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The NFC South was certainly the league’s deepest division in 2017, producing a rare three playoff teams in the conference. In 2018, while it may not produce quite as many playoff teams, the caliber of competition projects to be equally as fierce, with the Saints, Falcons and Panthers all with golden opportunity to capture division honors. The division games among those three teams will be must-see television. On the other end of the spectrum, the downtrodden Buccaneers could (will) end up being the worst team in football.
1. New Orleans Saints
2017 record: 11-5
2018 Projection: 11-5
The Saints are certainly a hot pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in 2018 (technically 2019). They had a highly successful ’17 season and were a single miraculous play from reaching the NFC Championship Game, where they surely could have given the Eagles a better run for their money. The Saints finished with the 2nd ranked offense (not a surprise) and 8th ranked defense (a surprise heard round the league). Not much should change this season, as Drew Brees brings back yet another dynamic offense, for what seems like the 240th straight season. Defensively, without sacrificing any pieces in the offseason, the team brought back cornerback Patrick Robinson and brought in linebacker Demario Davis to strengthen the core. In a loaded NFC South, the Saints are extremely well-rounded and possess very few holes from the top to the bottom of their roster. With the internal mindset of playing to deliver Drew Brees and his Hall of Fame career, one last shot at a Super Bowl, this team might have that added edge (and incentive) over their closest competition.
Best case scenario: The team operates much like it did last season and reaches the second round of the playoffs, where this time, they capitalize on the opportunity and make it all the way back to the Super Bowl.
Worst case scenario: The division champs will have a major target on their back and the pressure will be massive. Drew Brees, with his Hall of Fame credentials already intact, isn’t getting any younger and will turn 40 in January. It feels like we’ve been waiting for the tank to start emptying for years now, but there is very little symptoms of that happening.
Bottom line: The Saints will easily be a playoff team again in 2018, whether it’s as repeat division champions or locking up a wild card spot. Clearly they’d prefer the former. Brees will have another outstanding season and Alvin Kamara will get the workload of a true starting back (sorry Mark Ingram) and impress in his second season. They are the team to beat in the NFC South.
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2. Atlanta Falcons
2017 record: 10-6
2018 Projection: 10-6
Coming off of “28-3” in 2016, everything was going according to plan for the Falcons to reach the Super Bowl again in 2017, when they ran into a physical and imposing Eagles defense in the second round of the playoffs, mustering up only 10 points and bowing out accordingly. Fortunately, Atlanta is fielding a very similar squad on both sides of the ball in 2018, so success again appears to be “probable.” However, they did lose a couple of key pass rushing pieces in Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe (to a division rival), so we’ll find out how much of an impact that will make on the defense as a whole. On paper, the defense appears to be quite serviceable once again. Like the Saints, they’ll also contend for the division honors and should secure a playoff spot. Finally, and for the record, Matt Ryan, who’s seen his share of inconsistencies since his MVP season, is going WAY too late in many fantasy drafts I’ve participated in. The team even added one of the top receivers in college football in Calvin Ridley. Ryan has plenty of weapons and no more excuses for an “average” season.
Best case scenario: The Falcons continue to ride the wave of young blue chip players they’ve collected back into the playoffs, where they can apply their Super Bowl experience. But instead, they’re able to make the right adjustments to put up points on any defense and get back to the Super Bowl.
Worst case scenario: The Saints and Panthers are too much to contend with in the division and the Falcons run out of room in the NFC playoff race. Instead of returning to elite status, Ryan regresses and turns the ball over too much. The defense collectively, peaked during their Super Bowl season and the team falls flat.
Bottom line: Despite my projection of 10-6 for both teams, I think Atlanta has the higher upside and can outduel Carolina for one of the last playoff spots. I don’t expect another Super Bowl run, but just having the opportunity might be enough for this team.
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3. Carolina Panthers
2017 record: 11-5
2018 Projection: 10-6
The Panthers are such a wild card team. Not in the literal sense (though, it could happen), but more so in the figurative sense. Behind Cam Newton on offense and Luke Kuechly on defense, this team should be plenty dangerous. I expect a much bigger role for Christian McCaffrey in Cam’s backfield this season as the guy and I like the drafting of D.J. Moore to bulk up the receiving corps. The addition of Dontari Poe to replace the departed Star Lotulelei is a wash. After a surprising 11 wins in 2017, the Panthers will once again be a tough out on a weekly basis. Their first five home games are against the Cowboys, Bengals, Giants, Ravens and Buccaneers, so the schedule early on is favorable. “Riverboat” Ron Rivera will have another solid team to work with this season.
Best case scenario: As the anchors, Cam is excellent and Kuechly is even better on defense, allowing the Panthers to rise to the NFC South division crown and then pair it with a deep playoff run. It’s all possible.
Worst case scenario: Cam has one of those “turnover-prone” seasons and some of the new pieces struggle to gel in the offense. The defense should be good no matter what, but having to come from behind could be a problem. The Panthers fall behind in the conference, there can’t mount enough of a resurgence to bring them back.
Bottom line: I like the Panthers only slightly less than the Saints and the Falcons, so I have them as the team that falls out of playoff contention within the very deep NFC (the Packers, Giants and 49ers could all steal some playoff reps). But typical of history, most of the blame will be placed on Cam, whether he’s directly responsible for a mediocre team or not.
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4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2017 record: 5-11
2018 Projection: 2-14
Ladies and gentleman, presenting… the worst team in the NFL, 2018 edition! Unfortunately, the Bucs have everything stacked against them for the upcoming season. They play in the the toughest division, have a ridiculously tough schedule, have major holes in just about every key area of the roster and they’re without their starting quarterback Jameis Winston (who appears to be average at best anyway) for the first three games of the season. In his place is the indestructible Ryan Fitzpatrick. Before their early Week 5 bye, they start with: at Saints, Eagles, Steelers and at Bears. Ouch. I do like a couple of their impact players from an individual perspective, namely Mike Evans, Vinny Curry and rookies Vita Vea and Chris Godwin. But collectively, this team lacks depth and it’s going to get run over by just about everyone (as you can see, I have them winning only TWO football games). The reclamation project is in full force.
Best case scenario: They weather the Winston absence and the rookies make a high impact right away, allowing them to steal a couple of games they have no business winning. A “successful” season for this team would be getting close to .500, though that seems impossible with the roster in place now. But hey, the 1st pick in the draft would be a win!
Worst case scenario: My record projection of 2-14 is gospel and head coach Dirk Koetter is relieved of his duties good and early, allowing the team to scout for the future.
Bottom line: The Bucs will challenge the Bills for the worst record in football in 2018. All of the teams around them, particularly in their own division, are just TOO DAMN GOOD. They’ll act as a “bye week” and get knocked around by most teams.