Early NFL Power Rankings – The Ever-Changing NFC South
The NFC South, which was founded in 2002, went 11 years before any team won the division back-to-back. The Carolina Panthers did it in 2013, 2014 and 2015. And even then their 2014 record was 7-8-1 — not what you'd normally see from a division winner. So, it's safe to call it a constantly changing division.
And in a lot of those early years, the last-place finisher one year won the division the next. And in the 15 years the division has been around, they've represented the NFC in the Super Bowl five times (two wins, three losses). This constant shifting makes this one of the hardest divisions to pick every year. But let's take a look at their early power rankings today. I'm taking into account where the teams ended last season, their off-season moves, draft picks and coaching changes, as well as the competition they are going to be playing.
Atlanta Falcons: There is a term in football: Super Bowl hangover, and it's very serious. The losing team rarely makes the playoffs the next season (Unless you're the Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills) and the Falcons are coming off one of the most demoralizing defeats in recent memory. To be up 28-3 with two minutes to go in the 3rd quarter and lose may be too much to get past. It means that your defense has more holes than the plot of a Michael Bay film and your offense left the park early.
While they still have a good number of the players who took them to the dance, they lost both their offensive and defensive coordinators, and their replacements don't have a lot of coordinator experience. And the fact that a lot of the same players are back, the question is going to linger: what exactly happened in the Super Bowl, and how do they prevent it from happening again?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers have a lot of young talent and a quarterback in Jameis Winston that is ready to take the next step. A receiving corps that already had Mike Evans added DeSean Jackson through free agency and drafted O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin. If the running game can carry their weight, then the offensive side of the ball should be good. The defense is still a work in progress, but the team could put it all together to make a run for it. The majority of the pressure stays on third year Winston who has avoided injury so far, has a decent but not great completion percentage, more touchdowns than interceptions, but could use to cut the turnovers down both in the air and putting the ball on the ground. If he can step up, then the team should improve on their 9-7 record.
Carolina Panthers: The two big questions are: which Cam Newton is going to show up this season, and can the offensive line give him enough time to make plays? Coming off a 15-1 2015, the Panthers GM Dave Gettleman rescinded a franchise tag on Josh Norman with only rookies to replace him and then they lost left tackle Michael Oher for the season to a concussion. It took a while for the rookies to step up, and even longer for the o-line to gel. Gettleman's gone, Oher's gone, and Matt Kalil, brother of Ryan Kalil, is now on the left corner. They picked up one of the most gifted athletes in the draft with Christian McCaffery and brought back fan favorites Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn. With a few new weapons, some better experience on the line and in the secondary, the fate of the Panthers comes down to whether Newton plays like the 2015 MVP or the 2016 Cam.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints were one of the league's better teams for a good chunk of time. But now their quarterback is 36 years old and not playing the way he used to. The team is constantly shifting contracts around to find cap space and have far too many holes on both sides of the ball. Sean Payton is a good coach, but he may have stayed too long and gotten attached to some players. The team play like the Showtime Lakers, always trying to score and no defense. But the team's offense has slowed down over the last couple years and can't outscore the deficiencies of their defense. Drew Brees is in the last year of his contract, and it's hard to say if he really has much more in the tank. They haven't found a quarterback of the future. The likelihood is this team is going to fall a bit further and then go through a rebuilding year or two before becoming competitive again.
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