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NFC South: 2015 NFL Divisional Preview

After a six-year stretch in which its division winner averaged at least 12.5 wins, the South became a league-wide laughingstock in 2014, with the race to the top giving us a “champion” with a losing record, and also the team that landed the #1 pick in the Draft. Tough out-of-division games and a string of bad luck led the South to 2014’s disaster, but things promise to turn around in 2015.

For starters, the division gets its slate against the AFC South and NFC East, which don’t feature a lot of world-beaters, while 2014’s poor results are also giving South teams a boost in what other rivals they will be getting. In terms of strength of schedule, the South has four of the top six easiest calendars in the NFL, so who will make the most of this quirk and come out on top?

Standings predictions are carried from worst to best, and include over/under picks using the latest odds posted by Bovada Online.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Odds to Win Division: +600
Over/Under Wins: 6

With a pitiful 2-14 campaign, the Buccaneers had their worst season since 1986, a time mostly remembered by creamsicle uniforms and bad football in Tampa Bay. The 2-win season was a good reflection of the downward trajectory followed by the franchise since their last playoff appearance, way back in 2007. And yet, something good came out of all the fiasco, as the Buccaneers netted the #1 pick in the draft by virtue of a tie-breaker, and were smart enough to land Jameis Winston despite all of his character concerns.

Winston’s last college image is of him being pounded by the Oregon Ducks on New Year’s Day, but that has a solid chance of being reversed now that he plays on Sundays. In limited preseason action, Winston has looked polished and ready to progress steadily, especially having targets such as Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, who are bound to give the rookie a lot of easy reads and big gains in the air. The Bucs are still a bit thin over at the secondary, and that is bound to keep them away from any real chance at contention, but just seeing Winston in year 1 of his tenure should be enough to consider 2015 a success in Tampa.

By going 2-14, the Buccaneers played 2.5 wins below their expected total (the biggest gap in the NFL). Going 1-8 in games decided by 7 points or fewer will do that to a team, but it also holds the promise of better times ahead. With a much-improved offensive unit, a soft schedule, and the sheer power of regression, the Bucs are looking like the best bet in the South. Play the Over confidently.

Carolina Panthers
Odds to Win Division: +275
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

Not often can you say that a division champion regresses by 5 wins and still maintains its title, but that is just what the Panthers did in 2013-14. The 7-8-1 Panthers needed a 3-game winning streak to close out the season and make the playoffs, where they even won a game against a depleted Arizona team only to then be steamrolled by the Seahawks. In many cases, such a season would be celebrated, but not so for Carolina, who entered 2014 with lofty expectations.

2015 comes with more tempered hopes, even as Cam Newton continues to be considered one of the best all-around quarterbacks in the NFL. The franchise has finally moved on from DeAngelo Williams and his contract, and has given Jonathan Stewart the full-time job as the team’s primary running back, but that comes with a lot of concerns regarding the offensive line and how it can protect Newton while also opening running lanes for Stewart. Lasts season, this was a major concern for the Panthers, who have done little to correct this problem. Michael Oher had that cute movie about his life, but he is probably not the answer. Elsewhere, the Panthers have mostly solid yet uninspiring roster selections, which promise to be quite similar to the erratic team that won the division a season ago.

In this weak NFC South, every team has a realistic shot of coming out on top (even Tampa Bay), so it’s almost impossible to count out Carolina. And yet, there is nothing to suggest that they will be better this time around. Newton hasn’t taken the leap and may never do so, while he remains a perennial injury risk, and even more so behind a porous offensive line. An 8-8 season seems well in line, but don’t be surprised if they implode completely or win the division by a mile. The Under is the play.

New Orleans Saints
Odds to Win Division: +175
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

After the most successful stretch in franchise history, which included a Super Bowl title and three other playoff appearances, the Saints had a pretty miserable season in 2014, losing a very winnable division amid what is becoming a time of turmoil for the franchise. With owner Tom Benson’s legal problems regarding the team, and Drew Brees starting to slip after years of excellence, we could be seeing the end of New Orleans’ last era. Even still, the weak state of the South allows them to believe that 2015 could be a good chance for a last hurrah.

In terms of yardage, the Saints finished first on offense but 31st on defense last season, allowing at least 25 points in 10 of their 16 games. Brees still posted great numbers, but he failed to deliver in crunch time, with the Superdome no longer being the fortress it was on years past. The franchise’s dire salary cap situation forced the Saints to let go of big players like Jimmy Graham, Junior Galette, and Kenny Stills, but they still managed to add some important pieces such as Brandon Browner and CJ Spiller. Overall, the roster has talent but also many holes, especially on the defensive line. It will take Sean Payton’s best coaching effort yet to see the Saints reclaiming some of their past glory.

On paper, New Orleans’ schedule is middling, but it includes a brutal 8-game stretch to start the year, with tough games in Arizona, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, while also hosting the Cowboys and Giants. This opening slate can make or break the season for the Saints, who will give Rob Ryan a final chance to fix the defense for good. I don’t like the chances of that happening, and even as the Saints remain an offensive force and one of the league’s most entertaining teams, that just won’t be enough. Much like the Panthers, an 8-8 finish looks about right. Also take the Under.

Atlanta Falcons
Odds to Win Division: +200
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

In seven years as Head Coach, Mike Smith led the Falcons to 4 playoff berths and a ton of consistency, but he could never guide Atlanta to the NFC’s top tier. After consecutive losing seasons, he was finally canned by the franchise, who now turns to Dan Quinn to right the ship. Of course, Quinn is famous for his work with Seattle’s defensive unit, and that is precisely what the Falcons seem to need. While Atlanta’s offense finished 8th in 2014, its defense finished dead last.

Atlanta’s priority for the offseason has been to upgrade on defense, with the likes of Justin Durant and Vic Beasley joining the hobbled defensive unit. That should bode well for a team that promises to keep a steady offense with the immutable Matt Ryan. The offense includes premium wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and has also added a quality tight end in Jacob Tamme, which should be more than enough to produce tons of yards and create a vertical attack for Atlanta. If the defense can bounced back and produce numbers at even a league-average level, the Falcons could become a dangerous team again.

Somebody has to win this division, and the Falcons look like the best option almost by default. While 2014’s division title with a losing record may have been a fluke, the South will probably require nothing more than a 9 or 10-win team to win the division. In that case, I like the Falcons to exploit their easy schedule and finish a comfortable 10-6 while returning to the playoffs. Play the Over here, with Quinn becoming a good candidate for coach of the year.

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