By Andrew McGuinness
Path Through Division Clear For Tampa Bay To Repeat
On the surface, the NFC South division looks like a classic case of the haves (reigning Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and the have-nots, featuring the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. The specter of the pandemic still hangs over the league, and in the south, COVID continues to ravage states. The Falcons were the first 100% vaccinated NFL organization. That’s a competitive advantage. The recent outbreak at the Tennessee Titans has been a wake-up call to every team. It’s hard to see any division opponents slowing Tampa Bay down. In fact, the question might be: can the long-suffering Atlanta Falcons beat out the perennial NFC South contender in the New Orleans Saints into third place in the division? I’ll break down how the division is shaping up and see whether the haves v have nots theory holds true. Tampa Bay Buccaneers The Bucs have done something unprecedented and brought everyone back from their Super Bowl success. Their deeply experienced and battle tested playing roster is as good as anyone else's in the NFL. Last season they got off to a slow start before embarking on one of the dominant playoff runs, finishing in grand style at home. With Tom Brady in his second year in this offense, and a primed defense, they’re ready for a tilt at retaining the Lombardi Trophy.
The offense attracts so much attention, but it was their defensive unit playing with such verve and menace that shut the Kansas City Chiefs out during the Super Bowl. On this basis, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles deserves to be a head coach again in 2022. In his second season in Tampa, Tom Brady may end up calling more plays on the field. I’m sure he’d love a pass-catching running back who can take the checkdowns. This was an area the Bucs struggled with in 2020.
Their game at home to Buffalo in December will be a litmus test of how they’re shaping up. I’m fascinated to see how their secondary deals with Josh Allen and the Bills receiving corps. If the Buccaneers can dodge COVID and injuries, they’ll be in good shape. Atlanta Falcons Profound structural change has come in Atlanta and they seem better for it. In the off-season, Terry Fontenot became the Falcons first Black general manager. The firing of head coach Dan Quinn, and Julio Jones being traded, effectively removes two of the last major connections to the devastating 2017 Super Bowl loss. Moving on from legendary franchise wideout Jones won’t be easy, but they have a potential generational tight end talent in Kyle Pitts; and Calvin Ridley can step up to be a number one wide receiver. Watching how quickly Pitts is able to establish a relationship with quarterback Matt Ryan will be fun. Pitts has lofty expectations to live up to and, historically, tight ends from Ozzie Newsome to George Kittle don’t make a major impact in their rookie season.
The Falcons might be rebuilding, but the foundations, certainly on offense, are strong. Under offensive mastermind and new head coach Arthur Smith, expect the Falcons talented offense to score plenty of points. They have been enigmatic and frustrating over the past three seasons, blowing leads and infuriating fans and coaches alike. Of the teams in the league in rebuild mode, they have enough parts on offense to win 9 games. Smith was able to scheme Ryan Tannehill for success while in Tennessee. Can he do the same for an aging Matt Ryan? What will the run-pass balance in his offense be now that Mike Davis and not Derrick Henry is his running back? And how often will he split Pitts out wide? Another change sees Dean Pees in his 48th season of coaching enter the building as defensive coordinator. In that time he has worked with Bill Belichick, Nick Saban and one Arthur Smith in Tennessee. If Pees can get the most of the limited Falcons defense they can be relevant in the division come December.
New Orleans Saints With the Drew Brees era ending in New Orleans, the Saints have a new starting quarterback for the first time in 15 years. The Jameis Winston Experience is upon us. The pressure is on head coach Sean Payton to dial up Winston’s arm and ensure he doesn’t combust when it comes to turnovers. Winston has the second-highest interception rate of any quarterback since 2000. It’s a huge departure from when the Brees-led Saints were one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses. Expect the Saints to be strong in the trenches and win games with their defensive and offensive lines, combined with a heavy dose of Alvin Kamara in the backfield. Opting for Jameis Winston over Taysom Hill suggests, however, they won’t rely too heavily on the run. Critical structural questions remain at quarterback, wide receiver (remember Michael Thomas?) and the defensive back position which will ultimately limit the Saints’ ability to mount a challenge this season.
Carolina Panthers Christian McCaffrey returns from an injury-plagued 2020, to provide the reclamation project, quarterback Sam Darnold, with a major weapon in the backfield. We’ll find out very quickly how much of the dysfunction that played out at the New York Jets’ is on Darnold. In Joe Brady, Darnold will come under the tuition of one of the NFL’s bright young offensive minds, a title once reserved for his old coach, Adam Gase. Even if Joe Brady gets Darnold in a place to fit the scheme, the odds seem stacked against them with one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines. Head coach Matt Rhule has invested heavily in his young defense. For a coach who is on a generous multi-year contract reporting to owner and Wall Street kingpin, David Tepper, he needs a steady uptick in performance across the board in year two.
NFC South Prediction
Providing they remain healthy and stave off age-related regression, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are my pick to win the division. Swatting away their divisional neighbors paves the way for a deep playoff run through Tampa. It’s hard to look past the most complete team in the division confirming my hunch.