Predicting the NFC South

The Footballguys staff looks at how the NFC South will end up in 2021

Links to discussions of other divisions:


Let's dig a little into the NFC South. Who takes this division? How many wins do you predict for each team?

NFC South Team
Vegas Win
Totals
Staff Predictions
Avg Place
1st-Place Votes
2nd-Place Votes
3rd-Place Votes
4th-Place Votes
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11.5
1.1
9
1
0
0
New Orleans Saints
9.0
2.1
0
9
1
0
Carolina Panthers
7.5
2.9
1
0
8
1
Atlanta Falcons
7.0
3.9
0
0
1
9

Note: Vegas Win Totals are taken from VegasInsider.com.

Ryan Weisse

This could be a rough year for the NFC South, outside of the Buccaneers.

Not sure how much needs to be said about Tampa Bay. They return every starter and should easily win this division again. Easily.

The Saints should be the runner-up but will not have a shot at the playoffs. Their offense will look very different no matter which quarterback they choose. Winston seems like the clear choice but his turnovers could be too much for them to overcome. No unit on this defense is particularly impressive and it could be a rough year for Saints fans.

The Panthers should show improvements with the return of Christian McCaffrey. It will be their first year with Sam Darnold but he should be at least as good as Teddy Bridgewater was in 2020. Their defense definitely has some bright spots but a year of growing pains all around will hold them back in 2021.

This Atlanta offense will look very different in 2021 but their defense is nowhere near making them competitive. On offense, Mike Davis should be good enough and the addition of Kyle Pitts is great but with Julio Jones, it’s a wash at best in Year 1. The defense is just lacking at every level, and it will be a struggle for their offense to keep up with what they will allow.

  • TB 14-3
  • NO 7-10
  • CAR 6-11
  • ATL 4-13

Anthony Amico

The Bucs just won the Super Bowl, and return basically their entire team. This should be a continued dominant run for Tampa Bay. Tom Brady shows few signs of aging and has been surrounded by an impressive arsenal of weapons.

The Saints were excellent in 2020, and I'm not really sure swapping quarterbacks to either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill impacts them negatively. Drew Brees could complete passes, but was not a downfield threat, and got spelled by Hill plenty already.

Carolina is hopefully getting a quarterback upgrade by taking a chance on Sam Darnold. This Joe Brady offense was productive in 2020, and it will be fun to see what they have in store this season. The Panthers continue to put resources into their defense, which was sorely lacking last year.

Even though the cap forced a trade of Julio Jones, the Falcons seem like they would like to get what they can out of Matt Ryan and try to win some games now. It isn't a terrible idea -- I think this offense will put up points -- but they will need to play better defense in order to truly compete. It seems more likely that they stew in mediocrity for two years and draft a Ryan successor in 2023.

  • Tampa Bay -- 13
  • New Orleans -- 11
  • Carolina -- 7
  • Atlanta -- 7

Jeff Tefertiller

I think Tampa Bay dominates. Having continuity helps. So does an abundance of talent. Depth at every position.

New Orleans is going to miss Brees much more than most expect. Yes, Sean Payton is a great coach, but the Hill/Winston combo will stretch his patience.

Carolina is on the rise but still needs more pieces defensively.

I like Arthur Smith a lot, but the Falcons are short on talent, especially after the Julio Jones trade. There is a reason they picked fourth in the 2020 draft. Atlanta could have an even better pick in 2021.

Only one team makes the playoffs: Tampa Bay

Wins

  • Tampa Bay 12
  • New Orleans 8
  • Carolina 7
  • Atlanta 5

Jeff Haseley

It's difficult to think that Tampa Bay won't finish first in the NFC South in 2021. Tom Brady has a 50% chance of making the Super Bowl based on 10 Super Bowl appearances in his 20 years in the league. Tampa should cruise to 13 wins in this division.

