To make it to the playoffs, the first order of business for any NFL team is winning their division. That path makes getting to the playoffs more difficult for the Carolina Panthers, as by some measures their division – the NFC South – is one of the most competitive divisions in the league.

Atlanta Falcons

2018 Overview

Record: 7-9-0 (2nd in NFC South, missed playoffs)

Division record: 4-2-0

Offense rank by yards: 6th (389.1 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 10th (25.9 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 28th (384.5 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 25th (26.4 ppg)

The Atlanta Falcons continued a downward trend in 2018, finishing with a record of 7-9 and missing the playoffs after going 11-5 in 2016 and 10-6 in 2017 and making the postseason in both of those years. Part of their losing season was injuries, as the Falcons lost seven starters to injured reserve and dealt with limitations to other key players. Injuries, however, aren’t the whole story. Atlanta has been a chronically underachieving team for the last ten years. Despite having one of the most talented rosters in football, the Falcons always seem to hit a ceiling below what could be expected of that talent pool. Atlanta should be a perennial contender, yet they have only made the playoffs in half of the last ten seasons. When they have made the postseason, they have at times fallen flat against vastly inferior talent – such as losing 2-24 against the Giants in the 2011-2012 Wild Card round – or have built a seemingly insurmountable lead only to fade and fall to a record-setting comeback – as they did in Super Bowl LI to the Patriots.

In 2018, Atlanta only beat teams with losing records. Even so, they still were able to finish above the Panthers in division standings despite having the same record because they were able to beat Carolina twice. As such, the Falcons still figure to be a challenge for the Panthers this season. Atlanta will be adjusting to new leadership on both sides of the football, however, as there will be a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter – the recently departed head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – and a new system on the defensive side as head coach Dan Quinn takes over as defensive coordinator. The Atlanta defense has not consistently shown the performance that might have been expected given Quinn’s pedigree as one of the coaches in Seattle during the heyday of the Legion of Boom.

One concern for the Falcons going into 2019 is their running game. Devonta Freeman went on injured reserve in 2018 and has been injured at other times during his career. Quinn himself noted that Freeman “has a lot to prove”. Additionally, the other part of Atlanta’s dynamic running attack – Tevin Coleman – is a free agent in 2019, and the Falcons may not be able to keep him given the large contract extension they gave Freeman in 2017. Unfortunately for Atlanta, Coleman is arguably the more effective running back even though Freeman is the “lead” back, but Coleman isn’t as productive without Freeman. If Coleman leaves, Ito Smith will be his successor. Smith was a rookie in 2018 and was somewhat productive but it remains to be seen if he could fill a hole left by Coleman. A weaker running attack would make it easier for opponents to concentrate on stopping the Falcons’ potent passing offense.

New Orleans Saints

Record: 13-3-0 (1st in NFC South, lost in NFC Championship at home to Los Angeles Rams 23-26 in overtime)

Division record: 4-2-0

Offense rank by yards: 8th (379.2 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 3rd (31.5 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 14th (349.1 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 14th (22.1 ppg)

Since the division was formed in 2002, and especially since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees joined the team in 2006, the New Orleans Saints have been the leader of the NFC South. They have the most wins of the NFC South teams since 2002, they have been the division champions most often of the division teams since Payton and Brees joined, and they are the only NFC South team to win a Super Bowl in the last decade and a half. The Saints led the NFC South again in 2018 and arguably the conference and the league too. At 13-3, New Orleans tied with the Los Angeles Rams for the best record in the NFL last season.

