NFC South Preview

Barring major injuries, it’s tough to see any team knock the Bucs off the NFC South pedestal this year. They have the shortest odds of any division favorite outside of Kansas City. They are strong on both sides of the ball and return all 22 starters from their Super Bowl-winning squad. But outside of the Bucs, this is one of the most interesting divisions in the NFL. The Saints have a defense and offensive line that might be strong enough to mask a downgrade at quarterback. The Falcons have a solid quarterback and an exciting new head coach they hope can lead them back to the playoffs. And the Panthers hope to revive Darnold’s career with some excellent offensive weapons and an opportunistic defense. I think all three teams view themselves as a playoff team, and I would guess one of them can make it as a wildcard.

Team-by-Team Breakdown

New Orleans Saints

2020 Recap

Record: (13-5), L v. TB in Divisional Round
Off. Rank: 8th
Def. Rank: 2nd
Net Rank: 3rd
Context: Underrated, well-balanced team in 2020 that took a step back on offense without Drew Brees for four games but still went 3-1 on the back of a strong defense. Struggled with a variety of offensive injuries but still played well under Sean Payton, losing to Tampa Bay in the playoffs due to a slew of turnovers after driving with a 7-point lead in the third quarter.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Lost QB Drew Brees, leaving Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to fight for the starting role
-Lost several defensive linemen, including DE Trey Hendrickson, DT Malcom Brown, DT Sheldon Rankins
-Lost TE Jared Cook and WR Emmanuel Sanders

2021 Narrative

The Saints somehow flew under the radar last year despite playing some of the best football in the NFL. Their defense was strong at every level, particularly on the defensive line. It was difficult to run against New Orleans and they also pressured the quarterback well. Offensively, Sean Payton masterminded an effective offense despite dealing with injuries throughout the offensive depth chart. He used all the weapons he could in each game but rarely had everyone healthy. Many people forget that the Saints were driving to go up by 14 against the Bucs in the playoffs in the 3rd quarter when Jared Cook fumbled a first down catch. Brees threw two more interceptions after that, giving Brady a chance to score touchdowns on drives of 20 and 40 yards. That game could easily have gone the other way.

But now Drew Brees has retired. We got to see a glimpse of the Saints offense with Taysom Hill at the helm and it wasn’t pretty. I had thought that Jamies Winston would be named the starter by now, and it’s not a good sign that he is still in a camp battle with Hill. On top of that, Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook have left town and Michael Thomas popped up with a strange late surgery. Granted, Sean Payton has always maximized his available players. But this seems like a lot to deal with already. Defensively, they are bound to take a step back with some serious losses on the defensive line and not much to replace them. Early in the off-season I was really looking forward to backing an underrated Saints team, but the offseason trends have cooled my perspective somewhat. Overall, I still believe that excellent coaching and a very strong offensive line can lead to a decent offensive performance, and that their defensive scheme will remain strong. But it’s difficult to place maximum confidence in this team without seeing something from Winston. With at-large games against Green Bay, Seattle, and Tennessee, it is unlikely that the Saints challenge the Bucs in the division. But if Payton can get the most out of Winston, they can take a small step back and still make the playoffs.

Key Early Matchups

Week 1 v. GB
Two teams who challenged Tampa Bay in last year’s playoffs will both want to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with in the NFC. In the home opener at the Superdome, expect some raucous fans to give the Saints a chance.

Week 2 @ CAR
The Saints, Falcons, and Panthers all consider themselves challengers in this division. The Saints will want to go on the road and prove that the Panthers are not.

Week 5 @ WAS
If Winston is playing quarterback, this could be a tough test for him as Washington projects to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Could be a huge statement win for New Orleans on the road.

