With big moves made in free agency by the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is the NFC South suddenly the best division in football?
The NFC South just got a whole lot more interesting.
For those who have rooting interests in the division, it always has been. While the division has mostly been competitive since 2002’s realignment, it has been the New Orleans Saints’ division the last three years. Despite having divisional bragging rights the last three years, New Orleans was unable to take their three most recent division crowns and turn them into a Super Bowl berth.
Though one could argue New Orleans is the favorite to win it again next year, the Saints will be pushed by the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both rival teams made huge splashes in free agency this spring and have positioned themselves to make serious runs at the postseason in 2020.
Atlanta may have seen former Pro Bowlers like Vic Beasley, Devonta Freeman, Austin Hooper and Desmond Trufant walk away for nothing. However, the Falcons were able to sign players like Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler and Laquon Treadwell in free agency, as well as orchestrating a trade for Hayden Hurst with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Falcons should have one of the most explosive offenses in football with 11 former first-round picks on that side of the ball. If the defense plays up to its capabilities demonstrated in the second half of 2019, Atlanta can win double-digit games and contend for a playoff berth in 2020.
Like Atlanta, Tampa Bay finished 7-9 last year. The defense looked markedly improved under the new coaching regime. As far as offseason moves, the Buccaneers were able to slap the franchise tag on Pro Bowl defensive end Shaquil Barrett. Oh yeah, the Buccaneers just signed the greatest quarterback of all time Tom Brady away from the New England Patriots on a two-year deal.
By adding Brady, the Buccaneers are now probably the most worthy adversary to New Orleans in the division. They can challenge for its first division title since 2007. Even if they come up a few games short to either New Orleans or Atlanta in the divisional race, it would be shocking at this point if the Buccaneers don’t end their NFC-worst 12-year postseason absence this fall.
Though Atlanta and Tampa Bay did their part to close the gap on the Saints, it’s not like New Orleans didn’t make a few smart moves in free agency. Drew Brees will be back under center. The Saints signed Emmanuel Sanders as a high-end No. 2 wide receiver opposite Michael Thomas. They also brought back former first-round pick in safety Malcolm Jenkins to help in the secondary.
Even if the Carolina Panthers are rebuilding, the NFC South has three teams certainly capable of making the expanded NFC playoff field. If Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay all get in next year, that would be terrific. Should only one of the three rivals punch their ticket into the postseason, that would be a massive disappointment. Is this now suddenly the best division in football?
Of the seven other divisions in the NFL, there are four we can cross off: the AFC North, the AFC South, the AFC East and the NFC East. The AFC North has one elite team in the Baltimore Ravens and two perennially underperforming teams in the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. If the Pittsburgh Steelers are better, maybe this division will be better than we think?
The AFC South doesn’t have an elite team we trust. Even if the Tennessee Titans are the best team in the division, they haven’t won it since 2008. The Indianapolis Colts should be better, while the Houston Texans are poised to be worse. The Jacksonville Jaguars have a real possibility of being the worst team in football because of the mass exodus of their top players this offseason.
The AFC East has a new frontrunner now that Brady left the Patriots. Even if they lost their starting quarterback, the Patriots will still be well-coached. This looks to be the Buffalo Bills’ year, but how much faith do you have in Josh Allen taking the next step? As for the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, they’re too inherently dysfunctional to be trusted by anybody.
The NFC East has one team we think is pretty good in the Philadelphia Eagles and another team who thinks it’s really good but really isn’t in the Dallas Cowboys. Factor in the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins still in the early part of their rebuilds and the NFC East could contend for the worst division in football once again.
As for the other three divisions (the AFC West, the NFC North and the NFC West), all have their cases as the best in football. The AFC West have the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and no truly awful team. The issue in this division is if it has an excellent second-place finisher. Do we trust the Denver Broncos, the Las Vegas Raiders or the Los Angeles Chargers to become that?
The NFC North has three teams that could push for playoff spots in the Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings. While we are sure the Detroit Lions will be bad again, we can’t trust all three of their rivals to be good at the same time either. Chicago is the most likely to disappoint due to quarterback issues. Green Bay was also the softest 13-3 team there ever was.
But if any division can challenge the NFC South as the best in football, it would have to be the NFC West. It’s the only division in the NFL where all four teams have a realistic shot at the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers won the NFC last year, the Seattle Seahawks are never bad under Pete Carroll and the Arizona Cardinals are much improved. The Los Angeles Rams will be worse, but are solid.
Ultimately, the NFC West is better top to bottom, as the Panthers drag the NFC South down a bit. However, Atlanta projects as a better hypothetical third-place team than either Arizona or Los Angeles. Adding DeAndre Hopkins makes the Cardinals better, but it isn’t a panacea for all their problems. The Falcons added two former Rams stars so they must be better than them, right?