Why all 4 teams can and can’t win a wide-open NFC South

Week 2 proved it; the NFC South is a bit of a mess.

It started when the Buccaneers made every writer at SB Nation (and almost every other NFL expert around the picks universe) wrong by smothering the Panthers in a Thursday Night Football win. That same game, Cam Newton aggravated a foot injury, leaving his status for the next game in doubt. Then the Saints lost Drew Brees to a thumb injury that will cost him roughly half the season and cost New Orleans its revenge vs. the Rams in a rematch of last year’s NFC title game. To cap it all off, the Falconsleft for dead in a lackluster opening week loss to Minnesota — overcame three different Matt Ryan brain farts to hold off the Eagles at home.

All that left the division in a weird position. The three teams with former regular season MVPs behind center — Carolina, Atlanta, and New Orleans — all have major questions to answer about their passing offense thanks to either injury or inefficiency. The fourth team, Tampa Bay, is used to inconsistency at quarterback but might just have the defensive chops to overcome that in 2019.

So who is going to escape this murky swamp of uncertainty and crown themselves king of the South?

Atlanta Falcons

Why the Falcons can win the NFC South: Brees’ injury leaves Atlanta with the division’s top intact offense, and an on-point Ryan can throw his team to the postseason. His 2018 season was the second-best of his career, trailing only the 2016 campaign that ended in Super Bowl 51. While he’s off that pace now, he’s got the tools to push the Falcons back to the top of the NFC South. His offensive line is trending upward slightly, leaving him with more time to throw in the pocket and a lower sack rate through two games thus far (from 6.5 percent to 5.3).

Even if he’s rushed, Ryan has a pair of go-to weapons who can bail him out of bad situations in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Ridley continues to blossom into a valuable NFL weapon after an eight-catch (on 10 targets), 105-yard performance on Sunday night. That was great, but it was Jones who showcased his otherworldly athleticism while bailing out his offense for its first win of the season:

The Falcons’ defense has been better than advertised, despite its share of faults. Only four teams in the league allow fewer yards per play than Atlanta’s 4.6. That unit has also created an average of two turnovers per game, including a pair of interceptions that made preseason MVP candidate Carson Wentz look downright silly on Sunday night.

Why they can’t: That 4.6 number is more a product of the Vikings’ only throwing the ball 10 times in an opening week rout than an actual top five performance. Atlanta’s insistence on letting Philadelphia back into their Week 2 game is proof this defense can still make baffling mistakes like Nelson Aglohor’s way-too-easy catch on fourth-and-14 late in a one-possession game. Opponents have converted 50 percent of their third down situations, which leaves the Falcons ranked just 24th in time of possession so far this season.

Ryan’s gameplan on Sunday night was to pick on cornerback Ronald Darby, and while that worked to perfection on some throws, the former MVP straight-up missed his targets on a significant number of his passes.

As a result, Ryan’s gone from looking like a top tier QB to a man with a 5:5 TD:INT ratio and the league’s 23rd-best passer rating. His offense has converted less than 30 percent of its third down opportunities (5 of 18).

The Falcons overcame those lapses in Week 2 (thanks in part to a superhuman effort from Jones), but they don’t have the kind of defense that can stand up and regularly win games if their offense can’t put 20+ points on the board. Any defensive gains to start the year come with the caveat that they came against a Vikings team that looks lost with Kirk Cousins at quarterback and an Eagles team whose receiving corps was decimated by injuries in Week 2.

Plus, if we’re banking on a team to avoid injuries throughout the regular season, the Falcons have traditionally been one of the worst bets you can make.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Why the Buccaneers can win the NFC South: The Bucs were expected to jump start their offense after hiring quarterback guru Bruce Arians this offseason. Instead, Tampa’s defense has been its source of hope. The club ranked 31st in yards allowed per play last season, but the arrival of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has transformed this team into a top five unit. Opposing passers — Jimmy Garoppolo and Cam Newton, thus far — have averaged a 73.0 passer rating against the Buccaneers.

That’s good, but Tampa Bay’s run defense has been even stingier. Bowles’ group limited the Niners to only three yards per carry before shutting down Christian McCaffrey, limiting the Pro Bowl back to 37 yards on 16 carries and stuffing him on the biggest play of the game Thursday night.

Why they can’t: Jameis Winston is one game removed from a three-interception performance, where each errant throw was dumber than the one that preceded it. He gave up two second half pick-sixes in a game Tampa went on to lose by 14, and those lapses fail to inspire confidence he can lead his team back from a fourth quarter deficit. Even with Arians lending his guidance, Winston was Sports Information Systems’ lowest-grade QB of Week 1.

