2021 NFC South Preview

Trying to predict the future is sort of what my blog is all about. I have spent more time this year keeping up with the NFL action than any time before, whether it’s watching The Pat Mcafee Show, listening to the PFF Podcast, or just scanning Twitter for the day-to-day minutia.

I did this exercise last season — the one where I gave a few paragraphs to every team and tried to guess whether they would go over or under their projected win total. I enjoyed it, so I’m doing it again. Being a typical American and working five days a week makes me appreciate the time I have to myself, and I can’t help but spend the overwhelming majority of that time following the sports I love. Everything that follows is the culmination of how I have spent my February (since the Super Bowl) through June (a couple weeks before training camp starts), at least as it relates to my free time.

With that being said, I imagine it will be pretty easy to tell which teams I paid more attention to and which teams I didn’t have much to say about. I also imagine I’ll have a few instant regrets once I get done posting all the divisions, since that’s the nature of betting over/under props — theoretical coin flips — and since the NFL is so unpredictable. For purposes of this, two-plus months before the actual season starts, I consider it to be more of a snapshot of what I feel right this second. So take it all with a grain of salt.

Disclaimer: All over/under win totals are provided courtesy of Bovada.

Part I: NFC East

Part II: NFC North

Part III: NFC South

Common opponents: NFC East (Cowboys, Eagles, Football Team, Giants), AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots)

My NFC South record last year: 1 win (Panthers), 3 losses (Bucs, Falcons, Saints)

1. Atlanta Falcons

2020 record: 4-12
2021 over (-130)/under (EVEN): 7.5 wins

The Falcons have been in NFL purgatory since they blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in the Super Bowl five years ago. There hasn’t been a whole lot to like about this franchise since that time, yet every year I look down and Matt Ryan is still their QB and Julio Jones is there and I say Fuck It, this is going to be the season they turn it around!

Now that Ryan has proven to be in the post-prime stage of his career, and now that Julio got traded to the Titans, stupid me is thinking this can’t possibly be their year. One way or another I know I am going to get burned with this team, since they always cover the spread when they aren’t supposed to and they never cover when I bet on them. I guess some teams just be that way.

It’s a shame they couldn’t make their salary cap situation work with Julio Jones, because it would have been a killer offense having Jones and Calvin Ridley playing WR with rookie TE Kyle Pitts doing anything he wants in the middle of the field. Instead they are going to replace Julio’s production with Pitts effectively playing X receiver (even though he’s pigeonholed as a tight end). I don’t know how that’s going to shake out, but I’m betting that first-year coach Arthur Smith — who somehow turned Ryan Tannehill into a good starting QB in Tennessee — will find a way to make it work.

One big thing: If Arthur Smith is legit then it won’t matter that Matt Ryan is aging and one of the best wide receivers of the last decade, Julio Jones, isn’t there anymore. Ryan isn’t talented enough to make it to another Super Bowl, but Smith is good enough at running an offense to scheme guys open and take advantage of his veteran Hall Of Very Good quarterback’s accuracy. I have Atlanta as an ever so slight lean to go over 7.5 wins — obviously — because I simply don’t have the will to predict the Falcons to go any other way.

2. Carolina Panthers

2020 record: 5-11
2021 over (-120)/under (-110): 7.5 wins

There were many of us last year who really started to believe in the Panthers’ future. They got this new hedge fund billionaire owner; they hired Matt Rhule out of Baylor and got Joe Brady from LSU and Teddy Bridgewater to be their bridge QB. All signs pointed to them being on a sharp incline for success.

Then they won 5 games and, okay. That was about their expectation. When the offseason started word on the street was they were going to make a run at acquiring Deshaun Watson (before his off field troubles), or Russell Wilson (when he was apparently disgruntled). Neither of those big splashes came to fruition, but hey, that’s okay, too. With the 8th overall pick and a QB-strong draft class, they could just go get one of them!

But then they traded for Sam Darnold. In the draft, they went ahead and picked a cornerback — Jaycee Horn — out of South Carolina. And that was that. All the promise and excitement heading into the offseason led to Darnold and the third-best corner on some people’s draft boards. I know it’s the Panthers, and guys like me are supposed to believe in their future no matter what, but how can someone objectively view that course of events as anything other than a letdown?

One big thing: How do the Panthers view themselves? If they are content being in Year Two of a five-year rebuild, then they ought to just get on with it and win 4 or 5 games in 2021 to ensure a top-5 draft pick in next year’s draft. If, as I believe, they want to compete at all costs, what is a realistic win total for them in 2021? Is it 7 games? 8 games? Then I ask: Is it really worth it to draft in the 10-15 range when they are without a longterm fix at the most important position on the field? I’m not confident in this team either way, but if I had to put money down I would lean under 7.5.

3. New Orleans Saints

2020 record: 12-4
2021 over (-115)/under (-115): 9 wins

Without Drew Brees the Saints are in a different place, organizationally. Everyone is saying they haven’t decided on who the QB is going to be in 2021 — between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston — but we all know how that’s going to shake out. Hill is not a QB, and Winston is. I’m sure they will continue to do their mickey mouse shit with Taysom doing run-pass options a handful of times every game, but the reality is Jameis is going to be the guy and their future depends on how well he adjusts to head coach Sean Peyton’s system.

I actually like Winston a lot, but I’m not sure if 9 wins is a fair number for the Saints next season. They can play the hits with RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas on repeat until we are all blue in the face, but let’s be real: Jameis Winston wants to throw the ball downfield. He doesn’t want to hand the ball off and throw check downs all day like Brees was willing to.

One big thing: There isn’t one. A scenario exists where this just doesn’t work, and the Saints take a year off to retool. Another scenario exists where Sean Peyton actually gets to run the offense he wants, and New Orleans surprises everyone by winning 12 games again. I lean towards to former, because this is a franchise that’s had a lot of success in recent years and every so often you just need to take a year and figure out some shit.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2020 record: 11-5
2020 over (-130)/under (EVEN): 11.5 wins

No need to spend much time on the defending champs. They have all the players they need. Tom Brady is still there. Barring some crazy injury issues Tampa Bay should be favored to win the NFC.

One big thing: How motivated will the Bucs be during the regular season? Brady comes from the New England philosophy about really building a championship team, putting much more emphasis on the second half of the year than the first half. Since the NFC South isn’t supposed to be very good, and since this team did win it all last year, I wonder if that will keep them from playing their best football for long stretches of the year. I still like them to go over 11.5 wins, but if 10 or 11 wins is all it takes to win this division how much further will they go to prove their point?

NFC South Prediction:

  1. Bucs: 13-4
  2. Falcons: 9-8
  3. Saints: 7-10
  4. Panthers: 6-11

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