2017 NFL season preview: NFC South features four teams with playoff potential
The NFC South has long been one of the deepest, most unpredictable divisions in the NFL, and this season should be no different.
The Atlanta Falcons were heartbroken in the Super Bowl last season, suffering at the hands of Tom Brady's miraculous second-half comeback. Atlanta is again predicted to contend for a playoff spot, but history is against the Falcons in this division.
After a Super Bowl loss of their own the year before, the Carolina Panthers looked like a shadow of the 2015 team last term. However, quarterback Cam Newton has a new arsenal of offensive weapons surrounding him, and the defense is still solid. They are in a strong position to rebound.
While the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both made noticeable improvements in the offseason, they will head into the season as underdogs to make the playoffs. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is now 38 years old, and his Tampa Bay counterpart Jameis Winston still has his doubters. But it would not be all that surprising if these two teams ultimately top the division at the end of the season.
Player to watch: Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers -- All eyes will be on Winston this season after Tampa Bay - whose opener with the Miami Dolphins has been postponed due to Hurricane Irma - provided him with a couple more toys to play with. DeSean Jackson should help stretch the field, while first-round pick O.J. Howard gives Winston another huge red-zone target. Winston threw for 4,090 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, but he also tossed 18 interceptions. If Winston can sharpen his decision-making, thus eliminating turnovers, he could become one of the NFL's elite signal callers.
Impact rookie: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers -- McCaffrey has all the tools to be a difference-maker for the Panthers this season. Selected eighth in this year's draft, he will be asked to add an explosive element to the offense, which is something they lacked last year. While Howard and Saints running back Alvin Kamara will likely produce some eye-popping plays this season, McCaffrey has the potential to change the way opposing teams defend the Panthers.
Coach on the hot seat: Sean Payton, Saints -- With four 7-9 seasons in the last five years, Payton could feel some heat surrounding him if his team gets off to a poor start. Payton led the Saints to their first Super Bowl victory, so he has quite a bit of leeway in New Orleans. But Brees is not getting any younger, and the Saints' brass might opt for a change if things get rough.
Rising: Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons -- Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while also hauling in 54 receptions for 462 yards and two more touchdowns despite splitting carries with Tevin Coleman. After much drama, he was awarded a monster contract extension this offseason. Freeman is elusive in space, powerful up the middle and an able blocker in blitz pickup. He could have an even bigger season this year should he remain healthy.
Falling: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers -- Newton took the world by storm in 2015 while leading Carolina back to the Super Bowl. Last year was a struggle, however, as the Panthers missed the playoffs. While Newton's stock may currently be going in the wrong direction, he has the talent and supporting cast to bounce back and reverse course.
Circle this game on the schedule: Panthers at Falcons, Week 17, Dec. 31 -- All the games within this division should be worth watching, but the Week 17 tilt between the Panthers and Falcons could have major playoff implications. Arguably two of the most talented teams in the NFL, Carolina and Atlanta may provide some late-season drama on New Year's Eve as both teams try to lock up the division title.
Predicted order of finish:
Panthers: 12-4 (No. 2 seed, NFC Championship)
Falcons: 10-6 (No. 5 seed, NFC wild card)