NFC South Q&A: Who will win the division?
Will the Saints repeat as division champs in 2018? Our roundtable reporters give their picks for who will win the division and how many playoff teams will emerge from the NFC South.
Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons reporter: The race should be a close one again, based on FPI projecting at least nine wins for the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons. The Saints took the title last season with an 11-5 record, while the Panthers (11-5) and Falcons (10-6) also made the field. No one can ever bet against Drew Brees, but the Falcons are best equipped to win the division. There are so many playmakers on offense for one-time MVP Matt Ryan, who is surrounded by Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper, Justin Hardy and rookie first-round pick Calvin Ridley. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian gets to put more of his stamp on the offense in Year 2 after having to learn Kyle Shanahan’s scheme a year ago. And defensively, the Falcons have a fast, physical, confident group that believes it can be a top-five unit. If the Falcons can clean up their issues on special teams and take advantage of playing five of their first seven at home, they should be right on pace for their second division title in three seasons. And the Falcons, Saints, and Panthers just might well be in the NFC playoff picture once again — along with the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers.
David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter: Let’s get how many teams will make the playoffs out of the way first. Three. This is the strongest division in the NFC — maybe the NFL — with New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina all legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Carolina gets the early nod here for two reasons. The defense should be the strongest in the division once again. Adding Atlanta defensive tackle Dontari Poe was huge. Surrounding Cam Newton with more weapons than he’s had since entering the league in 2011 and giving him a fresh approach with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner gives Carolina the firepower it had in 2015 when it led the league in scoring and went 15-1 during the regular season.
Mike Triplett, New Orleans Saints reporter: Saints. This might not be the best team the Saints have fielded in the Sean Payton-Brees era (2009 and 2011 will be awfully hard to top). But it could be their most balanced team yet. The Saints have reloaded their offensive line, run game and defense in recent years — thanks in large part to one of the greatest rookie classes in NFL history in 2017. It was led by Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara and Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore. They had seven Pro Bowlers, including first-team All Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and receiver Michael Thomas, a rising star. As a result, these well-rounded Saints don’t need the 39-year-old Brees to be Superman every week anymore. His attempts, yards, TD passes and interceptions in 2017 were all his lowest totals in his 12 years with the Saints. But that also allowed him to be efficient enough to set the NFL record for completion percentage (72.0) for the third time in his career. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the four NFC South teams make the playoffs after New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina all made it last season. But the problem for all of them is how stacked this division — and the entire NFC — is right now, with the Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Packers among other bona fide contenders. So I’ll put the Saints and Falcons in and leave the Panthers and Buccaneers out.
Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: I think the Falcons and Saints — teams with MVP-caliber quarterbacks and promising young defenses that continue to add key pieces — will be back in the postseason. Jones’ contract situation and the fact that he’s creeping up in age creates a bit of a concern as to how deep the Falcons will go in the postseason, but drafting Ridley should help — even if they did lose Taylor Gabriel. Still, I think the Saints will win the division. Mark Ingram is so tough north and south, Kamara carves up defenses underneath and Thomas does damage in the slot and vertically, making that offense just too much for most teams to handle. And they now have a viable defense with Jordan up front and Lattimore anchoring the back end.