Monday, August 21, 2017

NFL Preview: NFC South

It’s Week 3 of the joint Casa Cabeza / Hoosier on the Potomac NFL Preview.  If you’ve missed any of the preceding weeks’ previews, you can find them at the links below:
 -- NFC East
 -- AFC East
 -- NFC North
 -- AFC North
This week, we’re looking at the mighty NFC South, home to last year’s conference champs and the champs from the year before last, too.  This conference also hosts some of the most exciting and intriguing quarterbacks in the entire League.

NFC South Overview
All things being equal, there’s one team in this division that really ought to win it.  But that team is also coming off arguably the worst Super Bowl loss of the last twenty years, and the Super Bowl hangover is a proven thing.  The Carolina Panthers won the NFC in 2015 but went 6-10 last season with largely the same squad from the previous year.  
Can the Falcons overcome the curse?  Can Cam Newton and the Panthers rebound from a disappointing season?  
One of these teams is your likely champ in 2017.
Atlanta Falcons
Just a few short months ago, the Falcons won the NFC South with an 11-5 record, defeated the Packers in the NFC Championship game, and were one inscrutable non-field goal away from winning the Super Bowl against the Patriots.  If you believe in Super Bowl hangovers, then they’ve got bad trouble.  Other than that, though, there is no reason whatsoever why they cannot repeat as division champs.  
The Falcons traded up to take a pass rusher in the first round with DE Takkarist McKinley out of UCLA.  Beyond that, I’m not sure how many of their 2017 picks willeven make the field this season.  This is a team that acquired DT Dontari Poe in free agency and with the addition of McKinley looks to have a much improved pass rush.  That’s important because the Falcons ranked 27th in points allowed on defense, with a D-Line anchored by the ageless (now retired) Dwight Freeney.  We know what Poe can do, and the Falcons have Vic Beasley at outside linebacker.  If McKinley lives up to his potential, then these guys ought to get after quarterbacks.  That could significantly improve their production on defense.
Still, this is a team that lives and dies with its offense, and on that side, they made few changes.  Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan is now the coach of the 49ers, but beyond that the key players return to a unit that was one of the most prolific of all time.  They may not keep up last season’s historic pace, but they will certainly score enough to win some ball games.
-- FPI: +3.8, 9.3 wins
-- Over/Under: 9.5 (-125/-105)
Vegas is hedging on the over, but I’d personally put money on a slow start as this team continues to grapple with what could have been through the first quarter of the season.  Still, the Falcons have a lot of talent, and I think that talent shows through before the end of the season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 9-7 last season, good for second in the NFC South.  Depending on your perspective, this was either a successful rebuilding campaign, or a not-quite-playoff-ready squad that couldn’t catch enough breaks to sneak into the postseason.  Regardless, the Bucs have been “on the cusp” for some time now.  2017 in their year to either put it together or establish a legacy of mediocrity as their baseline standard of play.
QB Jameis Winston is 23-years-old.  He already owns two 4,000 yard seasons.  That’s great.  But he threw 18 interceptions and lost 10 fumbles last season against 28 touchdowns, and that’s not great.  His 60.8% completion percentage is decent, but it is a long way from putting him into the elite ranks of NFL quarterbacks.  To bolster the offense, the Bucs added WR DeSean Jackson in free agency and drafted Penn State’s Chris Godwin.  These guys join a receiving corps that already featured Mike Evans.  They also got Alabama phenom TE O.J. Howard in the first round.  
The real question, then, is around the O-Line.  The Bucs struggled in the running game in 2016, and with Winston losing the ball so much, they clearly need to find some ways to address their protections.  The O-Line looked good against the Bengals in their first preseason game, but I don’t know how much we can trust that single performance as a gauge of their true strength.
-- FPI: +0.1, 7.7 wins
-- Over/Under: 8.5 (-105/-125)
The Bucs struggled with pass defense last year, and they struggled to protect their quarterback and run the ball.  To address this, they added weapons on the outside.  They also have two very good pass-catching tight ends.  Lots of analysts are bullish on their chances, especially since Winston looks to be a legitimate NFL quarterback.  But Football Outsiders is skeptical, and so am I.  Winston is getting beat up in the pocket, and that will eventually affect his play--or perhaps even bring in his backup.  
