Last season, the NFC South featured one of the most prolific quarterback duels in NFL history: Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The New Orleans Saints had the upper hand in the regular season, sweeping the Buccaneers and winning the NFC South at 12-4. The Buccaneers finished 11-5, and got revenge in the playoffs as they downed the Saints 30-20 in New Orleans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The Buccaneers went on to defeat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, and then dominated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.

The defending Super Bowl champions will look to pick up right where they left off, and may even be a better team this season.

Brees will no longer be under center for the Saints, but Sean Payton still has a talented roster in New Orleans. Whether Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, or a bit of both play the quarterback position, the Saints shouldn’t be counted out without Brees.

The Carolina Panthers moved on from Teddy Bridgewater and will instead roll with former New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold this season. Getting Christian McCaffrey back on the field should pay dividends for Carolina’s offense.

The Atlanta Falcons have a flashy passer in Matt Ryan, but it amounted to a measly 4-12 record last season. The Falcons drafted pass-catching tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick, but also traded away Julio Jones, their franchise leader in receiving. Even with a new weapon, the Falcons may be facing another transition year in 2021.

Read on for my full NFC South predictions for the NFL’s first 17-game season.

More Predictions

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)

Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

The Buccaneers are coming off a Super Bowl victory in their first season with legendary quarterback Tom Brady under center. Even at the tender age of 44, Brady will be one of the best quarterbacks in the league for the 2021-22 NFL season. Throw in a roster with talent at nearly every position, a strong head coach in Bruce Arians, and Drew Brees’ retirement, and the Buccaneers should easily be able to win the NFC South this season.

Last year, Tampa Bay finished 11-5, one game behind the 12-4 New Orleans Saints. But without Brees, the Saints are a much more beatable team. Tampa Bay was swept by New Orleans last season, but this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Buccaneers take one or both games from the Saints. The Buccaneers also don’t have to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the regular season, one of the four opponents that beat Tampa Bay last year.

Overall, the Buccaneers schedule isn’t too intimidating. Tampa Bay matches up with the NFC East, who didn’t have a team with a winning record last season, the AFC East, who have a strong Buffalo Bills team but other opponents that Brady has routinely beaten in his career, as well as the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears, and Indianapolis Colts, in addition to six NFC South matchups. By finishing second in the division last season, the Buccaneers avoid the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks in the regular season.

The entire band is pretty much back together from Super Bowl 55, headlined by the re-signing of defensive stud Shaq Barrett. The Buccaneers should hit the ground running this season, and finishing with the best record in the league is certainly with a possibility. It’s a long season, so I’m hesitant to give out more than 13 wins to pretty much any team. 13-4 would be a dominant record, and give Tampa Bay the top seed in the NFC for the 2021-22 NFL playoffs.

2. New Orleans Saints (10-7)

Photo: NFL.com

It’s the end of an era: for the first time in 15 years, the New Orleans Saints will start the season without Drew Brees on the roster. Even in the twilight of his career, Brees was producing at an elite level for the Saints. Brees completed 70.0% or more of his passes each of the last five seasons, and held a dominant 41-13 record over the last four seasons. Brees’ availability was a little spotty over the past two seasons, but when he was on the field, he was a winner: going 8-3 in 2019 and 9-3 in 2020 as the starter.

But the Saints might not be doomed in the post-Brees era. Last season, the Saints went 3-1 without Brees, employing a Jameis Winston-Taysom Hill tandem that will be tasked with carryng the offense in 2021. In 2019, the Saints didn’t miss a beat in Brees’ absence, going 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater as their starting quarterback.

Brees is a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but unlike some teams in the NFL, the roster goes far deeper than just a flashy signal-caller. The offense is loaded with talent: from a strong offensive line, to one of the best pass catchers in the league in Michael Thomas, to dynamic running back Alvin Kamara. The Saints defense is also strong, with both a ferocious pass rush and solid secondary.

