With no sports and nothing but time, due to the global pandemic we’ve been living through, I have tried to figure out how to approach the 2020 NFL season. A part of me thought about ranking every team from 1-32, another wanted to rank each team per conference, but since we’re here I might as well just do every division in the league.
Part III: NFC South
1. Atlanta Falcons
2019 record: 7-9
2020 over/under wins: 7.5
Everybody has a few teams that every year they just seem to like. No matter what happened the season before, and no matter what transactions they made during the offseason, every year I go in thinking the Atlanta Falcons are going to be good. I don’t know why. It’s just the way it is.
The fact is the Falcons have gone 7-9 in each of the last two seasons, their quarterback (Matt Ryan) is past his prime, and their head coach has seemingly been on the brink of getting fired since 2018. There isn’t a ton to like about this squad that shouldn’t have already manifested itself into success the last couple years.
Yet, here I am again, believing this team could compete for a wild card spot in 2020. I am probably higher on Matt Ryan than most people — likely a vestige from the night he led Boston College to a game-winning drive against Virginia Tech on a random Thursday night in like 2006 when I was still in high school. I’m over it, truly. Atlanta also still has Julio Jones, and the hope of a rejuvenated Todd Gurley. And what the hell, after starting 1-7 they rallied back to win 6 of their final 8 contests last year.
They used their first round draft pick on a cornerback and a second rounder on a defensive tackle. They also added linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. in free agency, and return San Bernardino’s own Damontae Kazee at corner. While I am not quite ready to jump on this team as a potential dark horse in the NFC, I like them to go over 7.5 wins and give an overrated NFC South a run for its money.
2. Carolina Panthers
2019 record: 5-11
2020 over/under: 5.5
In general, I am going to fade teams that have new coaching staffs in 2020. I think the coronavirus is going to end up rewarding teams that maintain some sense of continuity, whether it’s via coaches or overall on their rosters. The Panthers have a new coach, a new quarterback, and a completely overhauled (and young) defense. They might be a team to watch out for in 2021-’22, but for this year they are going to be in rough shape.
I like Teddy Bridgewater a lot, and I look for him to be an improvement over the mess they had at QB in 2019. The offense is going to revolve around Christian McCaffrey, an all-world running back who will likely lead them in rushes, receptions, touchdowns and total yards this year. The only way that doesn’t happen is if he gets injured, though I could easily write that about any number of players in the league.
The Panthers are a work in progress, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they play inspired football in the second half of the season and managed to go over 5.5 wins. My gut tells me they are going to struggle mightily early on — cuz growing pains and what not — but I do look forward to them potentially being the class of the NFC South as early as 2022.
3. New Orleans Saints
2019 record: 13-3
2020 over/under: 10.5
Unlike the Falcons, who I like to succeed every year, the Saints are a team I frequently predict to fall off a cliff. I’m still not sure how Drew Brees is able to throw the ball farther than 8 yards at a time, but this is a team with a few superstars on both sides of the ball and there is no reason why they shouldn’t again win double-digit games this year.
Like I said, though, if there’s going to be a year they fall off, it ought to be this one. Pretty much everyone figures this will be Brees’s last year in the NFL — he already has a contract in place to work for NBC when he retires — and I think it could have a polarizing effect in the locker room when everyone knows the leader of the team is on his way out.
And speaking of polarizing, did you happen to see what Drew Brees had to say about Colin Kaepernick during the height of the George Floyd protests? Not a good look. Not good at all, considering the heavy majority of his teammates are black. I know guys have pride, and are self-motivated to be good enough to play in the NFL. But I’m not sure Brees’s teammates will have his back as much as they have in year’s past, and I think opposing defenses might want to lay the smackdown on him (more than usual).
Overall, they have one of the best coaches in the league and a top-7 or 8 quarterback. I still expect the Saints to win the NFC South, but I would lean under 10.5 wins.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2019 record: 7-9
2020 over/under: 9.5
In the most overrated division in the NFL, the Buccaneers may be the most overrated team. There’s a lot of buzz about Tom Brady signing there (because of course), but again I think COVID is going to punish teams with quarterbacks playing in unfamiliar schemes.
For argument’s sake, if there was a QB who could break that trend it would be the best of all-time. Tom Brady is about two years past the back-end of his prime — basically on the edge of being washed up — but he’s also extremely motivated to be playing on a non-Patriots team, and far be it for me to say he can’t lead this team to the playoffs.
I’m betting against it though. Before Brady signed with the Bucs, Tampa Bay had an over/under of 7.5 wins. His addition bumped them all the way up to 9.5 wins, and there was a brief moment when it went all the way up to 10. The market has since corrected itself back down to 9.5, but I don’t think a 43 year-old Tom Brady is worth more than one win. To think it jumped all the way it 2.5 wins after he signed, and settled down to “just” two, feels like way too much.
In my view this division is wide open. With the exception of Carolina, you could talk me into any of the other three teams coming away with it. My money is on the Saints, albeit slightly, followed closely by the Falcons and Bucs — all whom should be in the playoff race.
- Saints: 10-6
- Falcons: 9-7
- Bucs: 8-8
- Panthers: 5-11