In an otherwise talented division, the Bucs will have to out-perform to get more than eight wins.
Carolina Panthers
I love watching Cam Newton play.  I also think that if there’s a guy whom I could stomach sitting during the National Anthem1, it’s Newton because Newton gets absolutely jobbed by NFL officials every time he hits the field.  You can’t hit any NFL quarterback in the head except, for some reason, Cam Newton.  You throw a helmet-to-helmet hit like guys throw at Newton against a guy like Tom Brady, and you’ll be banned from football forever.  They’ll hold a candlelight vigil for Brady’s brain in Kenmore Square.  Against Newton, though, that same hit doesn’t even draw a flag.  Which is some grade-A bullshit, and frankly, I have no idea why Panthers fans don’t protest more often.  The real scandal of the 2016 season was the way the Broncos’ defense went after Newton in the season opener.
Quick: how many suspensions came out of that game?
Newton is a great player, but even a big guy can get worn down.  This year, the Panthers have added RB Christian McCaffrey and Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel, both speedy versatile players who can line up anywhere in the formation.  They seem serious about running a more consistent pro-style play-action offense, and they want Newton to check down to his running backs to avoid taking so many beatings.  That should work.  But Newton has to make the plays; he has to be willing to check down instead of scrambling.  To this point, that hasn’t exactly been his game.
The Panthers have historically been very good on defense, but they suffered against the pass last season with two rookie cornerbacks.  Both are good players, however, and ought to improve.  They also resigned their core D-Line, drafted DE Daeshon Hall out of Texas A&M and added DE Julius Peppers in free agency.  Bottom line, this is a defense that should be much improved.
-- FPI: +1.8, 8.8 wins
-- Over/Under: 8.5 (-140/+110)
I like the Panthers in 2017.  I think Newton rebounds and learns to play a different game.  They may not win more than nine games, but they’ve got a decent chance at a Wild Card berth.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have missed the playoffs three years in a row, and although QB Drew Brees has been elite for the entirety of his run in New Orleans, it’s reasonable to wonder how much he has left in the tank at age 38.  The Saints clearly think they have at least one more year in the championship window, though, because they added RB Adrian Peterson in free agency, along with WR Ted Ginn Jr.
I gotta be honest and say that I don’t love those moves.  Ginn has never quite been the elite receiver that his speed argues that he could be, and Peterson isn’t going to be the elite running back that he once was either.  I like RB Mark Ingram, but even he’s not exactly young anymore.  Mostly, though, I fear that Brees won’t be the real Drew Brees for most of 2017.  
We’re only in the preseason, and already this offense feels like it’s living on borrowed time.  And this from a team that just fired most of its orthopedics staff!
The Saints added help at linebacker--if you believe in Manti Teo, anyway--and in their secondary over the offseason, but their pass rush still needs some work.  So they will need to control the ball and own time of possession, and I don’t see how that happens with the way this team is built.  These guys have a good offense, but they aren’t at the level of the Falcons, and the Falcons probably have a better defense, too.  That’s tough when the road to the playoffs runs through Atlanta. 
-- FPI: +0.1, 8.0 wins
-- Over/Under: 8.0 (-125/-105)
I like Brees from his days with the Chargers, but Vegas has way too much faith in his agelessness.  One of these years he’s going to get old, and his whole team is going to fall apart around his zombified body.  I hate to say it, but 2017 is probably that year.
Smash the under.

1. Raiders’ RB Marshawn Lynch has also been sitting lately.  I hate that, honestly, but Lynch is at least a legitimately good player who’s been very active in his home community of Oakland.  Given all the Nazi bullshit this country has recently suffered through of late, I understand why guys like Lynch are pissed off.


  1. I agree that the Falcons are going to be dealing with the SB hangover. That is going to make this a tight division race and very much worth the watch.

    1. I'm rooting for the Panthers. I'd really like to see Cam return to form.