Steven Ruiz / USA Today
Since divisional realignment in 2002, the NFC South has been the most tumultuous division from year-to-year. It’s the only division to not have a repeat champion in that time. After an eventful offseason for each team, another shakeup in the divisional standings should be expected.
The Carolina Panthers took the South crown in 2013 thanks to a dramatic Week 16 win over the New Orleans Saints. The Atlanta Falcons were hit hard with injuries and stumbled to a 4-12 finish. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced a litany of off-the-field issues and started 0-8 before going a respectable 4-4 down the stretch.
The Saints only improved in the offseason and the Panthers’ losses have been a bit overblown. Add in a healthier Falcons team and a talented Buccaneers team buoyed by a new coach, and the NFC South should be one of the league toughest divisions in 2014.
Here is how the division is expected to finish, from first to worst.
1. New Orleans Saints
Under Rob Ryan, the Saints defense is starting to catch up to the high-powered offense in terms of talent. With the additions of Jairus Byrd and an aging Champ Bailey, New Orleans should finish close to the top-five in total defense in 2014. For the first time in a long time, there are question marks surrounding the Saints offense. Do-it-all RB Darren Sproles is with the Philadelphia Eagles and the dependable Lance Moore will ply his trade in Pittsburgh. But Drew Brees and Sean Payton are still in New Orleans, so the offense won’t take too big of a dive, and that should be enough to give the Saints the most complete team in the NFC South.
The Saints toughest stretch will come during the middle of the season when they face four-straight playoff teams from 2013, including a Thursday night tilt with the reigning division champion Panthers.
2. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers lost a lot off of their division-winning roster this offseason, but the team’s strengths are still in place. Carolina’s front seven is still one of the best in the league and should only improve with the emergence of second-year DTs Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short. Offensively, the Panthers will still be one of league’s best running teams, but the onus to carry this offense will fall on Cam Newton after losing his top-four WRs, including long-time Panther Steve Smith. Adding a good receiver –or two — in May’s draft will be paramount.
The Panthers will have to get off to a good start if they want to repeat as division champs. After opening the season with six games against teams that missed the postseasons in 2013, the Panthers play five playoff teams in a row, including the defending Super bowl champs in Carolina. On Sept. 28, they’ll square off with Steve Smith and the Baltimore Ravens.
3. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were hit hard with injuries last season, most notably at the WR position, where both Julio Jones and Roddy White missed significant time. Injuries to LT Sam Baker and RB Stephen Jackson also played a part in a poor season for Atlanta’s offense. The Falcons should be healthier in 2014 but their problems run deeper than the medical room. The defense still lacks play-makers along the front seven and the protection for Matt Ryan needs to improve.
We’ll find out quickly if the Falcons are ready to compete for the division crown as they square off with the Saints in Week 1. Finishing with games against Carolina and New Orleans could prove to be the key to the Falcons’ playoff chances.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs got off to a horrid start in 2013 but rebounded nicely down later in the season. It wasn’t enough to save Greg Schiano’s job, however. Tampa Bay should improve defensively with Lovie Smith in charge after adding DE Michael Johnson, CB Alterraun Verner and DT Clinton McDonald to a solid foundation. The Buccaneers are still lacking on the other side of the ball, particularly at the QB position.
If the Buccaneers are going to compete for a top spot in the NFC South, they’ll have to get off to a quick start. Three of their first five games will be played against division rivals, including a Thursday night game against the Falcons in Atlanta.