A dogfight in the NFC South: Which side will improve the most?

Just three years ago (2014), the Carolina Panthers won the NFC South with a losing record of 7-8-1. The following season, the Panthers went to the Super Bowl. Then last season the Atlanta Falcons had a huge lead in the title game before losing the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. Fast forward to 2017, and all four NFC South teams are considered to be legitimately vying for a playoff spot in the NFC. That’s a quick turnaround from 2014—when the division produced a total of just 22 wins.

What happened? Before the season, some experts were picking any one of these teams for a deep playoff run. So, is the NFC South the poster child for NFL parity and how quickly a team can turn things around in the league? While there are model teams of consistency in the league—such as the Green Bay Packers and the Patriots, who have the longest streaks of consecutive seasons making the playoffs (with eight) and both look poised to tie the NFL record of nine this season—you also have this topsy-turvy division in the south looking to send any number of teams to the postseason. Well, one, two or three of them, anyway.

So, who is it going to be? They can’t all make it. Is there a dog in this group that we haven’t identified yet? Or, is this dogfight going to capture our attention all season long? Perhaps the best way to predict where these teams are going this year is to figure out how they got here. The four teams finished this way in 2014:

Carolina Panthers: 7-8-1.

New Orleans Saints: 7-9.

Atlanta Falcons: 6-10.

Tampa Bay Bucs: 2-14.

That was a far cry from the lofty heights of the past two seasons. So, let’s take a look at each team.

In 2014, the Carolina Panthers had won the division for the second consecutive year with quarterback Cam Newton. And after losing a divisional playoff game in 2013, were looking for their first postseason win in the Newton era. Then they got it in a Wild Card win over the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals—despite their own sub-.500 regular season record. They would lose the following week in the divisional round in Seattle, of course. But, they seemed to have acquired a taste for winning. Then their following season (2015) would be the best in franchise history.

Newton led the Panthers to 15-1 record, failing to go undefeated in the regular season after dropping the penultimate game to Atlanta. They marched through the playoffs and lost the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos by a score of 24-10. Still, they were clearly a team on the rise.

Somehow, though, they would fall flatter than a New England Patriots deflated football, dropping to 6-10 and a fourth-place divisional finish. If their up-and-down pattern holds true, they should be back up this season. But, they will need more than just some karmic trend to do so.

The Panthers just took running back Christian McCaffrey with the eighth pick in the first round. That should help jump-start an offense that was middle of the pack at best last season—ranked 19th in yards gained and 15th in points scored. In addition, Newton should (presumably) stay healthier this season as he is coming off shoulder surgery. And, he reportedly will try to run a lot less often. Newton also has a rookie receiver—Curtis Samuel—who joins Kelvin Benjamin to take some pressure off the quarterback.

On defense, the Panthers welcome back Luke Kuechly from a devastating concussion last season, one that cost him the final five games. He is the heart of a defense that finished 26th in points allowed last season and it sorely missed him. Expect some improvement here—as witnessed on opening weekend, when the 2107 Panthers beat the lowly San Francisco 23-3.

In that game, McCaffrey shared the running duties with longtime Panther Jonathan Stewart (who scored on a short pass from Newton). Newton was 14 of 25 for 171 yards, two touchdown passes and a pick. He was a little rusty due to limited preseason action due to the shoulder surgery. But perhaps the most discouraging number was that he rushed six times for three yards—which is very close to his career average in rush attempts (7.4 per game in six previous seasons). Panthers’ coaches can’t be happy about that.

The Atlanta Falcons have been on a precipitous rise since their 6-10 nadir of 2014. The following season, they reached .500 and then in 2016 finished 11-5—playing three very good quarters of the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the rest of the game saw them squander a 28-3 third-quarter lead—resulting in a devastating 34-28 overtime loss.

The Falcons had built a very good offense last season, one that ranked number two in yardage and number one in points, scoring 33.8 per game. Plus, quarterback Matt Ryan had his best season as a pro (second in passing yardage and passing touchdowns), en route to winning the regular season MVP. Bolstered by tandem running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman alongside wide receiver Julio Jones (110.6 yards per game receiving), Ryan was getting his team in the end zone often.

The other side of the ball was a bit more troublesome, however. Their defense ranked 25th in yards allowed per game (371.2) and 27th in points allowed. The suspect defense showed up in the fourth quarter of that Super Bowl when the unit tired from three quarters of aggressive play, ultimately giving up 31 unanswered points. But there are some bright spots, including linebacker Vic Beasley, Jr., who led the league last season with 15.5 sacks.

