Today we move on to the NFC South – division which has produced two NFL Champions and a few runners-up. This is the division of the nouveau teams as there is not a single member that predates the 1960’s. But last year it was the “NFL Division of Excellence” with three teams advancing to the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons – This team was still smarting from the 28-3 letdown against the Patriots in 2016. Still they had a 10 win season and made it to the divisional round losing in a low-scoring slug fest to the Eagles. Pretty good for a team that finished in third place in their division. There are no real surprises for this season. There will be some changes on the defensive line and some help coming for the secondary. On offense, new guard Brian Fusco shores up an already very solid line. Freeman and Coleman are as solid a running back duo as there is in the league. Jones and Sanu are about the same at wide-out. Then there is Matty Ice. Perhaps more than any other team, the Falcons fate rests in the hands of the ball handler. If Ryan returns to 2016 form (or even a close facsimile thereof), the Falcons will be flying high. The schedule is reasonable favorable with the possible pathetic AFC North and the mediocre NFC East coming up. Atlanta wins this division with an 11-5 record.
New Orleans Saints – First a tip of the gold and black hat to long-time Saints owner and all round bon vivant Tom Benson who died in March at the age of 90. He tried to buck the image of the No Fun League with his antics – but likely also bears some responsibility for the targeting and injury payola scandal that cost his coach a full season. Benson also managed to create one of the most loyal fan bases in the entire league. Red and family were in New Orleans for the OTNA’s home game last season and just about everyone in the city was wearing black and gold in some form or fashion. And just between him and you, Red has no problems with a gold lame miniskirt on the right person. Red was watching at a local pizza parlor and when the OTNAs went ahead by 15 with just over 3 minutes left, it seemed to be an ugly Sunday night in NO. But Brees led an incredible comeback to tie the game and the Saints won on a 51 yard FG with about a minute left in OT. So Red is hesitant to say this is the last hurrah for 39 year-old Drew Brees as he keeps performing at a high level. And with Ingram and Kamara in the backfield, Brees doesn’t have to do as much. At this point, only Brady is better at reading defenses and getting his team in the right set. And then there is this fact which may have slipped your notice – Michael Thomas’ 196 receptions are the most by anyone in the first two years of an NFL career. Ever. The Saints’ defense has been retooled over the past two seasons and this season will show whether the pieces are finally fitting together. As for the schedule, it poses some interesting possibilities. The Saints start with a two consecutive home games against the weaker sisters (Bucs and Browns) and finish with two home games (Stealers and Panthers). That means they are on the road for 8 of 12 weeks in the middle of the season. The three game road stretch beginning on Nov. 29 may determine the Saints’ playoff fate. Red thinks the Saints are is still a Wildcard team at 10-6.
Carolina Panthers – Red once believed, but no more. The 2017 season was tumultuous at best with owner Jerry Richardson firing GM Dave Gettleman weeks before the start of the regular season, followed by his decision to sell the team after facing multiple workplace allegations, including sexual harassment and racial allegations. The team seemed remarkably unfazed and had a chance to win the division before falling to the Falcons in Week 17. Still they made the playoffs but cratered lost a high-scoring battle with the Saints and went home. The offense is probably there, but Red just doesn’t see this defense keeping the Panthers in enough games to keep pace with the Saints or Falcons in 2018. It comes down to the last three games against the Saints, Falcons and Saints. Carolina can’t close the deal and goes 9-7 and goes home.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Does Red really have to comment on this team. Jameis Winston did nothing to show that he is the mythical “franchise quarterback” every team looks for. So maybe it is a good thing he is suspended for the first three games of the season. Note to JW: Hell hath no fury like a female Uber driver groped. The Bucs pathetic excuse for a defense (last in the NFL in total defense, sacks and third-down percentage) can only be better with the addition of former Eagles tackle Beau Allen and end Vinny Curry. Whether tired old Jason Pierre-Paul had anything left in the tank is another story. Running back is a question mark and only Mike Evans is the only true offensive superstar on this squad. They will improve from last year’s sad 5-11 mark – but not enough. Tampa Bay is 7-9 material at best.