The Atlanta Falcons won the NFC South in 2016 with an 11-5 record and 5-1 divisional record, with the only divisional loss coming to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first game of the season.
In the 2017 season, the Falcons will look to defend their NFC South title and potentially win the division twice in a row for the first time in franchise history. With an improving young defense and the continuity of an explosive and high-scoring offense, most expect the Falcons to defy history and repeat as NFC South division champs.
However, Atlanta is not the only team trending upward in the division, and there could be tougher divisional competition next time around.
The future hall of famer Drew Brees at quarterback can shred any defense, and play-makers like Michael Thomas and Mark Ingram just add to the lethality of the Saints Offense. However, the Saints defense is a different story. The Saints gave up 375.4 yards per game and 28.4 points per game in 2016, ranked No. 27 and No. 31 in the NFL respectively. The Saints do have promising young prospects on the defensive side of the ball, but results remain to be seen.
Over the past three seasons, the Saints have finished 7-9, with little change from a model of amazing offense and apathetic defense. Almost every game they play in is a shoot out, but they lack the ability to definitively close out games due to the absence of a developed defense.
The Saints look as if they will continue their trend of a 7-9 record, but they are always capable of giving the Falcons trouble in the exciting rivalry matchups. It’s possible for the Saints to steal a win from the Falcons and make Atlanta work hard for first place in the division, but it doesn’t look like New Orleans is up to de-throning the Falcons as NFC South champs.
The Carolina Panthers suffered a horrible Super Bowl-loss hangover in the 2016 season. Cam Newton played nothing like his MVP performance in 2015, and the tight-knit team chemistry that fans saw in 2015 seemed to be nonexistent. However, the Panthers still have stars. Greg Olsen continued to compete as one of the best tight ends in the NFL as he earned his third consecutive trip to the Pro-Bowl in 2016, and Thomas Davis earned his second consecutive trip to the Pro-Bowl in 2016 as a leader on the defense and dominant linebacker. Not to mention Luke Kuechly, perhaps one of the best linebackers in the NFL over the last 4 seasons, with 4 consecutive Pro-Bowls to show for it.
The Panthers are a tricky team to analyze. Was the 15-1 2015 season a fluke or was the 6-10 2016 season a fluke?
Regardless, Newton and the Panthers have tremendous potential. Their offense has the capability to be one of the most dynamic and versatile systems of attack in the NFL if Newton avoids injury and returns to his former self, and young players like Kelvin Benjamin improve. Their stacked linebacker corps gives them a stable defense, but they also need improvement in the secondary if they want to compete in a division with Matt Ryan and Drew Brees throwing the pigskin.
If the Panthers are able to recover back to their 2015 form, then they could be a force to be reckoned with as they were just a short time ago. However, it’s very difficult to transition from last place in the division to competing for first place. Most likely, the Panthers will take a step forward and show flashes of 2015, but they won’t be able to perform consistently and seriously compete in the division.
Former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is the man in charge down in Tampa Bay, and he has worked to develop the young Jameis Winston at quarterback. Winston has thrown for over 4000 yards in his first two NFL seasons, and shown to be a capable leader like he was on his 2013 Florida State National Championship team. Playmakers like Mike Evans and Doug Martin surround Winston on offense, giving him the quite the arsenal to unleash against opposing defenses. They have dominant defensive forces in Kwon Alexander and Gerald McCoy, and performed as the best defense in the NFC South as a whole in 2016.
Now, the Bucs do have their shortcomings and growing pains, as with Winston’s high number of interceptions, a lack of a true #2 receiving threat to compliment Evans, and Martin’s PED suspension, but overall they seem to be finding their groove and trending in the right direction. If Winston improves his accuracy and the Buccaneers make a move in free agency to get another receiver, then the Tampa Bay offense could be a real thorn in the side of the NFC South.
With a capable defense and an offense that is a few steps away from being elite, the Buccaneers are easily the team with the most potential to give Atlanta trouble and make the Falcons work very hard for the first spot in the division. In fact, Winston is already 3-1 against the Falcons in his career so far.
The Bottom Line
The NFC South is the Falcons division to lose in 2017, but they will face tough competition from rivals and may be fighting hard with a developing and improving Tampa Bay team.