New Orleans romped to the NFC South crown by six games in 2018, the widest margin for any division champ the past three years. Thus, it’s no surprise the Saints are the odds-on pick this season to win their third straight loop title.
Over the past 15 years, though, only two of seven teams that won a division by at least such a margin repeated the next season. Two went on to finish last. Another reason to think there could be surprises this year is that in two of the past three seasons the NFC South squad with the longest division odds won out.
For the Saints to prevail again in the NFC South they’ll have to recover from a second straight dagger to the heart in the playoffs. Two seasons ago they were victims of the Minneapolis Miracle. Then last season in the NFC title game against the LA Rams came the non-call heard ‘round the world.
In Atlanta, meanwhile, will the NFC South Falcons be a significantly better team than the one that was staggered by key injuries early last year? Will Carolina’s surgically repaired QB, Cam Newton, be the Cam of old or just an old Cam? Can new Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians, 66, turn around another 5-11 NFC South team in short order?
Yes, yes, maybe, not likely.
Here’s how the NFC South division should shake out. The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas:
1. New Orleans (5-8 to win division; 10-1 for Super Bowl): QB Drew Brees is back for a 14th season in New Orleans. And he’ll again have his favorite WR, Michael Thomas, who caught 125 of 147 throws in 2018. By comparison, ex-Steeler Antonio Brown had 21 fewer catches on 21 more targets despite wearing his favorite helmet.
Not only did New Orleans go 13-3 last year, but en route gave a league-high five teams their most lopsided loss of the season. That’s dominance.
Giving added oomph to the attack will be TE Jared Cook, who had a career year in Oakland in 2018. And the offensive line remains solid, but it will have to replace retired Pro Bowl center Max Unger. Also, RB Latavius Murray fills in for Mark Ingram, who went to Baltimore, and should share the load with third-year RB Alvin Kamara.
On defense, the Saints ranked second vs. the run in yards per game (80.2) and per carry (3.6). But they had the second worst defensive passer rating in team history. Work is needed there.
2. Atlanta (13-4 to win division; 30-1 for Super Bowl): There was a lot of upheaval at team headquarters last winter, with all three coordinators on coach Dan Quinn’s staff fired.
But a familiar name returning is offensive coordinator Kirk Koetter, who guided Atlanta’s offense 2012-14 before moving on to Tampa Bay. He’ll again work with QB Matt Ryan, who had 35 TD throws and only seven INTs last year. Plus, star RB Devonta Freeman is back (knee).
On defense, Atlanta should be improved with the return of hard-hitting Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal (torn ACL) and Pro Bowl LB Deion Jones (foot), in addition to dynamic safety Ricardo Allen.
But if the Falcons are to be a force, they’ll have to successfully negotiate the hardest schedule in the NFC, based on their foes’ win expectancy.
3. Carolina (9-2 to win division; 40-1 for Super Bowl): As usual, Carolina’s hopes hinge on the health of QB Newton and to a lesser degree that of LB Luke Kuechly, who was eighth in the league in tackles last season and twice previously led the NFL.
Newton, who is altering his passing motion, is coming off right shoulder surgery for the second straight year. Before issues surfaced again last season, the Panthers were 6-2. Carolina then lost seven in a row.
The good news is that RB Christian McCaffrey (1,098 yards) became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009, ending an eight-year club drought that was longest in the league. Now if he could only learn to pass block.
On defense, standout DT Gerald McCoy comes over after being jettisoned by the Bucs in a cost-cutting move.
overcame a 17-0 deficit at Philadelphia and won 21-17 in Week 7.
4. Tampa Bay (12-1 to win division; 50-1 for Super Bowl): Arians has been this route before, in 2013 when he helped resuscitate a 5-11 Cardinals team and led it to a 10-6 mark.
But unlike this Bucs bunch, that Arizona team didn’t have the second-worst defense passer rating in NFL history a year earlier and hadn’t missed the postseason 11 straight years.
Jameis Winston is the unquestioned starter at QB this year. But he’s 6-16 the past two seasons and had the worst interception rate of his four-year career in nine starts in 2018.
To top that off, Arians already got his pants in a bunch after seeing the schedule, which has his team going six straight weeks without a home game, unless one considers their game in London a “home game.”