Last year, the Carolina Panthers ran away with the NFC South, powering their way to a 15-1 record. The Panthers made it all the way to the Super Bowl, where they were beaten 24-10 by the Denver Broncos.
The next-closest division competition was the Atlanta Falcons, who started off 6-2, only to falter down the stretch and finish 8-8.
The New Orleans Saints were another middle-of-the-pack team after finishing 7-9, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t far behind at 6-10.
Obviously nobody stepped up to the challenge of beating Carolina last season. Will that change this year?
Find out as we preview the NFC South and look at each team’s betting odds.
NFC South Betting Odds to Win Division (from GTBets)
New Orleans +640
Tampa Bay +750
1. Carolina Panthers: Projected Record 13-3
The Panthers have won the NFC South three years in a row. Given what the team is returning, we don’t see a reason why they won’t go for number four this time around.
Cam Newton is fresh off an MVP season, where he passed for 3,837 yards and 39 touchdowns, and rushed for another 636 yards and 10 TDs.
He has a solid chance to repeat his MVP performance now that Kelvin Benjamin is back after tearing his ACL last year. Considering that Newton tossed 39 TDs with Ted Ginn as his top receiver, it’s easy to see him repeating this performance with a rare talent like Benjamin playing.
Of course, Ginn will be an important part of the offense once again, while Greg Olson is one of the game’s top receiving tight ends.
Jonathan Stewart will lead the backfield for yet another season after rushing for 989 yards. He’ll be backed up by Fozzy Whitaker and Cameron Artis-Payne.
The defense suffered some notable losses, with CB Josh Norman signing with the Redskins, DE Jared Allen retiring, and CB Charles Tillman on the brink of retirement. But the Panthers shouldn’t drop off too much since they have one of the league’s top linebacking corps, including Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Expect another division title for the Panthers, along with another chance at the Super Bowl.
2. Atlanta Falcons: Projected Record 9-7
Atlanta found a gem in running back Devonta Freeman, who rushed for 1,061 yards, tallied 578 receiving yards last year, and scored 14 combined touchdowns. Freeman didn’t deliver as much production over the season half of the season, but he’ll look to put together a full campaign this year.
The unquestioned offensive star of this team is Julio Jones, who was the NFL’s leading receiver with 136 catches and 1,871 yards. Other Falcons’ receiving threats will be TE Jacob Tamme (657 yards) and WR Mohamed Sanu (397 yards).
Entering his 9th career season, QB Matt Ryan threw for 4,951 yards last season. However, he’ll need to improve upon his TD:INT ratio as he threw just 21 touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions.
Ryan’s interceptions aside, the defense needs to play better if this team is to have a true chance at the postseason. The pass rush was weak as the team only tallied 19 sacks, which also explains just 15 interceptions.
Atlanta has big offensive weapons and talent, and if they can put together a complete effort, then they could earn an NFC Wild Card spot.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Projected Record 7-9
After starting his entire rookie season, expectations are high for Jameis Winston. He tallied a respectable 4,024 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and 6 rushing TDs.
One reason for Winston’s success is Mike Evans, who racked up 1,206 receiving yards. Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins will also be in line for plenty of targets.
After a couple of off-years, Doug Martin finally returned to the success that he experienced as a rookie, rushing for 1,402 yards and 6 touchdowns. Martin is a versatile back too, catching 49 passes for 472 yards. Charles Simms is a very capable backup, running for 529 yards.
New defensive coordinator Mike Smith will do away with the Tampa Cover 2 defense that’s become a hallmark of this franchise. Instead, Smith wants to create multiple looks and coverages to adapt to the outstanding NFC South quarterback play.
Overall, if Winston and the offense improve, while the defense adapts to changes, then Tampa Bay can take another step towards improving.
4. New Orleans Saints: Projected Record 6-10
Once a perennial playoff team with Drew Brees at quarterback and Sean Payton coaching, the Saints seem a long way from their days of domination.
In typical fashion, Brees peppered many targets, including Brandin Cooks (1,138 yards), Willie Snead (984 yards), Benjamin Watson (825 yards), and Marques Colston (520 yards). Watson ruptured his Achilles tendon and will miss the entire season, while Colston retired.
It’s a good thing for New Orleans that they signed TE Colby Fleener, who’ll help absorb the loss of Watson. Running back Mark Ingram will be a big part of the offense too.
Unfortunately, New Orleans still has a lot of work to go on defense before they can compete in the NFC South again. The defense has pieces like Cameron Jordan, Jarius Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, and rookie tackle Sheldon Rankins, but this unit has to prove itself after years of faltering.