SharpClarke Outlook: Neutral
Projected Regular Season Wins: 9.12
Projected Season Result: 2nd in NFC South (Loss in Wildcard Round)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2020 Recap

Record: (15-5), Won Super Bowl v. KC
Off. Rank: 5th
Def. Rank: 4th
Net Rank: 5th
Context: The Bucs stayed relatively healthy all year, particularly in the playoffs when they were at full strength. Brady led a deep passing attack that was successful against most teams but struggled to combat strong defensive lines. Their elite front seven on defense made it difficult for any team to move the ball consistently, and they capitalized on opponent injuries and mistakes on their way to a convincing Super Bowl victory.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-No significant losses on either side of the ball
-Added RB Giovanni Bernard
-Drafted DE Joe Tryon

2021 Narrative

The Bucs had everything go their way in the playoffs last year. They drew a matchup against the 6-10 Washington Football Team in the wildcard round, and won by 8. Then they were down by 7 with the Saints driving when Jared Cook fumbled in Tampa Bay territory. Two turnovers later, the Bucs emerged victorious despite three touchdown drives that totaled 63 yards of offense. They got away with several key defensive penalties against Green Bay and benefitted from a couple of bad decisions by the Packers coaches. Then they drew Kansas City with a hobbled Mahomes and a depleted offensive line. But make no mistake: the Bucs were a very strong team all year, and not every team is good enough to capitalize on all of these fortunate events. The Bucs were.

Despite what I perceive as a lucky playoff run, the Bucs are primed for another strong season. They kept the gang together and by all accounts seem like a very cohesive team led by one of the greatest leaders in NFL history in Tom Brady. At 44 years old trying to implement Bruce Arians’ famous deep passing attack, he will no doubt struggle against defensive lines that can exert quick pressure. But with an elite defense, he only needs to manage games effectively to put the Bucs in a position to win. And he is arguably the best game manager in the league. Their division rival Saints have taken a step back and they face an easy schedule. Everything is aligned for the Bucs in 2021 and if they can stay healthy again, they will try to do what no team has done since Brady’s Patriots in 2005: win back-to-back Super Bowls.

Key Early Matchups

Week 2 v. ATL
The Falcons had a 24-7 lead against Tampa Bay last year before (characteristically) choking the game away and will look to make noise with a strong outing here.

Week 3 @ LAR
In a potential NFC Championship preview, Brady will face one of the toughest defenses in the league. But so will Stafford. An absolutely huge early-season battle.

Week 4 @ NE
The Bucs should win this game easily, but it will nevertheless be fun to watch Brady go against Belichick and his former team.

SharpClarke Outlook: Bullish
Projected Regular Season Wins: 12.24
Projected Season Result: 1st in NFC South (Loss in NFC Championship)

Carolina Panthers

2020 Recap

Record: (5-11), Missed Playoffs
Off. Rank: 13th
Def. Rank: 23rd
Net Rank: 20th
Context: The Panthers offense moved the ball well but failed to convert third downs and failed to score touchdowns, making them much lower scoring than they could have been. The defense benefitted from extreme turnover luck but was not good on a per-play basis.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Replaced QB Teddy Bridgewater with Sam Darnold
-Replaced WR Curtis Samuel with rookie Terrace Marshall
-Signed LB Haason Reddick and drafted CB Jaycee Horn to bolster the pass defense
-Experienced some offensive line turnover, most notably losing long-time T Russell Okung

2021 Narrative

Matt Rhule and Joe Brady have a lot to prove. For some reason, when people talk about these coaches they have nothing but good things to say. Perhaps they will be great coaches, but they haven’t proven anything yet. Last year, in Rhule’s first season coaching an NFL team and Brady’s first season as offensive co-ordinator, they went 5-11 because the offense they implemented could not get in the end zone and could not convert third downs. Teddy Bridgewater deserves some of the blame, but so do the coaches. They failed to address issues mid-season and actually got worse over the course of the season, then gave up on Bridgewater in favor Sam Darnold, a player who also has not proven anything. There is some potential here if everything goes well, but there is also a possibility that this team is just going to be as bad as it was last year. After all, Darnold was even worse than Bridgewater last year in the red zone. Granted, he was with Adam Gase and the Jets.

The defense should improve over last year with some solid additions. But they were bad last year. They had incredibly fortunate fumble recovery luck that is likely to regress, particularly because they were not good at getting pressure. Perhaps Reddick can help in this area, but the theme is the same as with the offense: it’s all upside and hope for improvement. Given how much has changed here, I don’t have a strong read on this team. But I know there is a substantial group excited about this team’s prospects and I just can’t get on board. I’ll see it when I believe it, and I mean that sincerely.

Key Early Matchups

Week 1 v. NYJ
Obviously a huge game right off the bat for Sam Darnold against his former team, and an important game for the team to start off 2020 on a good foot.

Week 2 v. NO
The #2 spot in the division is wide open, and this home game against New Orleans will be an important litmus test for both teams.

