2018 NFL Preview: NFC South

nfc-southThe NFL is far from an easy league as this is the league where the best of the best compete and only a few survive.

To get into the playoffs takes a lot of talent and to make a deep run takes all that much more.

Teams are constantly building trying to find the best group they can to make the playoffs and compete for the Super Bowl.

In most divisions, there are a number of teams sitting in different spots in that process as the natural progression of the league as a process.

There are usually two teams, sometimes only one, who are considered one of the best in the league and are preparing for their playoff runs more than their divisional runs.

Teams on the other end are just trying to build something that can put them into the race whether it be right now or in the near future.

Everything in between can be seen and the division usually works out to a two-team race but that is not every division.

The AFC South has evolved into one of the most competitive divisions in the league and they proved it in 2017.

Three teams made it to the playoffs last year with a rebuilding Saints team taking the title while Carolina and Atlanta were forced into the wild card.

It very well could have a been a four-team race if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made good on the promise they had at the start of the season.

That can make things tough for every team in the division as teams have to get through the gauntlet just to get into the playoffs.

For many teams, the battle is far simpler as they have to get past one team in order to find their playoff spot.

For the teams in the South, they had four games in the season that are so important that they could essentially determine the playoff positioning.

Heading into a new season the same battle seems to be shaping up as the Saints, Panthers and Falcons are all back with strong teams.

None are willing to give in and with some teams reloading while others hoping for a boost after a down year this battle could be the best in the league.

It will make every divisional matchup something to watch and all three teams could once again be in the playoffs.

The Saints went through a rebuilding phase that seems to be the quickest on record after heading to the divisional round in 2017 thanks to two rookies of the year.football-sidebar

They return with much of the same team albeit a team that has gone through a full season and playoffs together.

That experience should help those young guys be even better making the Saints a team to fear once again.

Many are wondering if the Falcons are on the decline or if 2017 was just a case of the Super Bowl blues.

After a terrible loss in the Super Bowl, they weren’t the same in 2017 but the talent is there and they have just as much chance of taking the division title as Carolina or New Orleans.

After a couple of years sitting in second place, the Carolina Panthers made some big moves in order to take that title.

Like the other teams competing for the division title, the talent is all over the roster and there is no doubt that they can make a run.

The battle for the South division will likely be a great one but the biggest question might be how much they beat each other up to get the title.

They may all make the playoffs but also might not have the energy to make a deep run if they are in such a tight battle.

That will be the big question as the fight to win a division title begins with three teams looking like legitimate contenders.

These divisional games won’t be good to miss either as the South might be the division with the best quarterback group in the league and some of the most potent offences.

As they fight for the top the Bucs may just be sitting on the outside as the casualty to three teams seemingly in the middle of their prime.

Anything can happen in football though and with a lot of eyes watching this one, there are sure to be a few surprises throughout the year.

atlanta_falcons

It was a tough year in 2017 as the Falcons had a lot to overcome one of the toughest losses in league history let alone franchise history. In 2016 the Falcons were one of the most prolific offences in league history and yet in the Super Bowl that offence disappeared in the second half. They had ridden a powerhouse offence to the biggest game and put up 28 points by the third quarter only to blow the lead and take the loss. It atlfalconswas the best chance that the Falcons have had at taking a Super Bowl in years but the blown lead seemed to rattle the team. 2017 was nowhere near as dominant and although they still made it to the divisional round they were not the same team as a year before. This year they are hoping to shake that loss off and get back to the top of the league with the same level of talent that did it in 2016. Matt Ryan enters his second year under Steve Sarkisian’s offence and hopes to score more this time around. He has the guys to do it with Julio Jones still considered one of the best if not the best in the league and alongside Mohammed Sanu and new addition Calvin Ridley the Falcons might have one of the best receiving corps in the league. Behind Ryan is a strong dual-threat running tandem in Devonta Freeman and Telvin Coleman. The offence can be the best again and they will need to adjust to their new system to get there while Sarkisian needs to adjust to his talent on the field. The defence is a bit more of a question this year as there are some major changes that could hurt this team. The line saw the biggest changes with Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe both leaving in free agency. That leaves Takkarist McKinley to take on a starting role in his second year while Poe is replaced by new addition Terrell McClain. They will see Vic Beasly return to end this year where he is likely more comfortable and can get back to rushing the quarterback every play. Deion Jones remains a solid presence in the middle of the second level and is a leader for this defence. In the secondary much of the team returns with Desmond Trufant leading a group that is good but also relies on that pressure up front to be most effective. The Falcons have the talent to be back in the Super Bowl this year but they need to shake off the disappointment from two years ago and adjust to their new system. If they can do that they will sit at the top of the division and even if they don’t they are too talented to miss the playoffs.

