There’s no shortage of competitors in the NFC South. In fact, three of the four squads have a legitimate chance of claiming the division title come winter.
The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers both finished last season with 11-5 records — with the Saints winning the division thanks to a tie-breaker. But closely behind were the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons, who went farther in the playoffs as the wild card than the Panthers did.
None of the four sides made any major moves outside their respective organizations that really will shake up the South’s landscape, which means we’re on a collision course for yet another compelling race.
Here’s our NFC South preview:
DIVISION ODDS (Via OddShark)
New Orleans Saints +180
Atlanta Falcons +185
Carolina Panthers +290
Tampa Bay Buccaneers +600
New Orleans Saints — Oh, what could have been for the 2017 Saints. For all intents and purposes, they were one play away from the NFC Championship, where they would have faced a Philadelphia Eagles team they matched up well against.
The good news, however, is that they are bringing back much of the same squad, with their offense, despite some holes, boasting plenty of impressive weapons. Drew Brees remains among the NFL’s best pocket passers and Alvin Kamara is poised to get even better in Year 2. Kamara’s growth will be contingent on how he adapts to the other half of his backfield tandem being absent to begin the year, with Mark Ingram Jr. set to serve a four-game suspension.
Defensively, they’re stout and remain fortunate to have Marshon Lattimore at cornerback in a division filled with gifted wideouts.
Though their edge over the Panthers was slight last season, they were the better team. The South is the Saints’ to take.
Carolina Panthers — It’s tough to call a team that made it to the Wild Card round last season a sleeper, but that speaks to the depth of the division and the fact that the Bucs are a few years away from being a team to watch.
What makes the Panthers a sleeper is that they could end up being really, really good. Their offense was retooled a bit, giving Cam Newton a slew of options in the air in addition to what he and Christian McCaffery can do on the ground. That, of course, all is contingent on their offensive line showing up.
Their front seven is impressive, with Julius Peppers and Dontari Poe (more on him later) adding some important depth. Complete with Luke Kuechly at linebacker, they won’t be an easy group to penetrate. However, the secondary, like the O-Line, has its share of question marks, which could create some obvious problems.
Despite their shortcomings, the Panthers will be a tough customer every week and could make some noise well into January.
Falcons WR Calvin Ridley — Sure, the Falcons will have one of the league’s best receivers in Julio Jones, but the rookie wideout still could get meaningful targets. The Alabama product is one of the most polished receivers in his draft class and could make a difference right away.
Panthers DT Dontari Poe — Having last played for Atlanta, Poe is familiar with the NFC South. He’s durable and consistent up the middle and should be a huge contributor for the Panthers defense.
Saints DE Marcus Davenport — The Saints’ defense was pretty impressive late last season, and Davenport could provide a boost on the edge. He’s a heck of an athlete, and though he may not be an immediate defensive star, he could be a meaningful addition immediately.
Though not an abject failure, the Falcons’ 10-6 campaign last year left plenty to be desired, especially after their 2016 season. As such, how the Falcons respond this year could have a big impact on the South.
Personnel changes on the coaching staff likely played a role in some of the regression, but they still have plenty of the big talent remaining (Jones, Matt Ryan, etc.) from a squad that nearly won Super Bowl LI.
The oddsmakers peg the Falcons as second-best in the division, and there’s reason to believe they should have a fighting chance at the division crown. Because of that, their performance — and a possible bounce-back to 2016 form — will be important to watch.
Thumbnail photo via Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports Images