We previewed the NFC South on our latest "Around The League Podcast." Some big-picture thoughts are below. We've already previewed the AFC East, AFC North, AFC South, AFC West, NFC East and NFC North.
Atlanta Falcons still are the favorites
Three of the four Around The League writers picked our "ATL" namesakes to win the division. But the consensus is that the Falcons will come back to the pack in a tough division. The Falcons' average projected win total is 10, three games fewer than one year ago.
I have the Falcons falling out of the playoffs because it's not fair to pick the same team to dominate a conference year after year. (And I have Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay remaining strong.) It's not hard to make a case against Atlanta. They were wildly lucky in close games last year and they don't have a lot to be excited about on defense. Throw in a very difficult schedule, and it's hard to see them earning a playoff bye again.
Sean Payton appreciation is limited
We kicked around the impact of Sean Payton's return on the podcast a few weeks ago. Most of us said his return was worth a few wins, but that didn't show up in our projected standings. I was the only one to put the Saints above .500 and back in the playoffs.
Yes, the defense looks miserable. It's not a talented group, especially in the front seven. But they are unlikely to be historically bad again. Regression to the mean works for bad teams too, and there's no reason to think Rob Ryan can't help improve this group to sub-mediocre instead of just awful. Payton, Drew Brees and the most versatile running back group in the NFL can do the rest.
How good will Cam Newton be?
Andrew Luck is being talked up as a potential MVP candidate. Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are viewed as ambassadors for the next generation of NFL quarterbacks. It was only one year ago that Cam Newton got the same treatment, coming off a record-breaking rookie season.
Newton is not as accurate a passer as the other young guns. (Chris Wesseling mentioned on the podcast that Newton's footwork is to blame, and that's an area to correct.) But Newton's raw talent should put him back in the mix with the other top young quarterbacks this season. The Panthers have a chance to have the best defensive line in football, and they have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Luke Kuechly. Newton was always good, and should get better. I see the defense catching up to him this season on the way to a playoff appearance.
Buccaneers are not our sleeper team
This might be the deepest division in football. There's only room for one surprise team, and our crew wasn't buying Tampa Bay. An in-season quarterback change would not be a shock considering Josh Freeman's erratic play; he's also in a contract year. Three of us had the Buccaneers under .500, with Marc Sessler being the exception. Greg Schiano and company have gathered up enough talent through the draft and free agency to make our predictions of last place look bad come January.