NFC South: Ranking top 2019 storylines by team

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 20: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts against the Los Angeles Rams during the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 20, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 20: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts against the Los Angeles Rams during the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 20, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

The curse of the Saints looms large, but is that the best NFC South storyline of 2019? We rank them all in what is shaping up to be the best division in football.

The most important storylines for the 2019 season for each team was defined in an article from ESPN last month. In the exercise, the beat writers they employ for each team delivered what they believe is the biggest narrative for the group they cover. We read them all and now we’re ranking them. As the offseason goes on and close in on the 2019 NFL regular season, let’s tackle these stories division by division — today concerning the NFC South — and answer two questions.

1. Which team has the best story? (“Best” means whatever you want it to mean.)
2. Which story is least likely to become a dominant tale of the season?

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

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons – Can the Falcons remain healthy and become contenders again?
Carolina Panthers – Is Cam Newton ready to go?
New Orleans Saints – Can the Saints finally avoid a miracle?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Can Bruce Arians work his magic with Jameis Winston?

Best Storyline

Todd Salem: To me, the best storyline in the NFC South is a runaway, and it’s in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers went a bit against the grain this offseason when they decided to sign a veteran head coach in Bruce Arians. When the rest of the league zigged to younger and younger coaches, Tampa zagged to a familiar face. That alone wasn’t a big deal since Arians is still respected around the league, but his relationship with Winston will be a story all year.

Winston is in a make-or-break season. This is his fifth-year option year when his contract ballooned from under $8 million to over $20 million. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and it doesn’t take a Buccaneers expert to know that anything but a superb season will see the team move in a different direction at quarterback. So not only is Arians trying to work Tampa back into the playoff picture for the first time in quite a while, but he’s trying to salvage and reboot the career of Winston in the process.

Dan Salem: You make a valid case for Tampa Bay, but the best story belongs to Atlanta. Is it wrong that I’ve already written of Winston? He throws too many interceptions, makes too few plays, and has been injured off and on. It would be a miracle if he played well enough to convince the Buccaneers to re-sign him. I’m not buying this story. The Falcons, on the other hand, are super interesting.

Atlanta gave away the Super Bowl to New England not that long ago and has fought uphill ever since. I could care less about the injury piece because injuries are unpredictable and balance out over time. This means the Falcons should be healthier this year, but the real juicy story is whether they can return to their dominant heights in the face of New Orleans and Carolina.

Matt Ryan needs to get it done. Can he best Drew Brees and Cam Newton? If the Falcons are really good, then the NFC South may win every extra playoff spot.

Least Likely Storyline

Todd Salem: I’m leaning toward picking the other three teams in a tie for last place in terms of worst story or one least likely to become a thing. Atlanta trying to avoid injuries is not a story. Injuries are, as you noted, unpredictable and random. Waiting for someone to drop and be placed on IR is not a season-sustaining story.

Similarly, Cam Newton’s health is not interesting. I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t ready to go for the season. However, that doesn’t mean he will be at 100 percent. So is Newton playing at less than full strength a compelling story? Not in the least.

Even still, neither of those are as bad as New Orleans. This was a project to determine the most important storyline for a franchise and the Saints writer thought that the team avoiding a wild play in the playoffs would be the thing to talk about for five months? If so, that renders the entire regular season meaningless. We are just waiting for a third curse after the Hail Mary from Minnesota in 2017 and the non-pass interference call against the Rams in 2018.

Dan Salem: Don’t discount curses and the rule of three, because if you believe in something, it makes it true. Because New Orleans is poised to be excellent once again, this is the only story worth following. It’s kind of silly and something the Saints themselves won’t acknowledge, but it’s not as dead as the story in Carolina. Newton’s health has always plagued the Panthers. How is this any different this season?

Next. Ranking top NFC North 2019 Storylines by Team. dark

While it’s true that an injured Newton likely derails any success in Carolina, it’s also true that Newton has routinely played hurt. He has over two months to finish healing before regular season games, but let’s be realistic. Newton actually has all of September as well, because that month of football is now the pre-season. If he misses some September football only to return at full strength in October, the Panthers will be just fine. He is going to be their starter and there is no story here.