2017 marked the first time in the history of the NFC South that three teams from the division made the playoffs. The New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons all battled for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers watched the playoffs from home.
Considering that it was only the seventh time since 2003 that three clubs from the same division made the playoffs, it’s very unlikely that history will repeat itself in 2018.
So who will represent the NFC South this postseason? Based on elite quarterback play, dominant defenses and consistent coaching, it’s clear that two teams stand above the rest in a talented division.
The Saints and Falcons will be playoff teams, and the Panthers and Buccaneers won’t be.
Matt Ryan and Cam Newton have previously been named league MVP, but it’s Ryan and Drew Brees who have constantly produced elite numbers.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan finished as the second-best QB in the NFL last season (89.8 overall grade), only behind Tom Brady (94.9). By throwing the least amount of turnover-worthy passes (0.9%), it’s easy to see why Ryan and the Falcons made the playoffs for the second straight year and were a touchdown away from defeating the eventual Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round. If Ryan progresses as expected in his second season in OC Steve Sarkisian’s offense, Atlanta should make the playoffs for a franchise-record-tying third year in a row.
Behind Ryan was Brees, who came in fourth in PFF’s quarterback rankings with an 87.8 overall grade, and also led the league with an 80.7 adjusted completion percentage. Thanks to Brees’ efficiency, and Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara’s 14 total touchdowns, the Saints ranked second in total offense with 391.2 yards per game in 2017. By bringing in WR Cam Meredith and the ageless Ben Watson at TE, Brees should keep New Orleans’ balanced offense firing on all cylinders in 2018.
Newton, on the other hand, was tied for 26th place with a 75.5 overall grade from PFF and ranked 32nd in both adjusted completion percentage and short-passing accuracy. It’s shocking to think that the Panthers managed an 11-5 record despite Newton struggling to throw the football, but their seventh-ranked defense bailed them out of a few games.
Since 2015’s record-breaking season, Newton has turned the ball over with more regularity, throwing 14 and 16 interceptions in 2016 and ’17, respectively. In new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense, the Panthers will rely on Newton to make a myriad of throws — including deep shots — but it’s hard to believe that the former #1 pick will have success based on his struggles from the last two seasons.
And where does the young Winston fit in with the celebrated signal-callers in the division? PFF actually scored the 24-year-old QB favorably with an 81.4 overall grade. But due to his embarrassing 5.2 turnover-worthy throw percentage, Winston will have to show major improvement in the ball-control department if the Bucs want to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Quarterbacks may be the most important position in today’s NFL, but don’t forget that defense wins championships.
Although the their defense didn’t win them a title, the Falcons’ D did finish the season ranked ninth. At defensive tackle, Super Bowl LI hero Grady Jarrett posted a career-high four sacks, proving to be a force in the interior of the line. Second-year MLB Deion Jones stepped up in place of LB Vic Beasley, who missed some time with a hamstring injury, and was voted to his first Pro Bowl. On the backend of the defense, Pro-Bowler Keanu Neal leads the unit, which has the perfect mix of veterans like Desmond Trufant and Ricardo Allen.
With that accomplished nucleus returning, Atlanta should have an elite defense in 2018.
The Saints’ defense wasn’t “elite” in 2017, but they did account for 20 interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Led by rookie corner Marshon Lattimore, who snagged five picks, New Orleans’ defense finally found its swagger after years of underwhelming play. With Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan and rookie DE Marcus Davenport setting the tone — and edge — on the D-line next season, New Orleans’ defense is destined to give offensive coordinators headaches on a regular basis. If newly signed MLB Demario Davis can repeat the past production he had with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, the Saints are guaranteed to improve from last year’s No. 17 ranking in total defense.
Unlike the Saints, the Panthers had one of the NFL’s best statistical defenses last year, ranking seventh in total defense. But unfortunately for Carolina, their future isn’t as bright as their rival’s. Carolina can rely on proven veterans like Julius Peppers and Dontari Poe on the defensive line, but with OLB Thomas Davis suspended four games for violating the NFL’s PED policy and MLB Luke Kuechly having a devastating history with concussions, their LB corps has the potential to be a liability in 2018. On top of that, the Panthers also have to worry about counting on a largely untested secondary in 2018. That sounds like a recipe for disaster when playing in a division with three Pro Bowl QBs.
Speaking of shaky defenses, how about the Buccaneers? After finishing 2017 with both the NFL’s worst passing defense and worst overall defense, the Bucs overhauled their defensive line by signing Vinny Curry, trading for Jason Pierre-Paul and drafting Vita Vea. There’s validity to the belief that an imposing D-line automatically improves the play of the secondary, but it’s still bizarre that Tampa Bay didn’t identify the defensive back position as a priority during free agency. The Bucs did select two cornerbacks and a safety in the NFL Draft, but it’s unlikely that they’ll immediately make a positive impact on the team as they adapt to the pro game, which is why Tampa will likely have another disappointing year on defense.
Besides defensive dominance and quality quarterback play, what’s the key to making the playoffs? Excellent coaching.
With a 112-76 record (playoffs included) and Super Bowl victory, Saints head coach Sean Payton is regarded as one of the best coaches in the NFL. As long as he has a healthy Brees behind center, New Orleans will always have a shot at winning a championship.
While Falcons coach Dan Quinn doesn’t yet have the longevity that Payton has, he hasn’t posted a losing record in any of his three seasons in Atlanta. And don’t forget: He would have a Super Bowl ring if not for one of the most tragic collapses in sports history. Quinn has also been praised for his ability to identify talent in the draft — specifically on the defensive side of the ball — and then develop the prospects into NFL-ready contributors. Coaches who consistently maximize their players’ abilities as much as Quinn are practically guaranteed to compete for a postseason berth.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is also well-regarded for his defensive prowess, but has struggled to consistently produce a winning football team. Although Carolina has reached the playoffs four times in his seven years with the team, he has never produced back-to-back winning seasons. Considering the Panthers went 11-5 last year, the trend suggests they’ll be under .500 in 2018.
Playoff football in January? Buccaneers fans haven’t experienced that since 2007. And while the Buccaneers showed promise with nine wins in 2016, the team’s regression in ’17 makes it tough to be optimistic about Dirk Koetter’s coaching chops. Koetter’s .438 winning percentage as a head coach will take a big hit next year as the Bucs struggle to find wins in the loaded NFC South.
The NFC South is one of the most competitive divisions in football, and they’re likely to be represented by more than one team in the postseason. But it’ll be the Saints and Falcons playing after the new year, not the Panthers or Bucs.