With the NFL season kicking off this Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles opening up the defense of their Super Bowl LII title against the Atlanta Falcons, what better time to preview the season, especially now that rosters are mostly set after a mostly ignored preseason.
These previews are going to feature a quick look back at last season, any major personnel moves that may affect the upcoming season, and a prediction for how we think each division is going to play out. At the end of the week, we’ll post a separate post that combines them all and predicts the playoff participants, as well as who we think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on February 3, 2019.
We’re going to start with the divisions of the two teams that kick off the season, and fill out the rest throughout the end of the week. We started with the NFC East, and this will cover the NFC South, home of the Atlanta Falcons, who will also be hosting Super Bowl LIII in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The NFC South was the only division last season to qualify three teams for the playoffs. With improving teams across the conference, chances are they won’t repeat that feat, but three of the four teams should compete for a playoff spot.
The New Orleans Saints won the division last year with an 11-5 record, and clinched the division when the Carolina Panthers – who finished with the exact same record – lost to the Falcons during Week 17. The Saints then beat the Panthers in the Wild Card Round the following week, before losing in heartbreaking fashion to the Minnesota Vikings on one of the most dramatic last minute plays in NFL history. The Saints rebounded after starting the season 0-2, winning their next eight games and 11 of their last 14. This was a four game improvement from the three previous seasons (all 7-9 seasons), and their first playoff berth since 2013.
The Carolina Panthers also rebounded from a poor 2016, improving from 6-10 to 11-5, and only losing the division title on that aforementioned loss during Week 17. During Week 4, they won their first game in Foxborough (against the New England Patriots) since 1995, and they swept all four opponents from the AFC East, which helped to boost their overall record. However, they struggled within the division, losing to the Saints twice, which caused them to fall to one of the Wild Card positions.
The Atlanta Falcons followed up their Super Bowl LI season (a loss to the Patriots) with a solid 10-6 season, and were the only NFC team from the 2016 playoffs to qualify again in 2017. They opened a new stadium, which as mentioned will be the host of the Super Bowl this season, so Atlanta will become the latest team to try and play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Atlanta did well in the division, matching the Saints 4-2 record, but lost three of four games against the AFC East, only defeating the Jets on the road.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers failed to improve on a winning 2016 season, falling to 5-11, their 10th consecutive season without a playoff appearance. They joined the Miami Dolphins in playing 16 consecutive games on the season, after their Week 1 game was postponed due to Hurricane Irma and rescheduled during their mutual bye week in Week 11. The Buccaneers only won one game within the division, which contributed to their poor record.
Major Personnel Moves
There were not a whole lot of major personnel changes within the division, with only a couple of defensive linemen moving into (Vinny Curry from Philadelphia to Tampa Bay) and out of (Adrian Clayborn from Atlanta to New England) the division. Carolina picked up wide receiver Torrey Smith in a trade with Philadelphia, and Teddy Bridgewater moved to the Saints in a late preseason trade with the New York Jets. Three of the four teams will be led by the same quarterbacks that ended last season – Drew Brees (Saints), Cam Newton (Panthers) and Matt Ryan (Falcons) – while the Buccaneers will be without 2016 starter Jameis Winston, who will be suspended for the first three games of the season due to off-field conduct.
I think the Saints and the Panthers will be the class of the division this year, with the Panthers falling off a bit and the Buccaneers spinning their wheels. Division records head-to-head match ups will matter less than the performance of the teams against the AFC – all teams are playing the four teams from the AFC North – and the NFC East. I expect the Saints to repeat as division champs, though they will probably need a Week 17 win against the Panthers to hold off the Falcons.
1. New Orleans Saints – 11-5 (4-2 division)
2. Atlanta Falcons – 10-6 (4-2 division)
3. Carolina Panthers – 8-8 (3-3 division)
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 5-11 (1-5 division)