As for the battle for second place? All three could vie for the next best team behind the Buccaneers, but it may not equate to a playoff berth. New Orleans could be much different without Brees, Carolina is up and coming, but they aren't there just yet, and Atlanta is doing all they can to hang on to what they have despite the new regime. One not about Kyle Pitts, if he is used as a wide receiver, I have more faith in his ability to put up big numbers as a rookie. If not, I see him being very good but not great. We all know rookie tight ends take some time to acclimate themselves to the NFL, this includes Pitts. The last 800-yard rookie tight end was Jeremy Shockey in 2002.

The entire division is loaded with offensive fantasy talent that includes Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley, Chris Godwin, D.J. Moore, Kyle Pitts, etc. What separates the contenders from the pretenders in this division is defense. If New Orleans, Carolina, or Atlanta step it up on the defensive side of the ball, it will greatly increase their chances of finishing higher in the division. The Saints are closest to the Bucs followed by Carolina and Atlanta, which ironically is a good way to rank the teams in this division. A shift in defensive stature would likely also be seen in the standings.

  • Tampa Bay 13-4
  • New Orleans 10-7
  • Carolina 9-8
  • Atlanta 8-9

Jason Wood

I think this will be the most competitive division -- top to bottom -- in football, but I also agree with my colleagues that Tampa Bay will finish atop the standings barring a Tom Brady injury. Tracking the offseason movement for the site, I was stunned at how Tampa Bay brought everyone back for another run. That NEVER happens. Some fringe players end up getting overblown contracts coming off a Super Bowl and move on. Yet, that didn't happen. Everyone is back.

While some may be ready to bury New Orleans, I don't see the cause for concern. The Saints were fantastic without Drew Brees in recent seasons, winning the majority of both Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill's starts. They have veteran talent up and down the roster and I think they'll make the playoffs.

I'm not sure what to make of Carolina and Atlanta, as both are incomplete puzzles. We don't really know if the Matt Rhule/Joe Brady combination is a winning one yet, but we all suspect it will be. But the defense is a complete rebuild and we still aren't sure if Christian McCaffrey can return to his pre-injury status as the league's most versatile skill player. Atlanta has a new head coach and trouble in paradise with an aging quarterback that has maybe a year or two left in town, and a Hall of Fame receiver who wants out ASAP.

  • Tampa Bay 13-4
  • New Orleans 11-6
  • Carolina 8-9
  • Atlanta 7-10

Andy Hicks

In 2021 I expect greater fluctuations from the lines in this division compared to last season. A first-year head coach in Atlanta, a second-year head coach in Carolina, and new starting quarterbacks in both New Orleans and Carolina.

Atlanta seems a good bet for the under. Even with a 17-game schedule, seven wins is a big ask. Their running game looks bad and Julio Jones has been traded. Their defense is at best a work in progress and I am not sure why Matt Ryan wasn’t moved on so the team could start with a new group. Kyle Pitts may be a future star, but rookie tight ends do not have a good record.

Carolina looks like the team that should make a giant leap in 2021. If Sam Darnold is not spooked by his tenure with the Jets. 2020 was a good rebuilding season and the payoff should come this year. If this team isn’t pushing for 10 or more wins it would be a disappointment.

New Orleans is the most interesting team in the division. Drew Brees was not the same player last year. Will Jameis Winston have a long leash or will they throw Taysom Hill under center after the first bad interception? This team has salary cap issues and improving the unit will be difficult. They could crater or if Winston has become a mature player, be where they have been for seasons.

Tampa Bay is the clear favorite, but can they focus on the week-to-week matchups instead of the end-of-season prize? I think they lose games they should win and if injuries hit this unit, they may miss the playoffs. Still, it is impossible to think of Tom Brady losing crucial games. At some stage, age has to catch up with him. Surely?

  • Atlanta 1-9 wins, prediction 3-14
  • Carolina 3-14 wins, prediction 11-6
  • New Orleans 5-14 wins, prediction 9-8
  • Tampa Bay 6-16 wins, prediction 10-7

Jordan McNamara

The only team in the division with continuity at both quarterback and head coach are the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They are rightly favored to win the division. There are questions with the quarterback stability with Carolina (Sam Darnold) and New Orleans (presumably Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill), which makes Atlanta an interesting dark horse. I think the addition of Arthur Smith's play-action passing game can rejuvenate Matt Ryan's career.