Week 5 v. PHI
The Eagles are typically more vulnerable to the pass than the run, so we will see how this offense progresses with Darnold.

SharpClarke Outlook: Neutral
Projected Regular Season Wins: 7.37
Projected Season Result: 4th in NFC South (Miss Playoffs)

Atlanta Falcons

2020 Recap

Record: (4-12), Missed Playoffs
Off. Rank: 16th
Def. Rank: 19th
Net Rank: 19th
Context: The Falcons struggled to run the ball and blew four games they easily should have won with a second-half collapse. Defensively, they faced an extremely difficult schedule of passing quarterbacks but performed better towards the end of the year after firing Dan Quinn. Despite the 4-12 record, they performed more like an average team.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Lost WR Julio Jones
-Drafted TE Kyle Pitts
-Replaced HC Dan Quinn/Raheem Morris with Arthur Smith
-Replaced RB Todd Gurley with Mike Davis
-Lost C Alex Mack

2021 Narrative

The Falcons were at a crossroads this offseason. Due to several crazy collapses last year, they found themselves picking fourth overall in the draft. At 36 years old, Matt Ryan was entering the tail end of his career and it was increasingly likely that 2016 was their one chance at a Super Bowl with Ryan at the helm. With five potential QB candidates and a need to shed cap room, they were in a position to take Ryan’s heir and start the rebuilding process. Instead, they doubled down on Matt Ryan, drafted Kyle Pitts, and offloaded Julio Jones’ contract in a trade with Tennessee. They hired Arthur Smith as Head Coach after he produced two exceptionally efficient offensive seasons and revived Tannehill’s career. These moves indicate that Atlanta has no intention of rebuilding and wants to win in 2021.

I like it. Ryan is an underrated quarterback who likely will succeed in Smith’s offense. Ridley and Pitts give him the weapons he needs and they will likely shift their offensive identity in a positive way. Defensively they are underrated because they faced an impossibly good schedule of opposing quarterbacks in Rodgers, Mahomes, Wilson, Brady (twice), Herbert, Stafford, Carr, Prescott, and Cousins. That will ease up, and they played fairly well down the stretch last year. If they can continue that momentum and shift the culture of losing, the Falcons could end up being the toughest competition Tampa Bay faces in the division. It’s a stretch to see them making a playoff run, but it’s not impossible.

Key Early Matchups

Week 2 @ TB
Atlanta will look to make a statement by finishing what they couldn’t last year as they blew a 24-7 lead against Tampa Bay.

Week 4 v. WAS
Against a defense that thrives by getting pressure on the quarterback, Ryan will need to be at his best. But with his experience and ability to respond to pressure, this could be a key early win for Atlanta.

Week 7 @ MIA
Coming off a bye week with a likely 3-2 or 4-1 record, this could be the game that establishes Atlanta as a true playoff contender.

SharpClarke Outlook: Neutral
Projected Regular Season Wins: 7.70
Projected Season Result: 3rd in NFC South (Miss Playoffs)

Chalky Prediction

This is the Bucs’ division in 2021 and it’s not particularly close. With an easy schedule and a fully returning starting roster, the Bucs have the division locked up with two or three weeks to go.

Bold Prediction

Jamies Winston starts Week 1 for the Saints and plays effectively enough to power them to a 5-0 start heading into their bye week on the back of a strong defense. They cool off somewhat after that but still sneak into the playoffs as a wildcard.

Sharp Angles

  • With Drew Brees at his disposal, Sean Payton’s offensive creativity helped the Saints perform well against some of the toughest defensive fronts. Look to see if he is able to continue this with his new quarterback, and if so, comfortably back the Saints to outperform offensively against the NFL’s strongest defensive fronts.
  • The Bucs offense involves a lot of downfield throws, which creates variance on a drive-to-drive basis. This make it tough to count on them to methodically beat bad defenses, but gives them a chance for offensive success against any defense.
  • It’s rare, but not unheard of, for a quarterback to revive his career in a new situation. That’s what Carolina is hoping to do with Sam Darnold. Don’t overplay the Panthers (for or against) early in the season until we see how Darnold looks in the new offense.
  • The Falcons go from facing a gauntlet of incredible passing quarterbacks in 2020 to a favorable passing schedule in 2021; anticipate a strong step forward on defense.

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