Ah, the NFC South. When the NFL envisioned a socialist land of parity, where every team deserves a chance at greatness, this is what they had in mind. Much like every union worker at the Springfield Power Plant is guaranteed an employee of the month award (yep, we got sucked into The Simpsons marathon this weekend on FXX), every team has won the division title over the past seven seasons. There’s also never been a repeat winner of the NFC South; last year the Falcons defended their title by limping to finish line with a 4-12 record. Carolina would take the title, and be joined in the playoffs by New Orleans. Since the Saints won the Super Bowl in January 2010, the NFC South is 3-7 in the playoffs. This year, Vegas sees this bunch as a pretty productive group with the lowest win total among the four teams set at seven. The biggest shake up in the division is definitely in Tampa, where another extremely active year in free agency was paired with the hiring of Lovie Smith as their new coach. The schedule rotation lands on the North, both NFC and AFC. Can Carolina become the first repeat winner of the division? Or does the rotating crown continue? Let’s take a look.
Win totals are from www.scoresandodds.com. Win total posted with juice on the over and under, respectively.
New Orleans Saints 10.5 wins (-130/+110): Talk about a tough luck team since the Super Bowl victory. Let’s recap on their playoff appearances since then:
- 2010: Won 11 games and had to travel to Seattle to play the 7-9 Seahawks, lost the game.
- 2011: Won 13 games and didn’t get a 1st round bye. Lost in the Divisional round in a heartbreaker to the 49ers.
- 2012: Went 7-9, after losing Sean Payton for the season in the BountyGate overreaction by Roger Goddell.
Last season, the division title slipped from their grasp in Charlotte after a hard fought loss to the upstart Panthers. They still won 11 games, and went a perfect 8-0 at The Superdome. Surprisingly, they only forced 19 turnovers last year. With the way opposing teams can become unglued in the dome, I thought that number would be higher. That defense added Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey to the secondary, with Byrd being the big catch to replace Malcolm Jenkins. The pass rush generated 49 sacks, with Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan leading the way.
The offense is loaded again, with Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham tearing through defenses. Behind a solid, veteran offensive line, Brees should have plenty of time to locate receivers. Brees threw the ball 650 times last year, which was right there with Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan for tops in the league. When the Saints do decide to run, there should be holes given the solid line and success of the passing game. Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram both had pretty good playoff performances last year and could be a productive duo this season. Outside of Graham, Brees has some other dangerous passing options, including everyone’s pick for a rookie sleeper Brandin Cooks, a rookie from Oregon State. With Darren Sproles departure, there are a ton of targets that aren’t spoken for in this offense. Cooks could seamlessly move into this offense and have a huge rookie year.
Sean Payton and Rob Ryan form a terrific coaching tandem on offense and defense; pair them with an All World QB, stellar OLine and a defense that should create more turnovers than last year, and you’ve got a really dangerous team. The schedule doesn’t look too daunting, with a lot of home games stacked in the 2nd half of the season. The Packers and 49ers both have to travel to The Big Easy, in what are the Saints two toughest games. The NFC South looks like it may be pretty soft this year and there’s no reason the Saints shouldn’t run away with it. There’s one other team we feel good about in the division, more on them in a few.
Gun to head: Over, and at a pretty reasonable price of -130. New Orleans seems like a team that will be extra motivated this year after their disappointments they’ve had since their Super Bowl victory.
Our own free will: Regular play on the over. Only concern is the win total. As a rule, it’s almost never a good idea to take the over on a double digit number. We’ll bite here.
Atlanta Falcons 8.5 wins (+130/-150): The subject of this seasons Hard Knocks on HBO sure have a lot of explaining to do after last years four win clunker. One year after gagging away a trip to the Super Bowl to 49ers under the roof of The Georgia Dome, the Dirty Birds staggered out of the gates with a 1-4 start that was capped off with a loss at home on Monday Night Football where they let Geno Smith look like Joe Montana. Prior to the 2013 season, Atlanta had not lost consecutive games since December of 2009. So how did this not-yet-ready-for-primetime but very consistent team go in the tank overnight?
Injuries decimated this roster from early in the season through the holidays. Julio Jones and Roddy White both missed time, stripping Atlanta of the explosiveness on offense those two bring. On the defense several starters went down as well. The offensive line regressed from previous years, Steven Jackson didn’t pan out as hoped after he was picked up in free agency and the pass rush was a non factor as the team only generated 32 sacks, led by Osi Umenyiora.
The obvious comparison for Atlanta is Houston, who had a similar first to worst 2013 after years of steady play and playoff appearances. While we are bullish on Houston bouncing back, we aren’t so sure about Atlanta, especially a five game improvement that this over requires. Sure can chalk up the bad record to injuries, but who’s to say that bug won’t bite again this year? Steven Jackson is on the wrong side of 30, and there isn’t much behind him. In the offseason, the pass rush wasn’t really addressed. They did bolster both lines, which will pay dividends down the road, including the Jake Matthews draft pick and the signings of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, the latter of which we elaborated on in our Dolphins write up.
This team has some talent, and will bounce back from the four win disaster of last season. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are a tremendous pair of young corners and Matt Ryan is still a top tier QB. He just didn’t have the weapons or protection last season. After rumors of a wholesale coaching change, Mike Smith and his staff returns, so you have to think they will pull out all the stops to get Atlanta back in the playoff mix.
