The last two seasons saw NFC South teams impress greatly with their tremendous success in the regular season, and then the playoffs, ultimately producing the Super Bowl representatives for the last two big games. However, the Panthers seemed shaken by a convincing loss to the Broncos in the big game two years ago, and they seemed to never quite get on track last season. Then, there was Atlanta's huge collapse in last year's Super Bowl, and the inevitable questions of how that team will respond in the upcoming season. Both of those teams have enormous talent, and both also have enough to potentially get back to the Super Bowl, to boot. As for the Saints, so long as they have Drew Brees, their offense will be good. But the Saints defense simply has to make improvements if they hope to contend for the playoffs. As for Tampa Bay, neither their offense nor their defense quite stood out from the rest of the league, like the offense of the Falcons and Saints did last year. Still, they were pretty solid overall, ranking in the middle of the pack and earning a 9-7 record that almost saw them qualify for the postseason, although it fell a bit short in the end.
Here are my predictions for the 2017 NFC South standings:
1. Carolina Panthers (projected division winner) - The Carolina Panthers went from one of the most fearful, dominant seasons that a non-Super Bowl champion ever had, to last place in the NFC South in incredibly short order. Yes, the ferocious level of play that this team exhibited in the 2015-16 season, and their dominant postseason in the NFC, saw them entering the Super Bowl as favorites against the Denver Broncos. Since then, however, this team went from historically good to mediocre. First, there was the embarrassment of losing convincingly to the Broncos in the Super Bowl, with Cam Newton taking a beating on the field, and then taking a beating off the field for seeming to show that he was a bad sport when he was finally on the losing side of things. Then, the Panthers lost to Denver again in last season's opener, and they never seemed to get back on track. In late October, they came off a bye week with a surprisingly bad 1-5 mark, and their one win came against the San Francisco 49ers, one of the weakest teams in the league last season. The Panthers recovered somewhat, reaching a record of 4-6 around Thanksgiving, but then dropped four of their last six games, to end the season with an obviously disappointing 6-10 mark. It was a dramatic and long fall from the very best from the previous regular season to last year, when the team dropped from easy first to the clear worst in the NFC South. It could be argued that they were out of the playoff race by late October, and certainly, they were not relevant by the time that December rolled around. So, what happened? Well, the Broncos showed everyone how to take Carolina on, with a relentlessly aggressive defense that got to Newton all day, and clearly frustrated him. The defense did not play anywhere near as well as they did in 2015, and the offense, which looked high-flying and exciting during that incredible 2015 season, was held to 17 points of less seven times last season. A lot of teams emulated Denver's defensive approach, and the Panthers clearly seemed to show a lot less composure and a lot more frustrations as a result. Few could have expected them to fall so dramatically, and so quickly. However, the Panthers still have much of the talent that saw them enjoy such an awesome season, and they are not so far removed from that season that the experience gained cannot help them. So, I expect that Carolina gets back to being highly competitive this season, and probably in a big way. No, maybe they will not start off 14-0 and reach the Super Bowl with that 17-1 mark that they did for Super Bowl 50, but they will likely be much better. This is too good of a team to be bad fro two straight seasons, and they have had an entire offseason to iron out so many of the issues that clearly slowed them down last season. Depending on how the Falcons recover (or don't) from last season's unbelievable, historic Super Bowl collapse, the Panthers seem like the most likely candidates to step up if Atlanta falters even a little bit. That is why I am predicting the Panthers to take this division, and possibly to once again earn a playoff bye. Another run to the Super Bowl is not out of the question for Carolina.