Atlanta's loss of Julio Jones takes some ceiling out of the offense but creates opportunities for other weapons including Hayden Hurst, Kyle Pitts, and Calvin Ridley. Arthur Smith's offense in Tennessee leaned heavier tight end than Atlanta did in 2020, which is a shift to monitor in the post-Julio Jones Atlanta offense.

  • Atlanta -- 9
  • Carolina -- 6
  • New Orleans -- 9
  • Tampa Bay -- 13

Sigmund Bloom

The NFC South draws the NFC East and AFC East, both divisions that aren't among the toughest, and in the case of the NFC East probably one of the weaker in the league (at least until proven otherwise). The three non-shared games for each team:

  • ATL - @SF DET @JAX
  • CAR - @HOU MIN @ARI
  • NO - GB @SEA @TEN
  • TB - @LAR CHI @IND

The division is one of haves (Tampa Bay and New Orleans) and have-nots (Carolina and Atlanta) in terms of recent success. The Bucs have brought back everyone, the Saints have suffered a few losses on defense and won't have Drew Brees, the Panthers brought in Sam Darnold after Teddy Bridgewater disappointed, and the Falcons are in rebuilding mode even though they still have Matt Ryan at quarterback. With all this in mind...

  • Atlanta - 6-11
  • Carolina - 7-10
  • New Orleans - 10-7
  • Tampa Bay - 13-4

Chad Parsons

I see Tampa Bay and New Orleans in the playoffs with Carolina being viable to the final weeks of the season. I found Atlanta trading Julio Jones away quizzical as they are in a window to maximize whatever Matt Ryan and offense-centric team build. Yes, they still have weapons on offense and they shed salary, but their defense is poor and they need to outscore teams to win games and make the playoffs.

Tampa Bay will be a fun watch yet again as they brought everyone back and Tom Brady rounded into form with Bruce Arians later in 2020. A full season and they could surpass the 12-win total here. Also, Kyle Trask was a savvy selection to groom at the end of Round 2.

  • Tampa Bay 12
  • New Orleans 9
  • Carolina 7
  • Atlanta 6

Victoria Geary

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return all starters from their Super Bowl run. We know Brady and company are ready to run it back, and lucky for them it will be against the league's fourth-easiest strength of schedule. This defense is scary, and what's worse for their opponents is that they got better as the year went on. When both sides of the ball are clicking, this team is pretty lethal. The only questionable piece about this team is if Tom Brady can continue to compete at a high level, but it seems we can assume he has a few more good years left in him.

Is this the year we see New Orleans struggle without a sure answer at quarterback, or can their coaching staff overcome the loss of Drew Brees? Many have an opinion on whether or not it will be Winston or Hill at the helm come September, but much like the Steelers, the Saints coaching staff is excellent and always finds a way to win games. I trust they will choose the right guy to be competitive, but with so many moving pieces on both sides of the ball, I'm not sure they can put together a good enough season to overcome the Buccaneers.

Carolina is taking a chance with Sam Darnold chucking the ball this season, but a new change of scenery should be good for him. Darnold reunites with his old teammate Robby Anderson and gets a presumably healthy Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore to throw to. It's safe to assume this young defense will still be learning through the growing pains though, so I expect them to finish in the middle of the pack.

Will Arthur Smith help Matt Ryan overcome his history of underwhelming without Julio Jones in the lineup? The Julio trade was a bit of a head-scratcher for me, as the team looked like they would try to stay competitive keeping Ryan at the helm and drafting tight end Kyle Pitts over a new quarterback. With Jones gone and only Mike Davis in the backfield, this team doesn't have very much to be scared of. Both Calvin Ridley and Pitts will be viable fantasy options on a weekly basis, but the Falcons are likely to finish last in the division with tough competition.

Prediction

  • Tampa Bay 12-5
  • New Orleans 11-6
  • Carolina 8-9
  • Atlanta 7-10

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