Andrew McGuinness breaks down the NFC South
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers remain a class apart in the NFC South. Carolina and Atlanta have played in fits and starts. While neither are close to a Wildcard berth, their sole mission between now and Christmas might be to confine the Saints to last place in the division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers “Losing two straight sucks in the NFL, I’m just glad it's not three straight,” said Tom Brady. After uncharacteristic slip ups against New Orleans and Washington, Tampa Bay stride into December battle hardened and with renewed purpose. Rob Gronkowski is back to his barnstorming self after injury. The running game, the potential weakness in the offense, is starting to hum after Leonard Fournette went off for four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts. Perhaps most importantly, the banged up and seemingly vulnerable secondary has played well in consecutive games.
The Bucs improved to 8-3 to take a three-game lead in the NFC South. The impact of getting Gronk back can’t be overstated. They’re a different team with him. Taking care of a perky Colts team was a declaration of intent. We’re in December and you know which team you can trust to get it done down the stretch.
Atlanta Falcons The Falcons continue to be a tough team to watch. Cordarrelle Patterson is proving to be the exception to that rule as he ignites their limp offense on a weekly basis. By default, they find themselves second place in the division. Much hyped rookie tight end Kyle Pitts is enjoying a typical underwhelming first year for a young tight end in the NFL.
Matt Ryan is also struggling and looking every bit his 36 years. His saving grace is likely to be there’s a dearth of top quarterbacks in the upcoming NFL draft to replace him. The Falcons are in overhaul mode under Arthur Smith and it won’t be long before the quarterback position gets a facelift. While they’re showing a few signs of life, some things don’t change in Atlanta. The Patriots still have their number, as evidenced by New England jumping out to a 25-point lead on the Falcons and not blowing it. Seeing a half empty Mercedes Benz Stadium, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were playing with just 10,000 fans in the stadium because of COVID in 2020. The Falcons are not utterly lifeless and are doing just enough - beating teams worse than them - to salvage the season. Finishing second and winning seven or eight games would be a decent return. New Orleans Saints The Saints are proof that you can win in the trenches but if you don't have a quarterback, a receiving corps and Alvin Kamara is injured, you can write off the season. Jameis Winston was always a stop gap at quarterback and he’s injured. Every opponent is heartened to hear this sentence - Trevor Siemian is under center for the Saints. They’ve paid Taysom Hill, their swiss army knife and gadget boy, who they don’t trust to play quarterback but Sean Payton seems to want to keep him away from other NFL teams with a contract extension. Even he is worth a twirl as an alternative to Siemian. Their destruction of the Packers in week one seems like seven years ago. On their day, they are the worst team in this division. Carolina Panthers The Christian McCaffrey injury curse has struck again. He badly injured his left ankle and an MRI revealed he’s out for the rest of the season. It’s brutal for the Panthers and demonstration of the prevailing view amongst those in the league who counsel against paying star running backs. In the case of McCaffrey, since signing an extension that made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history, he will have played in only 10 of 33 games by the end of this season.
After a promising start to the season, it has been a disappointing six weeks for Carolina. Cam Newton returned for an injured Sam Darnold only to be benched in a blowout loss. Ron Rivera also returned to Carolina to get one over on his old charges.
With Panthers owner David Tepper not expected to pursue a trade for Deshaun Watson, the long-term outlook at quarterback is murky. A lot of stock was placed in head coach Matt Rhule and his offensive coordinator Joe Brady coming in from successful stints in college football - in Rhule’s case turning around Temple and Baylor. In benching defensive tackle Derrick Brown, Rhule has shown he’s prepared to take no prisoners. With a vacuum in the division created by New Orleans’ slump, now is the time for Rhule to kick on and capitalize.