By: Cory Vest
The National Football Conference offers intrigue and excitement. One of the best places to start is with the NFC South. Last year the NFC was represented by the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. An epic collapse by the “Dirty Birds” led to another ring in Brady and Co.’s collection. As we make the leap from the AFC to the NFC we’ll start in the South. High powered offenses, big play potential, and a thirst for success; the NFC South is composed of the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Carolina Panthers.
1. Atlanta Falcons – Over/Under 9.5
The Falcons may have watched their offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, pack up and become head honcho in SF, but they still possess the weapons needed to keep plowing through defenses. Steve Sarkisian will take Shanahan’s place. Matt Ryan elevated his play last year and will continue to play at a high level this year. Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman are game changers. The Falcons offense will put up points and gobble up the yardage. With a top-notch offense, all that is needed is a capable defense.
Last year Atlanta’s D stepped up when needed. An impressive regular season record and Super Bowl run were both evidence of the defense’s ability to rise up. The Falcons benefit offensively from a schedule peppered with beatable defenses. Those teams with beatable defenses boast productive offenses. The defense will be tested in 2017. Although last year they did what they needed to, this year is different. This year the defense will falter, costing Atlanta the chance to make amends for their blown Super Bowl lead. A 10-6 record earns respect and the Falcons finish over the 9.5-win mark. The “Dirty Birds” will present a hard out in the playoffs but they will be an out nonetheless, leaving the NFC Conference Championship for the taking.
2. New Orleans Saints – Over/Under 8.0
Similar to their division foes, the Saints are a team that relies on their high-powered offense to win games. Drew Brees will put up the rock making every eligible receiver a potential threat. Brees can throw the long ball or work the short game. With Brees behind center, the Saints are never out of a game. Although Brandin Cooks no longer sports the flor de lee, Michael Thomas will be a solid WR1. Willie Snead will bring big play potential to the field once he returns from his 3-game suspension. Ted Ginn Jr. and Coby Fleener provide even more options. Mark Ingram and newly acquired running back Adrian Peterson, will create a bruising and efficient tandem.
A weak and porous defense plagued the Saints last year. At 7-9, the Saints did not exactly perform to the standards they would have liked. This year, the defense will alter games. Favorable bounces will reward a scrappy and hard-working bunch.
Expect New Orleans to finish over the 8-win mark with a 9-7 record on the season. Nine wins will be just enough to put them in the playoffs via the Wild Card. With competition elevated in the postseason the underdog Saints will make a first round exit.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Over/Under 8.5
Entering his third year in the NFL, Jameis Winston will have two talented targets at wideout. Mike Evans has been making his name in Tampa for 3 years now; this year he will be lined up opposite of DeSean Jackson. Jackson traded in the Redskin burgundy for a Buccaneer red. Jackson is a welcomed weapon to any offense. Blessed with speed and an ability to take any play to the house, the Buccaneers will have an offense that should not be taken lightly. Pressure, whether it be from the opposing defenses, or the situation, will get to Winston this season. Poor throws, poor decisions, and poor performances down the stretch will cost Winston and the Tampa Bay Bucs.
The theme continues for the AFC South as the Bucs’ defense is not considered top tier. The job will get done and games will be won, but not at a rate that is needed. The Bucs unfortunately have to face the Falcons’ and the Saints’ offenses a total of four times. The good will quickly turn bad and the bad could quickly turn good for this squad.
The Buccaneers will finish the season 8-8 and under the Vegas win total. Failing to meet expectations, frustration and aggravation should be tempered if you are a Bucs fan; the team is surely set for success in seasons to come (barring any unforeseen downgrades).
4. Carolina Panthers – Over/Under 8.5
Just two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers are a tough team to predict. A 2015 campaign ended with the Panthers in the Super Bowl after a 15-1 season. Last year, 2016, the Panthers finished 6-10. What is in store this year? The offense will have duel threat Cam Newton behind center again. Kelvin Benjamin offers a big target and should be a 1,000-yard receiver. Veteran Greg Olsen is one of the league’s top tight ends who brings reliable hands and experience to a team that has what it takes to win. Newest member Christian McCaffrey will throw a wrench into opponents’ game plans as the rookie running back can line up anywhere on the field. McCaffrey should have an impact in the running game, passing game, and even special teams.
The Panthers possess the weakest offense in the NFC South, but that is not saying they are incompetent. The Panthers will manage to keep most games close, giving themselves a shot at victory. Creating opportunity and taking advantage of the opportunity are two very different things; the Panthers create more than they claim in this instance, as opportunity slips away from this squad. The defense did their best last year but it still resulted in 10 defeats. One too many games got away from this unit. This year should be more consistent but they will be tested.
The Panthers season will be filled with streaks, both of the winning and losing variety. A complete failure to close out the season will result in the Panthers missing the playoffs again. They will improve upon their 6 wins from last year but that is no consolation prize when the Lombardi Trophy is the ultimate winnings. The Panthers open the season with two winnable weeks. A possible losing streak of five games waits on the horizon with the Chicago Bears being the Panthers’ hope to right the ship. How the Panthers finish the weeks prior to their bye week will be critical. Coming out of the bye, the Panthers will have the opportunity to control their own destiny. Opportunity will slip through their fingers, the season will be fumbled away, the Panthers will close the season on a devastating collapse. Panthers finish at 7-9 and under the Vegas win total.