Now that we’re past the midway point of the season, each week we’ll take a look at one division and examine the situation, any surprises and look forward to the playoffs.
Pre-Season Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mid-Season Prediction: New Orleans Saints
So. Yeah. Uhm…Predictions are hard. Let’s first do the laundry list of things that I was wrong about when I previewed this division. Tampa Bay, not really crushing it on either side of the ball. New Orleans, inexplicably better than advertised, doubly so since shedding Adrian Peterson. Here’s one thing that I was right about, though. This division is among the best in football. If the playoffs started today, the Saints, Panthers and Falcons would all be in.
I won’t lie, Tampa Bay puzzles me. Jameis Winston missing the last three games hasn’t helped, but they’ve actually won two of those three despite his absence. The real story in Tampa Bay is that the defense has regressed since last year. While not flashy, last year’s Buccaneer defense was a solid, middle of the road unit that could make some stops. This year, they rank dead last in yards allowed. If they can’t get off the field, there’s not a lot Winston can do, even with the upgraded passing attack. Winston has been marginally better than last year, but not enough to make up for the Buccaneers’ backsliding defense. They could be above .500 if not for two close losses to beatable teams (Arizona and Buffalo).
The Falcons have looked more or less how we expected them to following their Super Bowl appearance last year. The offense has slipped some without Kyle Shanahan calling the plays, and as a result, the Falcons are averaging nine fewer points per game this year. The Falcons are especially having trouble with the AFC East; they’re 1-3 in those contests, managing only to beat the Jets. Losing to New England make sense, but those bad losses to Buffalo and Miami could come back to haunt them come playoff seeding time.
New Orleans has a different look on offense this season, relying heavily on the tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara to lighten the load for Drew Brees. The results have been simply fantastic. The Saints average more yards per game than any team in the NFC, and score more points than anyone in the league except the Eagles, Patriots and Rams. The balanced attack has made defending play action a nightmare for defenses and given Drew Brees lots of room to work with. We might never see the gaudy stat lines for Brees again, and while fantasy players may not like it, that’s probably a good thing for these Saints. The Saints play four divisional games in their last five, plus what should be a softball against the Jets. I think they have the inside track to the division title, and this Sunday’s game against Carolina should provide some separation.
Carolina has been hard to read this year. Cam Newton has occasionally looked inaccurate and off-balance. The offense as a whole has flat out struggled to move the ball at times. We see flashes of M.V.P. Cam Newton, then watch horrified as the Panthers lose to Chicago by two touchdowns. I’d feel better about Carolina, even with their Jekyll and Hyde vibe, if they didn’t have such a brutal last few weeks of the season. They’ll face each team in their division, plus Minnesota and Green Bay. If they don’t have their A-game on, they could easily close the season by losing three of those games and slipping down to the six seed, or worse.
I mentioned before the season started that both NFC Wild Cards could come from the South. I don’t see any reason why that can’t still happen. The Seahawks are the only team that really stands a chance of dislodging the Falcons from that six-seed, though it’s easy to see how these three teams could swap positions before it’s all over. The schedule features a slew of late divisional games, so it should be fun to see these teams battle it out for the top spot, starting with New Orleans and Carolina this Sunday.
Image source: https://twitter.com/Saints
Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.