NFL 2018 Predictions: Who will win the NFC South?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints and Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers greet after the NFC Wild Card playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 7, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints and Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers greet after the NFC Wild Card playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 7, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

Three teams from the NFC South made the playoffs last year, so who will win the best division in football during the 2018 NFL season? Someone has to fall for a winner to emerge.

The 2018 NFL season is around the corner. With it come predictions for where teams will finish. Super Bowl odds are obviously the biggest ticket item, but finishes within divisions are worthy of monitoring as well. Let’s continue our divisional exploration with the NFC South.

Last year’s NFC South was the deepest division in football. It had three teams with positive point differentials, and those three teams all won at least 10 games. In fact, it was the only division with three teams finishing with winning records. Can they all maintain their success? Who wins the NFC South during the NFL 2018 season?

Two brothers from New York, Dan Salem and Todd Salem, debate the NFL 2018 in today’s NFL Sports Debate.

Todd Salem:

Tampa Bay was the outlier from this quartet, and it enters 2018 as the expected underdog in the division. This is the year where we officially ask, “is Jameis Winston good?” I think the answer is no, but he’s adequate. Without parsing too far down into the language, I would not take Winston among the top dozen passers in the sport. He seems like a league-average player at his position.

That will not be good enough to win the South, and it should relegate the Buccaneers to another last-place finish. It may surprise you to discover that the Tampa Bay defense actually finished as the worst unit in the league by year’s end, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. It was the only NFC squad in the bottom six. Other than pass-catcher, where is the strength on this club?

The other three teams in this division are similarly weighted, with Carolina trailing New Orleans and Atlanta in the minds of the sports books. I see the Saints as the clear third-place team here, though. I don’t like the looks of the Saints’ depth; nor do I believe their defense can hold up with its heights from a year ago.

Thanks to the suspension of Mark Ingram, the offense should be carried by three men: Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Drew Brees. I don’t like that rigidity, and I don’t like Kamara being forced into every-down duties. On defense, Cam Jordan and Marshon Lattimore seem like the stars carrying an underwhelming group. New Orleans made a big splash to draft Marcus Davenport because the front seven on defense is going to be an issue.

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When you compare New Orleans to Carolina, the differences are stark. The Panthers don’t have a receiver on the level of Thomas, but between Greg Olsen, Christian McCaffrey, and Curtis Samuel, Cam Newton certainly has play-makers at his disposal. Rookie D.J. Moore and newcomer C.J. Anderson will be counted on to make an impact as well.

Then there’s the stark differences on defense. You have been honing in on defenses to win divisions this year. Well, Carolina sure looks like the best defense in the South. It was an under-the-radar top-10 unit a year ago, and should hold that form.

It seems stupid to tab Carolina as a surprise pick after it just won 11 games last season. But with the second-best odds, I do like the Panthers to be winners of the NFC South. Atlanta falls just short of them for the second straight season. The Falcons defense sure has a lot of former first-round picks, but they haven’t gelled into a top-flight unit. There is clearly a lot to like on the offensive side, including rookie Calvin Ridley, but a similar group couldn’t score as much as Carolina a year ago. That has to worry Atlanta. And whatever is going on with Julio Jones certainly worries everyone within the organization.

Jones is holding out for a new contract and missing mandatory minicamp. That always bugs the bosses. He is training with Terrell Owens, which reportedly upsets management. He deleted all his Falcons photos from Instagram, which…means something. This could all be summer doldrums, or it could be a legitimate sign of a disconnect between Atlanta and its best player.

It won’t be enough to completely submarine a talented Falcons team, but I have them second: Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and only two of them make the postseason this time.

Dan Salem:

Considering how talented this division was last year, it comes as no surprise that its the only division thus far where we truly disagree. The NFC South will be solid during the NFL 2018 season, but nowhere near as dominant as a season ago. Furthermore, our confidence levels regarding each team’s offense and defense appear leagues apart. We do agree on one thing, however. Tampa Bay is going to finish in last place once again barring a lone exception we cannot ignore.

With the pending suspension of Winston for nearly the first month of the season, one has to wonder if Ryan Fitzpatrick will once again capitalize on his opportunity to be the starting quarterback of an unheralded team with low expectations. Media and fans thought that perhaps the Buccaneers would make a leap in 2017 and contend for the playoffs. That did not happen by a long shot.

Yet, I’m not as down on Tampa Bay in 2018, especially now that they enter the year with a “Nobody Believes In Us” attitude. This is Fitzpatrick’s gold! He seems to thrive when no one expects him to and the Buccaneers have the offensive weapons for him to succeed. If Tampa Bay is undefeated under Fitzpatrick, do they actually switch back to Winston after his suspension is over? This scenario is unlikely, but possible. My money is on a last place finish for the Buccaneers with Winston proving he is as average as you think.

Atlanta also stumbles this season. They reached amazing heights in 2016, only to will their way into the playoffs last year. The team took a step back across the board and I’m not convinced they have done enough to stop the bleeding. This is especially true on defense. Ridley may provide the offensive spark that felt lacking last year, but if Jones isn’t on board then I’m not sure what to make of the Falcons. Ultimately, I’m not a believer in Atlanta’s defense. They are good, but not good enough to win ten games and make the playoffs in the NFC.

This leaves New Orleans and Carolina as the top two teams in the NFC South, and my money is with the Saints this season. They impressed me last year with a strong defensive effort from a young unit. It lacked consistency at times, but showed resiliency in the end. I believe New Orleans grows on defense and uses the spark of Drew Brees’ final few seasons to carry them higher than expectations dictate. Depth is an issue, but I place bets on healthy teams. I’m also continuously impressed with Brees and his ability to do more with less. That has become the mantra of the Saints as they keep on winning.

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This leaves the Panthers in second place and on the playoff bubble. The NFC is very deep in the middle this year and the Panthers have shown a propensity to waffle between very good and average on a season by season basis. This year would be an average year, if history holds true.

Since Cam Newton took over in 2011 here are Carolina’s win totals: 6, 7, 12, 7, 15, 6, 11. If we remove his rookie year, then it’s a complete seesaw between dominance and mediocrity. He played in nearly every game throughout that span as well. I believe the Panthers can avoid a losing record during the NFL 2018 season, but I’m dubious of their abilities to win the division. My NFC South final standings are as follows: New Orleans, Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.