The NFC South may be the best division in football. How do its teams stack up?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Divisional Preview series is here. Over the two weeks, we’ll look at every NFL division and break down each team’s season-long prospects. Today, we’ll look into how the hyper-competitive NFC South stacks up heading into the 2018 season.
The defending NFC champions made it back to the playoffs in 2017, ultimately getting knocked out by the eventual Super Bowl LII champion Philadelphia Eagles in the second round. Atlanta earned a 10-6 record and a wildcard spot with an above-average offense and defense, but failed to raise many eyebrows with their play amidst a stacked NFC playing field.
Biggest Strength: Passing Attack
Atlanta finished with the eighth-ranked passing offense in 2017. With a former NFL MVP in quarterback Matt Ryan, one of the best receivers in the league in Julio Jones, and exciting rookie Calvin Ridley, the Falcons may have the best passing attack in the league this season.
Biggest Weakness: Pass Defense
“Weakness” is a strong word in this case. The Falcons finished with the 12th best pass defense last season. The team doesn’t have a truly exposed unit on either side of the ball, but it’s weakest is its secondary. Finishing in the top half of the league in pass defense while playing in the league’s best-quarterbacked division is still an impressive feat.
X-Factor: Wide Receiver Calvin Ridley
Julio Jones is a top-three wide receiver and Matt Ryan’s go-to target. Now add rookie receiver Calvin Ridley. Two big-play receivers from Alabama with a good quarterback to throw to them is something to be excited about in Atlanta. Putting Ridley at X will draw defenses away from Jones at Z, and vice versa.
The Key Number: 45% On Third Down
Atlanta had the best third down conversion rate in the NFL last season. Smart play calling and sharp execution give Atlanta the chance to beat any opponent that the team faces. In his second year, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian may have the improved chemistry with his players needed to take this offense back near its 2016 production.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
The Falcons have the players to make in back to the playoffs in 2018. The problem is that the NFC may be the most competitive that it has ever been. Every team in the NFC has a legitimate starting quarterback. Leaping over both the Saints and Panthers to win the NFC South will be an uphill battle, and earning a wildcard spot over other teams on the bubble like the Packers, Lions, Cowboys, and 49ers is no guarantee.
Matt Ryan somehow escapes and makes a ridiculous pass for the Falcons touchdown pic.twitter.com/jybVRsJd9h— Sporting News (@sportingnews) January 13, 2018
The Panthers continued their sequence of on-again, off-again seasons in 2017, returning from a 6-10 season to go 11-5 and grab a wildcard spot.
Biggest Strength: Offensive Line
After five years at left tackle for Minnesota, Matt Kalil came to provide support to Carolina’s offensive line last season to protect quarterback Cam Newton and open up running lanes for running back Christian McCaffrey. He joins his brother Ryan, one of the Panthers’ most respected veterans.
Biggest Weakness: Passing Offense
Cam Newton has failed to complete 60% of his passes in each of his last four seasons. The Panthers had the 28th-ranked passing offense in the league last year. That they even made the playoffs speaks to their defense. Smarter, sharper throws from Newton are needed to elevate the team to the next level of competition.
X-Factor: Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner
With over 30 years of NFL coaching experience, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has established himself as one of the best offensive minds in the league. Learning under Turner in the prime of Cam Newton’s career could produce a career-changing season for the veteran QB.
The Key Number: 50 Sacks
The Carolina defense produced 50 sacks last season, the third most in the league. Matching that number in 2018 will neutralize the talented quarterbacks of the NFC, particularly in the NFC South. Luke Kuechly and the Panthers’ front seven will keep the team in plenty of close games this season.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
If the roller coaster in Carolina continues, the Panthers are due for a losing season. With a strong defense, the Panthers will be in the hunt all season long. Making the postseason depends largely on the consistency of Cam Newton and the offense. Norv Turner could be the key piece that the team needs to stay on track.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans started the 2017 season 0-2 before sweeping their next eight. After finishing the season 11-5 (losing to elite teams in Minnesota, New England, the L.A. Rams, and Atlanta), the Saints defeated the Panthers 31-26 in the wildcard round of the playoffs before losing a heart-breaker to the Vikings, receiving the wrong end of the “Minnesota Miracle.”
Biggest Strength: Backfield
The thunder-and-lightning combo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara gives the Saints the best running back duo in the NFL. The team ran for 2,070 yards in 2017, and its two star ball carriers are coming back healthy in 2018.
Biggest Weakness: Rush Defense
New Orleans finished with the 16th-best rushing defense in the league, finishing in the middle of the pack among the NFL in rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and average yards per rush. The Saints’ high-scoring offense allows the defense to bend every now and then, but it doesn’t often break.
X-Factor: Quarterback Drew Brees
Father time has been kind to future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees. The quarterback has started 15 or 16 games every year since 2004, and enters his eighteenth season gunning for the all-time passing record, with only 1,496 yards needed to pass Peyton Manning. Everything rides on Brees staying upright. The Saints’ offensive line allowed just 20 sacks all of last season (the second fewest in the league). If they can replicate that performance over the course of this season, the sky’s the limit.
The Key Number: 17 Plays Of 20+ Yards
The Saints’ 17 plays of 20 yards or more tied for the second most in the league last season. The Saints’ ability to run and throw, added to the offensive genius of Head Coach Sean Payton, is a lethal combination. If you’re the opposing defense, you’re always on your toes and no part of the field is safe.
Playoff Status: Automatic
New Orleans finished with top-five rushing and passing attacks and produced 6,259 yards of offense in 2017. With their key pieces returning, the Saints will surpass the 6,000 mark again in 2018, en route to another playoff berth. The Saints are my pick to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIII.
We are 70 days away from Saints vs Bucs. Let’s take a look back at the 3 game sweep of the Panthers for #100DaysOfHighlights.— AllSaintsConsidered.com (@AllSaintsBlog) July 1, 2018
Michael Thomas jukes the socks off the defense which sets up the Josh HIll touchdown! What’s better than Mike doing his thing and playoff Josh Hill? pic.twitter.com/xgaOpzBDUR
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Hard Knocks curse continued in 2017, as the Bucs finished a sluggish 5-11 with the worst defense in the league.
Biggest Strength: Wide Receivers
Biggest Weakness: Defensive Line
The Bucs netted a league-low 22 sacks on opposing quarterbacks in 2017, even with star pass rusher Gerald McCoy. Their defensive line struggles played a large role in the team finishing with the league’s worst passing defense and worst overall defense.
X-Factor: Quarterback Jameis Winston
Last season showed us the contagious effect that a key player’s suspension can have not only on a team but also on the player. After leading the league in rushing his rookie year, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot’s average yards per rush dropped from 5.1 in 2016 to 4.1 in 2017. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a suitable backup, but it will be interesting to see the impact that Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy will have on the fourth-year quarterback’s play and on the team as a whole.
Key Number: 26 Fumbles
A defense that can’t get off of the field combined with an offense that can’t stay on it encompasses the makings of a disaster. The Bucs’ 26 fumbles in 2017 tied for the most in the league. A team that doesn’t practice ball control will shoot itself in the foot all season long.
Playoff Status: Cellar Dweller
In another division at another time, the Bucs may have a shot at a wildcard spot. In this division, this season, the Bucs have no chance.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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- Atlanta Falcons
- Carolina Panthers
- New Orleans Saints
- Tampa Bay Buccanneers