Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dominated the NFC South last season in the division’s first season without Drew Brees in over a decade. After Brady’s apparent retirement and subsequent comeback announcement, the Buccaneers are locked and loaded to compete for their second Super Bowl title in three seasons with Brady.
But the New Orleans Saints can’t be counted out. Despite injuries all over the field, specifically at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, the Saints turned in a decent 9-8 season behind a mostly Jameis Winston-led team. With Winston back at full health as well as Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara returning from injuries, plus the additions of Jarvis Landry and Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans could be a team to watch in the NFC.
The next two teams are both transitioning at quarterback and trying to establish their identities, though one is further along in the process than the other. The Carolina Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield and him their second starting quarterback acquisition in the last two years. The Atlanta Falcons effectively hit the reset button, trading away longtime quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. Marcus Mariota is in line to start for a rebuilding Falcons team.
While the pecking order of the NFC South may seem established, there’s always room for twists and turns. Burning questions in the division include:
- Can Brady and the Buccaneers repeat last season’s 13-4 record, or are they due to take a step back?
- Can the Saints make use of a star-studded roster in their first season without Sean Payton?
- Can Baker Mayfield re-affirm his talent level by playing well for the Panthers?
- Can Marcus Mariota succeed as the Falcons full-time starter?
Who will win the NFC South in 2022-23? How many teams will the division send to the playoffs? Read on for my predictions, and if you’d like to debate or discuss any predictions, join the conversation with @SakSports on Twitter.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
In the two years Tom Brady has been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the future Hall of Fame quarterback has led the team to a 24-9 regular season record, a 5-1 postseason record, and a Super Bowl win over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
When it was announced Brady wouldn’t be returning to the NFL in 2022, the Buccaneers stock took an immediate hit. As I penned an article about Brady’s potential successor, none of the options would have kept Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl conversation.
But as fate would have it, Brady is giving it another go and returning for his 23rd NFL season and his third season in Tampa Bay. Still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Brady’s presence makes the Buccaneers NFC South favorites and Super Bowl contenders once again.
Brady’s offense averaged 30.1 points per game last season, second in the NFL. With weapons like wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, and new addition Julio Jones, the question isn’t if Brady will another 40 touchdown passes, but who he will throw them to. Tight end and former Patriots connection Rob Gronkowski won’t be back, but Cameron Brate and Kyle Rudolph should do just fine in Brady’s offense.
Tampa Bay’s defense can almost go underappreciated, but they held opponents to the fifth-lowest scoring total in the NFL last season. Between pass-rushers Akiem Hicks and Vita Vea, linebacker Shaq Barrett, and cornerback Antonie Winfield Jr., there’s talent all over on defense.
The Buccaneers also brought two more ex-Patriots to town: CB Logan Ryan and G Shaq Mason.
With the second-best offense in the league and fifth-best defense, it’s not hard to see why the Buccaneers went 13-4 last season: it’s hard to lose when you score a lot of points and your opponent scores a little. Expect more of the same this year: 12 or 13 wins in Brady’s final regular season.
2. New Orleans Saints (10-7)
The New Orleans Saints, as mentioned earlier, dealt with injuries last season to Jameis Winston and Alvin Kamara, as well as the season-long absence of Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas. The Saints were able to compensate and finish with a 9-8 record and nearly make the playoffs: a testament to Sean Payton’s incredible coaching ability.
But with Payton retired, defensive-minded head coach Dennis Allen will be tasked with keeping a ship of talented but complex players upright. Besides Winston, Kamara, and Thomas, there’s hybrid quarterback/tight end Taysom Hill, newly signed wide receiver Jarvis Landry, and 11th overall pick stud wide receiver Chris Olave out of Ohio State.
The Saints finished dead-last in passing yards with a unique and conservative passing game last season. New Orleans finished fourth in points allowed though, winning games by smothering opponents defensively. The Saints defense got better too, with former LSU cornerback turned three-time All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu joining the team.