carolina_panthers

The Panthers are a team with what seems like all of the tools to compete with the best in the league and potentially win a Super Bowl. Yet year after year they fall just short and as the years move on their window begins to close. This team is nowhere near the end of that winning window but the Panthers are well aware that being competitive is not a permanent thing. With that in mind, the Panthers are trying to stay ahead of the curve as carpanthersthey head into a new season making moves to get younger and build around their superstars. The offence is the place with the most changes as Norv Turner will take over an offence with a lot of new faces. Cam Newton is the constant as he remains one of the most electrifying players with a rocket arm and the size and speed to run through or past most defences. They have found some new targets in deep threat Torrey Smith and rookie D.J. Moore while Devin Funchess and Greg Olsen remain the biggest targets for Newton. In the backfield, Christian McCafferty will take the majority of the snaps with Jonathan Stewart gone. McCafferty provides a lot of options and taking on bigger responsibility might give him the chance to show more of what he can do.  The defence didn’t get as much of a facelift and they don’t really need one as they are the best group in this division. It all starts with their first and second levels as the line and linebackers are among the best front seven groups in the league. Julius Peppers continues to play at a level despite his age and opposite Mario Addison they make life difficult for quarterbacks. Behind them is one of the top middle linebackers in the game, Luke Kuechly who does everything well and can disguise mistakes all by himself. He will be joined by some young talent in Shaq Thompson and David Mayo, especially with Thomas Davis, suspended for four weeks to start the season. The secondary is where things aren’t necessarily as solid with Mike Adams entering the twilight of his career and a lack of big playmakers throughout the group. They really need that pressure up front or they can be exposed especially against some of the best QBs in the league. The Panthers are still a good team and their offence might finally match that of New Orleans and Atlanta. With a solid defence and a more dynamic offence they will once again compete for the division and will make the playoffs but how deep they go may depend on what Kuechly and Newton can do to carry this team.

new_orleans_saints

The New Orleans Saints are in the middle of a rebuild but nobody would know by the way they are played at the end of the year. The Saints made a great run to the end of the year and took home another division title. That despite being a team with older veterans and young rookies without a lot in between. Those type of teams usually have to blow things up and start over with their young talent but the Saints are not taking that path. nosaintsThey remain reliant on their veteran stars but are slowly leaning more on their young talent to guide the team. Everything starts and ends as it has for the last 18 years, with Drew Brees who remains one of the elite QBs in the league. The talent has come and gone over the years but with their “rebuild” the Saints have given him more to work with. Michael Thomas has evolved into Brees’ favourite target after only two years in the league while new addition Ted Ginn Jr. might not be young but provides a legitimate deep threat and rookie Tre’Quan Smith could be a solid third option. Behind Brees is a tandem that is becoming one of the best in the league with Mark Ingram and co-rookie of the year Alvin Kamara are the perfect complement to each other. For years the offence has carried the team and they will be the power of this team again but the defence is becoming the group that this team needs to make a run. Defensive Rookie of the year Marshon Lattimore is the perfect example of that talent that the Saints have taken to rebuild this defence. He has the ability to eliminate one side of the field and hopes to continue to show what he can do in his second year alongside Ken Crawley and fellow second-year player Marcus Williams who was good in his second year even though he will be known for an infamous missed tackle. Demario Davis was brought in as a veteran presence in the linebacking corps alongside Manti Te’o and A.J. Klein. On the line, the Saints look to Cameron Jordan to lead the rush while Sheldon Rankins hopes to prove he was worthy of a first round pick after an ok first year. The Saints defence is built from the secondary up and they have some serious playmaker that will make life difficult for good quarterbacks. This team seems like the rebuild is just about finished and with Brees still leading the way they have a good chance at the division title and a deep playoff run although this division is going to be tough.

tampa_bay_buccaneers

Expectations were high in Tampa Bay last year with a lot of talk about a rebuilt team that was ready to make some noise in the division. That rebuilt team never quite gelled as much as they needed and instead of making a run they ended the season at the bottom of the division. After all of the promise that failed to even get four wins, things are getting even more tumultuous for the team when their starting QB was suspended for three tbbuccaneersgames due to a violation of the code of conduct policy. Jameis Winston was always a controversial figure after accusations of sexual assault and a citation for shoplifting followed him through his time at Florida State. During the offseason, a lot of the same issues had followed him to the NFL after an Uber driver accused him of groping her in 2016. After an investigation, the NFL found enough evidence to hand out a three-game suspension. Although for many there is no room for him in the NFL the Bucs are invested in him as their future starter and despite the cry for them to move on they will continue to look to him to lead the team. If he struggles like he did last year the Bucs may not be singing the same tune but for now, they look to Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the team for the first three weeks until Winston returns. Whoever is under centre this year, they will have talent to work with as DeSean Jackson returns for his second year with Tampa and playing opposite Mike Evans provides two explosive targets. In the running game, many are looking to Ronald Jones to lead the team although Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers may have something to say about that start role. The defence is where the biggest improvements have been made as their limited base of stars are finally getting some help. The biggest among those stars being Gerald McCoy who has been the only legitimate rusher on the team. He should get a lot of support with the addition of Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry taking a lot more focus than recent players McCoy has had to work with. The linebackers aren’t necessarily game breakers but with that new trio in front of them, they shouldn’t have to be. Levonte Davis and Kwon Alexander rack up the tackles and are a good group. In the secondary Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes are also solid players who might not be the best in the division but they are up there. The Bucs are looking for improvement this year to meet those expectations but they may not have made enough moves to do that. The division remains one of the strongest in the league and drastically improving the line won’t be enough to make the playoffs.

Prediction:
The South is going to be a tough one to call as three teams have a good shot of winning the division title but only one can take it. That one might just be the Saints who have that surprising mix of veterans and young talent to overcome just about anything that the season has to throw at them. They will likely take the top spot thanks to the divisional games that they will play but those games will make all of the difference. It is hard to think that the Super Bowl hangover suffered by Atlanta will last as the team is too skilled not to be great and they will come in just behind the Saints for second. Although Carolina rebuilt and added a lot of talent they might not have what it takes to keep up with two of the best offences in the league. Still, they will be good and they will take the second wild card spot. In Tampa, the improvements are simply not enough for the division battle and they will sit at the bottom for another year.

nfcsouth-prediction

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