The NFC South has been one of the most unpredictable divisions over the past decade. Since 2003 no team has been able to repeat as division champions and it appears that pattern will continue this season. Last year, the NFC South was a two horse race between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, resulting in both teams making the playoffs while leaving the Falcons and Buccaneers in their dust.
2014 appears to be the year of the runaway team in the NFC South. Let’s take a look at how things will sort out 16 games from now.
1. New Orleans Saints:
2013 Record: 11 – 5
Projected 2014 Record: 13 – 3
Despite the losing of one of the league’s best dual-threat backs in Darren Sproles to Philadelphia Sean Payton’s offense will continue to evolve this year. On the back of top 5 quarterback Drew Brees and the league’s highest paid tight end, Jimmy Graham, the team is still capable of running up the score on any team. However, in 2014 the Saints will be carried by their defense and 12th man, not their offense.
Rob Ryan’s defensive brilliance showed in his first season as Saints’ Defensive Coordinator. Ryan got the Saints’ defense beyond their Bounty-Gate past and turned them into one of the league’s top defenses. They ranked fourth in total defense and second in passing yards against last season.
The schedule gods did the Saints a favor this year by giving them their toughest opponents, Green Bay and San Francisco, in the friendly confines of the Superdome. The biggest home field advantage in the NFL will continue this season resulting in an undefeated home record for the second consecutive year.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2013 Record: 4 – 12
Projected 2014 Record 8 – 8
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the best off seasons in recent NFL history. These additions should allow Tampa to get beyond Carolina in the division and fight for a Wild Card spot in the NFC. The Bucs signed free agent QB Josh McCown from Chicago after an amazing season in relief of the injured Jay Cutler. McCown will team up with new Offensive Coordinator Jeff Tedford and countless offensive weapons.
Top wide receiver Vincent Jackson will be joined by Doug Martin, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and first round draft pick Mike Evans. The eventual return of injured RB Charles Sims will only add to the offensive fire power. These weapons give McCown countless options to help get the ball into the end zone.
Not to be forgotten is new Head Coach Lovie Smith and his defensive mind. The Bucs have a powerhouse defense on paper. They brought in free agents Michael Johnson, Alterraun Verner, and Clinton McDonald. Add these players to linebacker Lavonte David and you get a defense with big play potential. The only question that remains is how well these pieces will mesh together.
3. Carolina Panthers
2013 Record: 12 – 4
Projected 2014 Record: 6 – 10
Can Newton is an amazing quarterback, unfortunately, he does not have any competitive players around him. This Panthers offense has become a one trick show which will cause them to fall from the top of the division to a losing record in 2014. The team is lacking a true #1 receiver, a major flaw with a deep threat passer such as Newton.
On the other side of the ball the Panthers have one of the league’s best front 7. The 4-3 formation featuring Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, and NFL Defensive MVP Luke Kuechly will be required to keep the score low so their offense has a chance.
Being defending division champions gives Carolina an even tougher schedule this season. The Panthers will struggle this season, leaving Head Coach Ron Rivera’s job safe but on the hot seat going into 2015.
4. Atlanta Falcons
2013 Record: 4 – 12
Projected 2014 Record: 4 – 12
The Atlanta Falcons are simply a weak team. That became obvious with their 4 – 12 record last season. The Falcons suffered major injuries to their top wide receivers last season reviling the lack of a offensive line or running game. First string running back Steven Jackson has another year of work on his legs and should be expected to share touches with rookie Devonta Freeman, from the national champion Florida State Seminoles.
The Falcon’s defense is not much better than their offense. They ranked 27th in total defense last season and 31st against the run. They are attempting to fix this problem by transitioning to a 3-4 front but will continue to struggle against one of the most competitive divisions in football.
The only chance Atlanta has this season is Matt Ryan. Ryan has shown brilliance at points throughout his career and has to have the type of season Nick Foles had last year for the Falcons to succeed. Expect Atlanta to have a similar record as last year and Head Coach Mike Smith to be fired during the season.