Handicapping the NFC South
The bulk of NFL free agency is behind us. So is the draft. And all schedules have been released for teams across the league. What does this mean? It’s time to look ahead to next season, as not much else will change between now and when the season kicks off in September.
Last year, the NFC South combined for a total record of 22-41-1. For those keeping score at home: That is not an impressive showing. In fact, not a single team finished above .500.
In first place, the Carolina Panthers finished 7-8-1. Right behind them were the New Orleans Saints at 7-9. Following them were the Atlanta Falcons at 6-10, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished last at 2-14.
Falcons Odds To Win 2016 Super Bowl: 40/1
Falcons Odds To Win 2016 NFC Conference: 22/1
Falcons Odds To Win 2016 NFC South Division:
The Atlanta Falcons will open the season as slight favorites to win the NFC South. Fans in the ATL couldn’t be more excited by the news, and optimism is flowing as a result.
Mark Bradley of MyAJC.com recently predicted this team will go 10-6 this season. That’s an exact flip of the team’s record last season, and part of that is because of the team’s schedule.
Atlanta has the luxury of a fairly easy schedule. It’ll play just times all year against squads that made the postseason in 2014. Two of those outings will be against the Panthers, who are technically projected to finish beneath them this season.
Dan Quinn could also be a difference maker here. The hope is that he’ll bring with him some of that potent Seattle defense, and that they’ll also get a defensive boost in Vic Beasley, who could ultimately prove to be one of the most productive pass rushers from this year’s draft.
Panthers Odds To Win 2016 Super Bowl: 40/1
Panthers Odds To Win 2016 NFC Conference: 22/1
Panthers Odds To Win 2016 NFC South Division: +200
The Carolina Panthers are in an interesting spot. In fact, they’re in a spot so rare, it’s difficult to imagine a team that could be in a similar situation in the near future.
The Panthers enter this season as back-to-back division champions. That’s not exactly unheard of. The rare part? They’re hardly considered a favorite to do it again. The fact is that nobody fears them at this point in the process, yet a good season could push them to their third straight division championship if the division remains as weak as its been in the recent past.
Will that division title come to fruition? Not likely. If projections to the Falcons and New Orleans Saints prove to be overzealous, that’s where Carolina could step in, but Atlanta looks improved and New Orleans could be something of a sleeper.
At this point, the team is in the bottom half of the league when it comes to Super Bowl odds, and the same goes for a conference championship with the season just a few months away. Another boost in stardom from Cam Newton could be the difference maker, but there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to show this team has a giant leap ahead this season.
New Orleans Saints
Saints Odds To Win 2016 Super Bowl: 40/1
Saints Odds To Win 2016 NFC Conference: 22/1
Saint Odds To Win 2016 NFC South Division: +225
Like the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints have the luxury of a soft schedule. That has a lot to do with the fact that they will play each team within this weak division twice.
Also like the Falcons, Mike Triplett of ESPN.com has the Saints going 10-6 during the 2015-16 season.
To kick off the reasons as to why, New Orleans’ defense can’t be much worse than it was last year. The offense is still strong, as it typically is, but on the other side of the ball, where this team was near the bottom of the league a year ago, we should see improvements if historical trends (up-and-down seasons) continue.
Where we’ll have to see this team adjust offensively is following the loss of Jimmy Graham. There’s plenty of weapons on the outside, which as long as Drew Brees doesn’t take an unexpected step in the wrong direction, should be enough to challenge opposing defenses on a weekly basis.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Buccaneers Odds To Win 2016 Super Bowl: 100/1
Buccaneers Odds To Win 2016 NFC Conference: 50/1
Buccaneers Odds To Win 2016 NFC South Division: +750
The NFC South isn’t expected to be great this season, but parity should be in full effect. The two teams at the top of the division should be neck-and-neck throughout the year, with New Orleans not far behind.
That’s where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers differ. Along with having the worst odds to win the division, Tampa Bay is tied with the Washington Redskins for the worst odds to win the conference and tied with the Redskins again for the third-worst odds to win the Super Bowl.
The truth is that this team is talented. In fact, Steven Ruiz of SportsWire recently stated that this year’s Bucs could be “the most talented 3-13 team in the history of the league.”
The X-Factor here is Jameis Winston. The rookie quarterback has his fair share of off-field and character issues, but if he shows out to the tune that fans expect, he could help this team surpass expectations.
Ruiz place the Buccaneers as a sleeper team that could make the NFL Playoffs, and while that seems a bit optimistic at this juncture, it’s easy to see an improved record from last season.
Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans should see improvements this year with Winston behind center, which should be good enough for at least a win or two improvement when it’s all said and done.
Early Pick: Atlanta Falcons
This division has the potential to be tight, but the Falcons are the ones whose changes should have the strongest influence on their improvement. Atlanta is technically tied with Carolina when it comes to early divisional odds, but it’d be tough to choose the Panthers over Atlanta at this point in the process.
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