After three mediocre seasons from 2014 to 2016 and a shocking disappointment to end their 2017 season, the Saints appeared primed for another strong shot at a Super Bowl title when they hosted the Rams in New Orleans for the NFC Championship Game. Then there was an egregious missed penalty late in the fourth quarter as the Saints were moving down the field. This resulted in the Saints settling for a field goal. The Rams were able to get into field goal range in less than 90 seconds and kicked a tying score with fifteen seconds to go in the game. In overtime, the Saints won the toss but Brees was picked off. The Rams kicked a 57-yard field goal and went to Super Bowl LIII instead of the Saints. Other errors by the Saints contributed to their missed opportunity to contend for a second Lombardi Trophy and the loss wasn’t entirely due to the very bad missed call, but the officiating mistake was still execrable.

How they handle that controversial call will be the big question for the Saints going into 2019. Some teams get galvanized by an incident like that and are fired up to perform even better, others get dispirited and will mope rather than taking control of what they can control. The Saints’ reaction remains the biggest question, as they will be much the same heading into 2019 as they ended 2018. Apart from special teams coaches, the staff returns unchanged from 2018. There have been no significant rumblings of personnel changes, nor are there any devastating potential departures. Key running back Mark Ingram is a free agent this year but there doesn’t seem to be a big push or pull for him to leave. The Saints were able to go 3-1 without Ingram during his suspension last season, although those three wins were against the Browns pre-Baker Mayfield, Falcons, and Giants, but Payton has also mentioned that the team would like to have Ingram back. Given their strong recovery from the wrenching end of 2017, the Saints should rebound ably from the controversy at the end of the 2018 season. They will likely be the Panthers’ biggest challenge in the division in 2019.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Record: 5-11-0 (4th in NFC South, missed playoffs)

Division record: 2-4-0

Offense rank by yards: 3rd (415.5 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 12th (24.8 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 27th (383.4 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 31st (29.0 ppg)

The Buccaneers have been the NFC South’s equivalent of the Browns for the last 10 years. Not only have the Buccaneers posted losing records in eight of the last 10 seasons, they have been a model of dysfunction, with uneven coaching, questionable behavior by their quarterback and other players, and a general inability to execute effectively either on the field or off it.

That dysfunction now sees yet another head coach, Bruce Arians, starting in Tampa Bay in 2019. Arians has assembled a staff that includes Byron Leftwich as offensive coordinator and a number of Leftwich’s fellow Steelers alumni from Arians’ time in Pittsburgh, and Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator. It’s a reunion with Bowles, who served in the same position for Arians when he was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Bowles impressed enough in that position to be selected as the successor to Rex Ryan as head coach of the New York Jets, but he was substantially less successful in the top spot. Arians quickly improved the Cardinals team that he and Bowles led. Arizona had been at or below .500 for three years straight, but Arians led them to double-digit wins in his first three years as head coach. The Cardinals, however, declined quickly after going 13-3 and making it to the NFC Championship Game after the 2015 season before losing to the Panthers. In the two years following that highpoint, Arizona went 7-8-1 and 8-8, and after the 2017 season, both Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer announced their retirements from football. Arians’s, apparently, was not permanent.

So the Buccaneers’ performance in 2019 will depend on how quickly Arians can turn around Tampa Bay. In terms of talent, he has a lot to work with on the Buccaneers’ roster, including at quarterback. Jameis Winston entered the league with potential on the field and concerns off it. Some of those concerns have begun to surface again in the last couple of years, not only off the field but on it as Winston provoked opposing players and argued with his own teammates. On top of that, the former number one overall pick struggled to hold onto his starting job and was benched at one point for three weeks. Arians has declared that a lot of Winston’s problems on the field are due to his mechanics, but it would seem Arians and Winston have some work to do off the field as well. Arians has identified the running game and defense as needing improvement as well. Despite their limitations in 2018, the Buccaneers still were able to split their games with the Panthers as neither team was able to win in the other’s house.

In scouting the NFC South, it is worth noting that the other offenses in the Panthers’ division were all top ten in 2018 in both yards and points, with the exception of the Buccaneers who ranked just outside at 12th on points scored. This places even more importance on the Panthers strengthening their pass rush in the offseason.

Coming up next – Scouting the Panthers’ non-division opponents in 2019.

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