New Orleans should improve all around in 2022 and compete for a playoff spot in the NFC. The NFC South title could even be within reach, between my slightly conservative 10-win projection (a mere one-win increase) and the possibility Tampa Bay only wins 11 or 12 games.
In my projected standings, the Saints tie for the NFC’s final wildcard spot at 10-7.
3. Carolina Panthers (7-10)
This year, instead of year two of former New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold– surprise! Baker Mayfield is the starter in Carolina. On paper, Mayfield represents a step up at the quarterback position, and with McCaffrey coming back, the Panthers can try to build on last season’s early success.
But putting too much pressure on Mayfield to flip the Panthers fates may be unwise. With Darnold, I think this may have been a four or five-win team. Mayfield adds value for sure, but he doesn’t make the Panthers a playoff team overnight. Mayfield will improve Carolina’s 29th-ranked offense, but the 21st-ranked defense still has some work cut out for itself.
The Panthers also only had two draft picks in the first three rounds, sixth overall pick Ikem Ekwonu out of NC State and quarterback Matt Corral out of Ole Miss. With Corral relegated to third on the depth chart, Carolina only gained one actual player they’ll use in 2022 in the first three rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Best-case scenario: McCaffrey plays a full and stat-studded season, Mayfield finds instant connections with D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, and the Panthers might be able to pull off a 9-8 wildcard spot, if that record would be enough. Worst-case is McCaffrey or another key starter going down again and another lost season in Carolina. Six to eight wins is my expectation.
4. Atlanta Falcons (3-14)
The Atlanta Falcons had a funky season in 2021: being outscored by 146 points and being downright humiliated at times, yet starting 7-7, finishing 7-10, and only missing the playoffs by a couple games.
But Atlanta saw the writing on the wall (being outscored by 146 points) and decided to pull the plug on Matt Ryan, trading the quarterback that led them to a Super Bowl appearance in 2017 to the Indianapolis Colts.
Now, Marcus Mariota slots in as the Falcons next starting quarterback, though third round pick Desmond Ridder out of Cincinnati has looked good in the preseason. Beyond the quarterback position, Atlanta has a couple of nice pieces: RB Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Drake London, TE Kyle Pitts, and LT Jake Matthews. But depth is an issue at almost every position, and last season’s 29th-ranked defense is devoid of major impact players. Throw in Calvin Ridley’s year-long suspension for betting on Falcons games, and Atlanta’s roster could definitely use some improvements.
This Falcons team is far from the worst team we’ve seen in the last four or five seasons, but ultimately, I don’t see them winning many games in 2022. I have Atlanta tying with one AFC team for the worst record in the NFL, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons won another game or two to climb out of dead-last.
2022-23 NFL Predictions
Previous NFC South Predictions
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- One-Year Prediction: Top Ten Super Bowl 57 Contenders
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- Philadelphia Eagles Unveil Updated Team Name Art for 2022
- Top Landing Spots for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2022 and 2023
- Las Vegas Raiders Will Work Out Colin Kaepernick, Per Reports
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- NFL 2021: Playoff Bracket and Super Bowl 56 Matchup
- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: Playoffs and Super Bowl
- New York Giants Hire Bills Assistant GM Joe Schoen as General Manager
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- One-Year Prediction: Top Ten Super Bowl 56 Contenders
- Eli Manning is a Sure-Fire Hall of Famer
- BREAKING: Kyrie Irving Likely to Test Free Agency, Lakers and Knicks Top Destinations
- 2022 NBA Finals Prediction: Boston Celtics vs. Golden State Warriors
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- Top Ten Players Heading Into the 2021-22 NBA Season
- 2021-22 NBA Predictions: Playoffs and NBA Finals
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- Grading the Lakers-Wizards Russell Westbrook Trade
- 2020-21 NBA Standings, Playoffs, NBA Finals Predictions
- Top Ten Players Heading Into the 2020-21 NBA Season
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