A strong running game could balance out his mistakes while supplementing his occasional playmaking, but the Bucs need a breakout sophomore campaign from Ronald Jones (four carries for nine yards against Carolina) to overcome a talent-deficient depth chart. Bowles got the most from a defense that’s low on star power in Week 2, but is a 27-year-old Shaquil Barrett really headed for a breakthrough in his sixth season in the league? Or will his hot start prove unsustainable?

Bowles has to hope it’s the former; he’s the only player on the roster to record a sack so far.

Carolina Panthers

Why the Panthers can win the NFC South: Carolina is dotted with star power on both sides of the ball, including All-Pros in McCaffrey and Luke Kuechly. A potent defensive front woke up against Tampa, sacking Winston on nearly 11 percent of his pass attempts and hitting him on nine of his 28 dropbacks in Week 2. Cam Newton is only 30 years old, which suggests his severe regression through two games is an anomaly and not a trend.

Plus, this is an odd-numbered year, which is when the Panthers traditionally outperform expectations and finish with a winning record.

Why they can’t: Newton is injured and, not coincidentally, has struggled mightily; his 6.4 yards per attempt is the lowest of his career to date. He’s been the league’s least accurate passer, per Pro Football Focus, through two games.

A big function of that is his foot injury and a deficient offensive line that’s allowed pass rushers to become a constant behind the line of scrimmage; Newton has only had an average of 2.37 seconds before firing off passes this fall, the second-lowest number in the league behind Russell Wilson. That’s far below the 2.72s mark he posted in 2017, the last year Carolina made it to the postseason.

McCaffrey has been a valuable safety valve, but Tampa proved that shutting him down effectively grounds the entire Panthers offense. Bowles held Carolina to fewer than five yards per play, and while Newton eventually pushed three different targets to 89 or more receiving yards he needed 36 passes to get them there (via a 55 percent catch rate). The Panthers have the personnel to field a top 10 defense, but shoddy blocking and inconsistent play calling could keep them from fielding the offense needed to take advantage of that.

New Orleans Saints

Why the Saints can win the NFC South: Losing Drew Brees robs New Orleans of a perennial MVP candidate, but the team can slot in the league’s top backup rotation and stay afloat for the six(ish) weeks the veteran quarterback is slated to miss. Teddy Bridgewater may not be the ascendant talent he was before his devastating 2016 knee injury, but he’s still capable of running an offense. He was hamstrung by a downright bad offensive line in LA (three sacks allowed, three holding penalties in the second half) but that may not last through the rest of the season; Brees had a comfortable 2.83 average seconds in the pocket before throwing this fall, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

OC Pete Carmichael is capable of building a dynamic game plan around him with healthy doses of players like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, and Jared Cook. If Week 2 was any indication, he’ll get some flashes of inspiration from backup QB/WR/RB Taysom Hill as well. The New Orleans offense can retain the unpredictable spark that made it so dangerous, even with Bridgewater in the lineup.

A useful Saints defense is slated to get even better once Sheldon Rankins returns from injury, as the Cameron Jordan/Trey Hendrickson edge rushing experience has already combined for five sacks and four tackles for loss. That group kept the Rams out of the end zone well into the third quarter of their Week 2 loss in LA before that dam burst and ended in three second half scores for the home team.

Why they can’t: Brees was the gravity that held this solar system together. Bridgewater, in two meaningful games with the Saints, has averaged just 5.3 yards per pass and found the end zone once in 52 attempts. Hill, who would be the next man up if Bridgewater continues to struggle, completed only 58 percent of his passes at BYU and has only taken meaningful NFL snaps in gadget plays.

Brees’ flexibility and ability to thread throws into ever-tightening windows is irreplaceable, even with All-Pro caliber talent at wideout and tailback. That resulted in a litany of check down passes from Bridgewater in Week 2. Games against the Seahawks, Cowboys, and Bears all loom before Halloween. If he can’t dial up some of the big plays that made his successor so great then New Orleans could sit at .500 or worse by the time Brees returns to the field.

The Saints’ defense is solid against the pass, but butt against the rush. Opponents have averaged 5.6 yards per carry so far in 2019. Rankins’ return will make that less egregiously bad, but limited returns from the linebacking corps could make this New Orleans’ fatal flaw even after Brees returns.

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