Beasley began 2017 where he left off last season with a sack against the Chicago Bears. The Falcons had four team sacks in the game, one coming on the final play to sew up a 23-17 win.

Still, they didn’t exactly rip it up Sunday against a Bears team that was 3-13 last season. They could be slower to gel this season, as most Super Bowl runner-ups suffer a bit of a hangover the following season (see the 2016 Panthers). In addition, the Falcons hired two new coordinators. So it could take some time before all the scheme changes take full effect.

Plus, a bigger test is coming in Week Two when they face the Packers in a rematch of the 2017 NFC Championship Game.

The New Orleans Saints won the 2009-10 Super Bowl before enjoying a few subsequent seasons of winning football. But then the sins of their 2009 NFC championship (Bountygate) resulted in the slow deterioration of their defense, and the team has reeled off three consecutive 7-9 seasons since 2014. The offense has been consistently great over the years with Drew Brees at the helm—finishing first in yards and ninth in points in 2014, second in yards and eighth in points in 2015 and then first in yards and second in points last season. But the defense has let the team down.

The Saints did make a concerted effort to improve the defense in the offseason with several new faces coming on board.Those include rookies CB Marshon Lattimore, FS Marcus Williams, LB Alex Anzalone, DE Trey Hendrickson, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad joining veteran free agents LB A.J. Klein, LB Manti Te’o and DE Alex Okafor. It remains to see what improvements they will bring.

The Saints also added someone to the offensive side who could have a big effect on the season. Or not. Former Vikings All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson joined the Saints after 10 seasons in Minnesota—which is where New Orleans played their opening game of the 2017 season.

Things didn’t go well in that Monday night game for Peterson or the Saints, as the Vikings’ stout defense held the high-powered Saints offense to four field goals and one garbage time touchdown. Additionally, they kept a clearly frustrated Peterson in check (six carries for 18 yards). The Saints new (and very young) defense, meanwhile, needs some experience and could get better as the season goes on. But Monday they made Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford look All-World while he riddled the secondary for 349 yards and three touchdown passes. Patience is required here.

The wild card (perhaps, literally) in this division could be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs have had the farthest climb back to relevance since 2014. A climb that was jump-started by the first pick in the 2015 draft. Or, future franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. In Winston’s rookie year, the Bucs improved their record to 6-10 as the former Heisman Trophy winner learned the NFL ropes.

Before Winston’s arrival, the Bucs were slowly building a team to go around the young quarterback (including Doug Martin at running back and Mike Evans at receiver). And in 2016, Winston started to put things together—improving the team to a 9-7 record. And, to the point of sitting just on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

Evans, who has been the team’s leading receiver the past three seasons, is clearly Winston’s favorite target. He had 96 receptions (on 173 targets) for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. With Martin serving a three-game suspension to begin the season (and Jacquizz Rodgers filling in for him), one could expect even more reliance on Evans by Winston. The addition of veteran wideout DeSean Jackson should help Winston see more open receivers. The defense is where the Bucs need to improve, though. Last season they ranked 23rd in yards allowed (367.9 per game) and 15th in points allowed (23.1).

The Bucs also added another weapon to Winston’s arsenal by drafting former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard. Howard joins tight end Cameron Brate to create a couple of decent targets in two tight end sets. For Winston, it’s “the more targets the merrier,” as the young quarterback is ready to make a real jump in his third season.

Unfortunately, we don’t know yet just how much of a “wild card” the Bucs will become as their opening game against Miami was postponed due to Hurricane Irma making landfall in Florida. They now have to play 16 consecutive games without a bye. And that could make the Buccaneers even more of an unknown come playoff time.

In the final analysis, this division is up for grabs—as are the two NFC Wild Card spots. It seems reasonable to count on one of the wild card teams coming out of this division. Especially if a couple teams begin to separate. But games across this division are often hotly contested. And they rarely follow conventional wisdom—as in the home team always holding serve—so separation might be difficult. A season-long dogfight is in the offing.

At the end of the season, there will be a fierce battle for division crown. If the Saints defense holds, they stay in the conversation. But that may take a while to materialize. If Newton stays healthy, the Panthers will have a say. But when all is said and done, the Falcons have too potent of an offense and are still clamoring for that first Super Bowl. Meanwhile the Bucs are young, hungry and ready to pounce.

Look for those two teams to still be lining up for more football during the postseason.

Yardbarker: NFL

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