The Saints ceiling is a bit lower without Brees, and I’m not quite sure they could make a deep playoff run with Winston or Hill at quarterback. But with a talented roster and savvy head coach in Sean Payton, I think New Orleans will still win more often than not, leading to a 10-7 record that gets them back into the postseason. There isn’t much wiggle room here: another loss could knock New Orleans out of the playoff mix. But as I see it, the Saints are good enough to make the playoffs in the NFC even in the post-Brees era.

3. Carolina Panthers (6-11)

Photo: TheSportsRush.com

The Carolina Panthers made a quarterback change this offseason: shipping Teddy Bridgewater to Denver and acquiring fourth-year quarterback Sam Darnold from the New York Jets. Barring a miraculous change in Darnold’s career trajectory, the Panthers are taking a step back at the position.

Last season wasn’t a pretty one for the Panthers, but Bridgewater was hardly to blame. Bridgewater was 4-11 as a starter in his only season in Carolina, but completed 69.1% of his passes and tossed 15 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Darnold started 12 games for the Jets in 2020, going 2-10, completing a poor 59.6% of his passes, and throwing just nine touchdown passes with 11 interceptions to his name.

Changes of scenery can sometimes do wonders, but I think it’s highly unlikely Darnold is the answer for the Panthers. So why does Carolina’s record improve ever so slightly, from 5-11 to 6-11? Two words: Christian McCaffrey.

The fifth-year running back from Stanford is an absolute stud and one of the most valuable players in the league. McCaffrey found the endzone six times last season despite being limited to just three games. With a full 16 games at his disposal in 2019, McCaffrey scored 19 touchdowns, earning both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. With McCaffrey returning from an injury-shortened season, the Panthers offense will get a huge spark, despite having a mediocre-at-best quarterback in Darnold.

Carolina’s defense was average to below average last season, but the Panthers did sign outside linebacker Haason Reddick, who is coming off a breakout 12.5-sack season with the Arizona Cardinals last year.

4. Atlanta Falcons (4-13)

Photo: Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons

Falling off after a Super Bowl appearance isn’t uncommon in the NFL, and the Atlanta Falcons have exemplified that over the past four seasons. In the 2016-17 season, Atlanta finished 11-5, reached the Super Bowl, then infamously blew a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The Falcons made the playoffs again in 2017-18, losing in the divisional round after finishing 10-6 in the regular season.

After that, Matt Ryan and the Falcons turned in back-to-back mediocre 7-9 finishes, before earning a dubious 4-12 record last season. Despite having a ton of talent on offense, the Falcons finished with the fourth-worst record in the league.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, I don’t see things playing out much differently in 2021-22. After a decade together, the Falcons parted ways with their franchise leader in receptions and receiving yards, seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones. Jones only appeared in nine games last season as he battled a hamstring injury, so one hand, the Falcons have already tasted what life without Jones might be like. But it was a bitter, losing taste: the Falcons went 3-6 when Jones played, and 1-6 when he didn’t.

The Falcons also moved on from running back Todd Gurley, turning to Mike Davis as their starter with wide receiver-turned-running back Cordarrelle Patterson also on the roster. Atlanta’s most important offseason move was drafting pass-catching tight end Kyle Pitts out of Florida with the fourth overall pick. It’s just unfortunate that Pitts will have to replace Jones’ production, instead of supplementing it.

Ryan is still an above average passer at 36 years old, but the Falcons offensive line struggles to keep him upright: he was sacked an NFL-high 48 times in 2019 and another 41 times last season. Atlanta did draft offensive linemen Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman in the draft, but the fix isn’t likely to be overnight.

Atlanta won’t be a laughing stock, but they won’t be a good team either. Last season, the Falcons were only outscored by 18 points, which is very low considering their 12 losses. I can see a similar pattern this season: the Falcons will play a lot of close games, but won’t come away with too many victories.

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