In the sport of Pro Football last year, no one division in the NFL was as tough to play in than the NFC South Division. Last season saw the division send three of its four teams into the 2017 NFL Playoffs; with the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, and eventual division champion New Orleans Saints all making it to the post-season.
The Saints and Falcons made it the farthest, with each team making it to the NFC Divisional Round. Additionally, last postseason was also was the first time since the division was originally created back in 2002, that two of its teams (the Panthers and Saints) ended up playing against each other in the NFL Playoffs.
Overall now in what will be the 17th season of its existence, the NFC South has had two Super Bowl winning teams and has seen ALL 4 of its teams make it to the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII against the Oakland Raiders after the 2002 season, and the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts after the 2009 campaign. Not to be left out, the Panthers made it to Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season, and the Falcons most recently were in Super Bowl LI after the 2016 season just two years ago.
Bottom line: the NFC South Division brand of football is among the best that the sport of Pro Football has to offer.
So — how does the division stack up for the upcoming 2018 NFL season?
As of right now according to the good folks over at the renowned on-line betting website sportsbook.ag, the Saints are the current favorites to repeat as NFC South division champions with 7/5 odds, followed by the Falcons at 2/1, the Panthers in 3rd place at 11/4, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last place with 10/1 odds.
With that in mind, this morning with the start of the NFL regular season now just another 18 days away, the Saints News Network presents our 2018 Season Prediction for the NFC South.
#4. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-11, PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: LAST PLACE)
Tampa Bay finished in last place in 2017, and 2018 already has started off on the wrong foot for the Bucs; since franchise QB Jameis Winston is going to miss the first four games of the season after getting suspended by the League for his off-the-field behavior issues.
He'll be replaced in the line-up by long-time NFL veteran back-up and part-time starter Ryan Fitzpatrick; who at times has played well but has bounced from team to team over the years for a reason. which is that he makes poor decisions at times and notably has been intercepted multiple times in a game on several occasions.
Nevertheless, he'll still have WR's Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson to throw to along with two pass-catching TE's in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Which means the Bucs can throw the ball, but the offensive line struggles and the team will be transitioning at RB, with rookie Ronald Jones replacing Doug Martin. The strength of the Bucs team is on defense, and they'll need players such as Gerald McCoy, Vinny Curry, Jason Pierre-Paul, Noah Spence, and Lavonte David all stepping up every week just to keep them competitive every week.
For the Bucs, their first four regular season games are at the Saints, home vs the Eagles, home vs. the Steelers, and at Chicago against the Bears. Which means that they could be looking right in the face at an (0-4) start. Therefore when you add in all of the distractions with the Winston Drama, I can't see them winning any more than 5 games in 2018 and finishing in the cellar of the NFC South.
#3. CAROLINA PANTHERS (9-7, PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 3rd PLACE)
This is the team that's difficult to get a read on at time because of their franchise player's inconsistency, who of course is Cam Newton — the now 8th year NFL veteran QB and former League MVP that can look nothing short of spectacular in one game, and then can't get anything to go right for him in the next one. But his ability to beat you with either his feet or his arm, is always a factor that a defense has to prepare for.
Newton's biggest problem in 2018 looks to be at the wide receiver position, where the team is extremely thin and is praying that dynamic rookie first-round pick D.J. Moore can hopefully come in and make Panthers fans forget all about the whole mess over the departure of former WR Kelvin Benjamin (who they traded last year to Buffalo).
2nd year RB Christian McCaffrey showed flashes of potential throughout the entire 2017 season and will lead the running game along with veteran free agent addition C.J. Anderson , and the Panthers O-Line is an above-average unit as well, so make no mistake about it: they'll be able to score points on offense.
But they'll need their defense to carry them, as they seemingly do every season. Carolina is loaded on defense again this year with returning pass-rushers Kawann Short and Mario Addison up front; and Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson (who's quietly replacing All-Pro veteran Thomas Davis) have become one the NFL’s best linebacker duos. If there is a "weak spot" on defense for head coach Ron Rivera's team, it would be in their secondary.
But once again, it all simply comes down to Newton; and to how many times that the "good" Cam Newton shows up from week-to-week instead of the "bad" Cam Newton. I'm giving Carolina the benefit of a doubt and saying it'll happen just slightly over half of the Panthers' 2018 schedule, and for that reason I don’t see Carolina winning more than 9 games in 2018.
#2. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6, PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 2nd PLACE)
The Atlanta Falcons are one of the more talented units in all of Pro Football. but much like Carolina, their ultimate success and failure is determined by the performance of its franchise QB: Matt Ryan. At times, Ryan is an elite quarterback as he was when he won League MVP in 2016 under then offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (now the head coach of the 49ers); or a slightly-above-average QB as he was in 2017 under current offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian last year when he threw for only 20 TD's and 12 interceptions.
This season, Ryan will be looking to "bounce back" with a better year and still has a plethora of "weapons" in his offensive arsenal with the electrifying RB duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman along with WR's Julio Jones and rookie WR Calvin Ridley, which gives the Falcons one of the most feared collection of skill position players all together on one team, in the entire NFL.
Not to be outdone: The Falcons defense has play-makers all over its side of the football; and head coach Dan Quinn has assembled an impressive group of young players to implement his defensive scheme such as Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Grady Jarrett; all of who, are capable of giving opposing offenses nightmares for the next several seasons to come.
For the Falcons, they have to go out and prove that last year's "regression" on offense under Sarkisian was simply just a case of Ryan getting comfortable with a new coordinator, or the indication of a much deeper problem with the transition in scheme following Shanahan's departure. Either way, with all of that talent I just don't see the Falcons winning anything less than at least 10 games in 2018, and good enough for 2nd place in the NFC South.
#1. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5, PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1st PLACE)
Other than the team that won the Super Bowl back in 2009, I don't think that I can ever recall a Saints team that has the potential to be very good on both sides of the football in the same season as this 2018 unit does. The only concerns for New Orleans this season are staying relatively healthy and on-field performance / execution. If the Saints can do those two things, they stand a great chance at repeating as NFC South Division Champions in 2018.
Obviously, the #1 priority for New Orleans is keeping the soon-to-be 40 year old QB and future NFL Hall of Famer Drew Brees upright. Despite his age, Brees remains on top of his game and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and playing into his mid-40's isn't out of the question nor is the possibility of him throwing for nearly 5,000 yards again this season, especially with a young superstar like 3rd year WR Michael Thomas to throw it to.
But thanks to 2nd year superstar RB Alvin Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram (who will return in the team's 5th game after serving a 4-game suspension to begin the season) backing him up, he shouldn't be forced to do so as he often was in other years. Kamara and Ingram should benefit from an outstanding Saints O-Line that somewhat quietly and without much recognition, has become one of the very best in all of the NFL
The biggest reason for the Saints' recent success besides the obvious presence of Brees has been the Saints' upgrade of talent on the defensive side of the ball; and players such as Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, and Demario Davis will lead the Front 7 while being backed up by one of the very best young secondaries in all of the sport of Pro Football with young stars such as Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, and Marcus Williams.
Bottom Line: I think that this current Saints team as it's configured, is good enough to win 13 games, but with that tough of a schedule (besides playing the Panthers and Falcons each twice, the Saints also play the Eagles, Vikings, Rams, and Steelers this year) an 11-5 record seems more realistic.