coach Greg Schiano. Multiple members of the team contracted MRSA, shortening their seasons. They also had, by Football Outsiders’ estimation, the worst schedule in football. None of those things should be an issue this year. The QB situation isn’t ideal, but Josh McCown was great last year and is a huge improvement over Freeman. If he fails, the Bucs have a competent young quarterback in Mike Glennon behind him. They replaced Schiano with Lovie Smith, formerly of the Bears and long considered a good and perhaps more importantly respected head coach. MRSA is gone from Buccaneers training camp, and the team has been in pretty good health to this point. The schedule also shouldn’t be as bad, as instead of playing the AFC East and brutal NFC West, they get both North divisions. Their extra games are St. Louis and Washington after getting Arizona and Detroit last season. And, above all, this team is pretty talented, with a returning Doug Martin and a couple new weapons set to supplement last year’s #8 defense nicely. What the Buccaneers did this offseason with their offense was really smart. They realized that McCown succeeded in Chicago partly because he had a few big weapons to throw to in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, so they added Mike Evans (6’5″) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6’6″) in the first two rounds of the draft. Along with Vincent Jackson, Evans and Seferian-Jenkins will make this offense more explosive than it has been in years. The return of Martin also cannot be understated. He was good as a rookie in 2012 and was set to become a star running back before his injury midway through last season. He should bounce back and make this team’s running game a potent one. The offensive line is still not great, but the recent trade for former Patriots guard Logan Mankins should help. Even without cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was replaced by Alterraun Verner, the defense should be as good as it was last year. In Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David they have two of the best and most explosive defenders in football, and have quality guys like Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, Michael Johnson, and Mason Foster aiding them. They are full of talent on both sides of the ball, but I can’t predict them to win more than eight games because Evans and Seferian-Jenkins haven’t proved themselves yet, and because they have a journeyman quarterback starting for them. In a few years, though? Look out.

3. Atlanta Falcons (7-9): I’ll keep this one shorter, because you’ve probably heard enough about the Falcons in HBO’s show Hard Knocks, which focuses on an NFL team each preseason and features the Falcons this year. Atlanta was great in 2012 and terrible in 2013, and I think they’ll be in between those two extremes this season. On the surface, this looks like a team that will be much better than 7-9. In particular, the fact that quarterback Matt Ryan will be throwing to both Julio Jones and Roddy White is intriguing. But this is a team without much depth, and one that has a very suspect defense. They’ll need to be at their very best and healthiest if they want to make the playoffs, and I just don’t think that’s likely to happen. What happens if Jones gets hurt again? How about Ryan? It’s a compliment to Ryan that I think they’ll even win seven games, because I think the rest of the team is that lackluster. There’s a lot that having a top-10 quarterback can negate. I don’t think it can negate both a lack of depth and very poor defense (27th last year) though.

4. Carolina Panthers (7-9): Yes, I think the Panthers will be a full five games worse than the 12-4 they were last year. Why? First of all, their schedule looks brutal, especially before their week 12 BYE: @TB, DET, PIT, @BAL, CHI, @CIN, @GB, SEA, NO, @PHI, ATL. Look at weeks 6-10. That might be the worst four week stretch any team in football has this season. If you go through those first 11 games one by one, and then consider that they have to play at the Superdome after that BYE, 7-9 looks possible. Last year was a magical run, one that included six wins and zero losses in games decided by four or fewer points. They also scored 30+ points six times including four in succession, although they did it just once after week nine. Last year’s success is probably not repeatable by this roster, one that had a lot of turnover over the offseason. They have a whole new secondary and wide-receiver core, and I don’t see how they’ll replicate the offensive production they had last season, especially since quarterback Cam Newton already has a rib injury. Newton’s a big and tough guy and should be back in week one, but how many hard hits can a guy take? Cam is absolutely vital to any chances the Panthers have of repeating as AFC South champions, and the fact that he’s already injured is troubling. The defense, which finished third in DVOA last season, should be good again, thanks in large part to a fearsome pass rush led by Greg Hardy, who had 15 sacks last season, and a strong group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly, who had 156 tackles, two sacks, and four interceptions and won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in his second season. It probably won’t be top-3 again because the secondary is questionable, but top-7 is likely. The problem is the offense: I’d be shocked if they finished #10 in DVOA as they did last season. In fact, I think a huge decline is likely, into the bottom third of the league, thanks in large part to a wide receiver core that’s best non-rookies are Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, who weren’t very good five years ago and certainly aren’t now. Yes, they have a solid tight end in Greg Olsen, but Olsen isn’t going to make huge plays, so this offense is going to take a big step back. That, along with the brutal schedule and relative lack of depth (it’s not as bad as the Falcons, but this team doesn’t have much depth, either), should be enough to knock the Panthers from 12 wins all the way down to seven.

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