The schedule is a where a huge red flag appears. Atlanta gave up a home game to play in London against Detroit. That wouldn’t be terrible except that they come home to play two more road games, which is unheard of since the London experiment began. Typically, teams who travel across the pond are given a sweetheart schedule on the back end that includes several home games. Atlanta returns to face two division foes (Tampa and Carolina) both on the road. Matt Ryan has done very well in the confines of the Georgia Dome, so this scenario is definitely a detriment to the team. After that sequence, they still have road games at New Orleans and Green Bay (Dec 8th, brrr).
Gun to head: Under. The -150 price reflects that this line may be a bit too high. Last year was an aberration of sorts, but an injury plagued team with a daunting schedule should have a tough time finding their way to a winning record.
Our own free will: Under. 8.5 wins is a market overreaction. This team goes 7-9.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7 wins (-145/+125): Tampa Bay has been a team that has gone hog wild signing free agents over the past few offseasons. Seemingly every name on the market has ended up in Tampa, and a guy like Darrelle Revis has already landed there and then left. This is not our preferred way of building a team, but at some point those pieces have to gel and a contender should emerge, as long as there’s good leadership in place.
That brings us to new coach Lovie Smith. The guy can coach, and after a year away from football he inherited a talented roster that added a few more pieces this offseason. The biggest addition was Josh McCown at QB, a guy we were very impressed with last season when he was pressed into duty for the Bears after the Cutler injury. McCown played in six games and threw 13 touchdowns and 1 INT over that stretch. He’ll join an offense that has weapons like Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson, and the addition of Evan Dietrich-Smith and Logan Mankins to the offensive line are big upgrades, as Carl Nicks surprisingly retired from football after flopping in Tampa after a huge free agency pay day. 7th overall pick Mike Evans could contribute immediately after a successful career at Texas A&M.
Lovie Smith is a defensive minded guy, and will have some talented guys to work with on that side of the ball. Guys like Gerald McCoy, Michael Johnson and Lavonte David make for a very productive front seven. Alterraun Verner came over from the Titans, where he was a terrific corner. Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson will be the starting safeties, a tandem with a ton of potential. Barron will enter his 3rd season, and could be ready to take the next step in the NFL after a very productive career at Alabama. Goldson joined Tampa last season after he started his career in San Francisco. With the 49ers, he was very active but also out of position a lot, a true all or nothing player. After arriving in Tampa with a huge contract in hand, he predictably slipped in productivity. No longer was he a freewheeling cog in a top notch defense like the 49ers, instead he was a reckless liability on the back end of the defense. If Lovie can get Goldson playing to his peak ability, he could have a very impressive secondary.
Tampa begins and ends the season with back to back home games. Outside of their division, trips to Chicago and Pittsburgh are the toughest tests. The Greg Schiano era was a complete embarrassment, but with Lovie Smith and a competent QB we feel the rest of the pieces are in place for a much improved season.
Gun to head: Over. This roster has a lot of talent; Tampa could be one of those teams that rises from the ashes and makes the playoffs.
Our own free will: Strong play on the over.
Carolina Panthers 7.5 wins (+140/-165): Well it looks like Vegas and the betting public all over the idea that Carolina won’t repeat as the division champ. One year after winning 12 games, Vegas slots Carolina as a .500 team at best. Not to be outdone, the public bet the under to the steep price of -165. All of this has happened for good reason.
Carolina appears to be the obvious regression candidate this year in the NFL. Every season, several playoff teams follow up their success with a losing record. The Panthers lost key pieces on the offensive line and secondary, as well as their top three WRs from last year. They were also very fortunate last season, as they won five games in the 2nd half of the season that could have all gone the other way, including a very controversial finish on a MNF game versus the Patriots. In the turnover department, the Panthers have improved year over year since 2011, especially in the giveaway column. With all this turnover on offense, it’s seems likely that the offense will have some growing pains and the ball security won’t be there. D’Angelo Williams is still on the roster, after receiving one of the most ill advised contracts in free agent history. This team really lacks weapons and could struggle on offense.
Luke Kuechly, Greg Hardy and Star Lotulelei spearhead one of the best front sevens in football; a big reason why Carolina was so successful last season. They are all back and will be one of the only units on the team that will keep Carolina from being one of the worst teams in football.
The schedule is a bear, with a particularly brutal stretch in October and November. Over a five week stretch, Carolina plays at Cincy, at Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans (4 days later on a Thurs night) and at Philly. That is the stretch that will end this teams season, long before their week 12 bye rolls around.
Last season, this team had tremendous line play and Cam Newton played great. The defense was phenomenal, as they held teams to 20 points or less a staggering 12 times. This season, that defense is undermanned in the secondary and will be on the field way too often to have the same impact.
Gun to head: Under. Pay that juice, this line is a couple wins too high.
Our own free will: Under. Lock and load.
Next up, the AFC North. JohnnyFootballJohnnyFootballJohnnyFootballJohnnyFootball.
Las Vegas Win Totals:
Pittsburgh Steelers 8.5 wins (-140/+120)
Cleveland Browns 6.5 wins (+115/-135)
Baltimore Ravens 8.5 wins (-115/-105)
Cincinnati Bengals 9 wins (-105/-115)