2. Atlanta Falcons (projected second place team) - The real question with the Atlanta Falcons as the 2017 season is about to start, as I see it, is how they respond to that epic collapse in last year's Super Bowl. That was bad, very bad. Had it been the other way around, if the Falcons had come all the way back from 28-3 down to secure their first championship, it would have instantly earned this team not only their first championship, but a glorious one at that. And the Patriots would likely have been in better position to recover, being able to fall back on past success, and numerous championships before. However, it was the Falcons who came so agonizingly close to the Super Bowl title, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. They fell, and they fell hard, ultimately being denied their Super Bowl rings by a determined New England squad that simply wore down and ultimately wore out the Falcons defense, which simply could not stop the Pats offense towards the end of that game. But the Falcons made so many mistakes that had to haunt them during the offseason. They did not milk the clock to nurse their lead. They did not run the ball following that spectacular completion by Julio Jones late in the game, which saw them in field goal range. Had they simply run the ball and kicked a field goal, it likely would have been enough. However, they infamously dropped back to pass, and Matt Ryan was sacked for a big loss, and then the penalty on the next play knocked them out of field goal range altogether. Everything went wrong for this team late in the third quarter and throughout the fourth quarter of that game, and ultimately, in the overtime session, when the offense did not even manage to touch the ball, as the defense once again was unable to stop the Pats from scoring the inevitable, final touchdown. For all the success that the Falcons enjoyed last season, for all the records that the offense set, and for all of the great play by star quarterback Ryan, who earned his first league MVP, the fact is that last year's Falcons will always, always be remembered most for that epic collapse at the most inopportune time. It hurt, probably more than any other loss by any other Super Bowl team in history (with the possible exception of the 2007 Patriots). So, the real question for this year's edition of the Atlanta Falcons still has a lot to do with what happened last year, and the key will be how this team responds to it. If they show determination and learn from those past mistakes, they obviously have enough talent to not only contend, but probably to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl. However, if they show the same kind of nervousness that saw them lose that big lead and, ultimately, the Super Bowl, this could be a huge letdown after such a tremendous season last year. Frankly, it is hard to say how this team will respond, but with such a level of talent on this team, it would be dumb to predict a disastrous season. Time will tell what happens with this team, but it should at least be fascinating to watch!
3. New Orleans Saints (projected third place) - Few teams were as transparently lopsided in terms of strengths and weaknesses as the New Orleans Saints proved to be. Their offense was one of the elite units last season, and might have been able to take this team to the playoffs, and possibly even to contend for the division title. But their defense was so bad, and proved such a liability, that the Saints could not make their remarkable offensive production stand up enough to keep this team competitive. Yes, Drew Brees led an offense that averaged nearly 30 points per game. Yet, the defense also gave up nearly as many points. Nine times, the Saints scored 30 points or more last season, a majority of their games. But when the defense gives up nearly as many points, it defeats the purpose of having such a good offense. Also, New Orleans was not particularly great in close games, with a 3-7 mark overall in games decided by six points or less. Simply put, if the Saints are to improve this season, they have to fill up some of those holes on defense, and they have to get better at winning the really close games that are within their reach. Brees is not getting any younger, yet it is hard to imagine the Saints offense not producing big time points. However, if they do not improve defensively, then the Saints will continue to lose a lot of shootout games, like they did last season. And if that happens, then the playoffs will also continue to be questionable, at best, especially since New Orleans cannot count on the season long collapse of the Panthers this coming season.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - (projected last place) - Tampa Bay was the epitome of a middle of the pack team last season. They were neither very bad, nor very good. They made a serious playoff run, only being eliminated from playoff contention in the final week of the season. The Bucs were also inconsistent, pulling off very impressive wins, such as with huge and surprising road wins in Atlanta and Kansas City and a home win against Seattle, while also losing to the lowly Rams and proving unable to win a critical match in New Orleans late last season. They followed a very impressive opening game win in Atlanta by getting crushed in Arizona the next week, 40-7. They sported a record of 4-2 when scoring 17 points or less last season, while also going 4-4 when scoring 24 points or more. In November to mid-December, they held four out of five opponents to 17 points or less during a five game winning streak. Yet, they also allowed 30 points or more five times, losing all five of those games. Indeed, the Buccaneers just proved too inconsistent on both sides of trhe ball to ultimately qualify for the playoffs, and so their playoff drought not qualifying since the 2002 season (when they won Super Bowl XXXVII) continues. And unless they step up significantly on either one side of the ball or the other without dropping off in play on the other side, they will likely continue to not show the consistency necessary to seriously compete for the postseason this year, either.