With the NFC North and NFC East already knocked out, it’s time to focus on the NFC South where I can listen to valid arguments about all four of these teams winning the division. Off we go…
New Orleans -150 – Jimmy Graham has his new deal and regardless of what position he actually plays, he’ll be the number one threat for Drew Brees and Head Coach Sean Payton. The offense will be good but if Mark Ingram can prove to be an effective runner in 2014 then the offense will be even better. The addition of speedster Brandin Cooks will help with the loss of Darren Sproles as well.
The defense improved a ton in 2013 under Rob Ryan and that should continue this year with more experience in some of the younger guys. The Saints’ season may come down to a stretch of games between October 19th and December 15th. That span includes road games at Detroit, Carolina, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Home dates during this span include Green Bay, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Carolina. They will need to come through this above .500 or they could be in trouble.
Season Projection: 11-5
Atlanta +450 – The Falcons suffered from Murphy’s Law last year which was really bad as they came off a year in which they were just yards from the Super Bowl. Atlanta is a bit healthier this year, but did lose starting left tackle Sam Baker to a knee injury this past weekend. I don’t know how many more opportunities Matt Ryan will have to prove he belongs in the upper echelon of quarterbacks. Until he gets his team to the Super Bowl I’m not buying the hype.
The defense should be better. The pass rush was poor at best last season and of course the injuries didn’t help there either. Like New Orleans, Atlanta will need to start well because the schedule down the stretch is loaded. They finish with Arizona, at Green Bay, Pittsburgh, at New Orleans and Carolina at home in the finale.
Season Projection: 7-9
Carolina +450 – The Panthers were the surprise winners of the NFC South last season edging out the Saints in the final weeks. In order to repeat they’ll need to replace Steve Smith who anchored the receiving corps for years. Cam Newton will need a running game for him to flourish and that’s possible behind a nice stable of backs.
The defense should be excellent again despite the loss of safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers. If they continue to get pressure on the quarterback and create turnovers then the division is within their grasp once again. The Panthers’ tough stretch comes through the month of October when they have Chicago, at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans and at Philly. That portion of the schedule should define their season.
Season Projection: 10-6
Tampa Bay +550 – Let me be frank here even though my name isn’t Frank; this will be one of the most improved teams in the NFL in 2014. Lovie Smith’s presence will have that kind of impact. Talent has never really been the problem. Putting it all together with good quarterback play has and that should be solved with the addition of Josh McCown. He will have monster receivers to throw to in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.
The defense will move to the Tampa 2 which should fit their personnel a little better and should compliment a good front four. The Bucs have a three-week stretch on the road following two home games to start the season. Those three games are at Atlanta, at Pittsburgh and at New Orleans. They then have Baltimore at home before their bye week. If they can start in the .500 range they should be in contention all season.
Season Projection: 9-7
Overall: I like the Saints to win the division but the surprise may be that I see the Falcons under .500. I expect the Buccaneers to challenge Carolina for second.