NFL division preview: NFC South
There has not been a back-to-back Super Bowl champion in 16 years. Can you guess the starting quarterback of that team? Hint: He's now in the NFC South.
USA TODAY Sports+ examines each division prior to kickoff of the 2021 NFL season. And there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this unique year, which features 17 games after the NFL expanded its regular season for the first time since 1978.
The playoffs will begin the weekend of Jan. 15 and Los Angeles will host Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13, 2022.
Now, let's get into it.
Team to beat? Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All roads lead through Tampa Bay again this season as Tom Brady and the Buccaneers hope to repeat in 2021.
Brady showed no clear signs of slowing down at this stage of his career: He was one of three quarterbacks to throw 40 touchdowns and more than 4,600 yards passing last year, defying Father Time once again.
The Bucs return all 22 of their starters, including Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who may be the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. Tampa Bay’s standout defense, which sent Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes backpedaling during the Super Bowl, must play its part again to help Brady win his eighth championship.
Team on the rise? New Orleans Saints
We’re not sure how much of a rise the Drew Brees-less Saints will have, but the surrounding pieces are in place for New Orleans to make a run in the NFC South.
Jameis Winston was named starting quarterback, beating out Taysom Hill for the job. And Sean Payton’s coaching could benefit Winston, who led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019 only to also lead the league with 30 interceptions.
Winston’s progression as a passer will be critical for the Saints, who will also depend on star running back Alvin Kamara to carry much of the weight offensively since receiver Michael Thomas is out for the first half of the season following ankle surgery.
New Orleans also had a top-five defense last season, but lost cornerback Janoris Jenkins as well as defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown this offseason.
Undrafted second-year receiver Marquez Callaway might have been uncovered at the right time for the Saints.
Team with some intrigue? Carolina Panthers
Maybe, Carolina pulled the trigger too early.
About three weeks before the 2021 NFL draft, the Panthers sent three draft picks to the Jets for Sam Darnold, squaring away their starting quarterback position for coach Matt Rhule’s second season.
The draft chatter at the time put Carolina, which had the No. 8 pick, out of the mix for quarterbacks like Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance or Justin Fields.
But when it came time to draft, Fields was still on the board. And Carolina drafted cornerback Jaycee Horn – opting to stick it out with Darnold, who is looking to revive his career after three disappointing seasons in New York.
Darnold will have star running back Christian McCaffery returning from injury this season and receivers Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore as his top targets. If Darnold fits Rhule’s offense like a glove, the Panthers could make some noise.
Team with ground to make up? Atlanta Falcons
Starting quarterback Matt Ryan returns for his 14th season and there are some new faces he needs to get to know.
New coach Arthur Smith joins Atlanta after spending the last two seasons as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, leading star running back Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill to consecutive trips to the playoffs.
Tight end Kyle Pitts was Atlanta’s top pick in the 2021 NFL draft with the fourth overall selection, giving Ryan a new weapon to use on offense.
One familiar face for Ryan is Calvin Ridley, who returns for his fourth season, ready to take the reins as Atlanta’s top receiver after Julio Jones was traded away.
The Falcons are a long way from the NFC championship team they were five years ago when Ryan won 2016 MVP. But Atlanta is poised to accelerate its rebuilding process at this stage of Ryan’s career.