The Saints squeaked by the Buccaneers for the NFC South title in 2020, but it’s arguable Bruce Arians’ club may have overtaken them had there been a normal offseason and training camp for Tom Brady to speed up his acclimation curve. 2021 NFC South odds reflect just that line of thinking.
Meanwhile, the Falcons were one of the biggest disappointments in either conference, and the Panthers unsurprisingly had plenty of struggles during a season in which running back Christian McCaffrey missed 13 games with first-time NFL head coach Matt Rhule in charge.
In terms of the offseason NFC South landscape, there’s an unmistakable “the more things change, the more they stay the same” quality. The one key difference compared to 2020 is there’s no ambiguity about the Buccaneers as the top team in the division, as they’ve followed up their Super Bowl victory with a winning offseason during which they kept their Super Bowl squad together.
That leaves the remaining three teams playing catch-up, although there’s certainly an argument to be made there will be fairly large gulf between the Saints and the Falcons and Panthers.
2021 NFC South Odds
The fact the defending champs are in the division and retained every single key component of their title run – the first team to return all 22 starters from their Super Bowl lineup – and that another team lost a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback to retirement makes the NFC South futures landscape particularly unique.
Oddsmakers have unsurprisingly made the Bucs a favorite to dethrone the Saints as division champions due to the two factors just cited, but they’re still showing plenty of faith in the Saints with the second-shortest odds. Quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill having NFL skins on the wall certainly helps in this regard.
Meanwhile, the Falcons have hope that their franchise quarterback can thrive under new, offensive-minded head coach Arthur Smith, while the Panthers are banking on their new signal-caller Sam Darnold finally living up to his pedigree as a one-time No. 3 overall pick.
So what does each team’s schedule say about it all?
17-GAME SEASON: NFC SOUTH SCHEDULING NOTES
As is customary, the final week of the regular season will see the NFC South’s four teams face off, with the Panthers drawing the proverbial short straw in the finale against the Buccaneers. Each team will face the NFC East and AFC East in terms of opponents outside the division. The NFC East’s collectively putrid 2020 coupled with the Jets’ 2-14 mark in the AFC East lead to each NFC South’s club’s strength of schedule ranking among the top-10 easiest.
With the addition of a 17th game for each team this season, NFC South teams will each play a different team from the AFC South in 2021. As the last-place team in the NFC South last season, the Falcons will play the corresponding cellar dweller in that division.
- Buccaneers @ Colts
- Saints @ Titans
- Falcons @ Jaguars
- Panthers @ Texans
Overall Strength of Schedule:
- Saints: 22nd (.483)
- Panthers: 26th (.472)
- Buccaneers: 29th (.465)
- Falcons: 30th (.454)
NFC South Team Breakdowns
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ front office clearly had one overriding goal in mind this offseason following the franchise’s second Super Bowl title – keep as many of the key pieces in-house for the defense of the crown. General manager Jason Licht and staff did a masterful job accomplishing that goal, with Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh all returning.
That type of continuity meant the Bucs would be doing some very selective shopping in the free-agent market, and as such, it isn’t surprising to see only Giovani Bernard and Raven Greene as notable veteran additions to date. Licht and Arians clearly have no shortage of faith that the potent combination of continuity, the ageless Brady surrounded by a stellar cast of pass catchers with a defense that could well be even more dominant than a year ago will be enough to get to the top of a mountain for a second straight season.
Oddsmakers clearly concur the roster as presently constituted is at least good enough to give Tampa Bay a chance to run away with the division.
New Orleans Saints
Even though the defending champions are in the division, the Saints arguably have approximately as bright a spotlight shining on them going into the new season. The reason ironically boils down to a player no longer on the roster – future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. The battle between Winston and Hill to replace the franchise legend will be an intriguing one to monitor this summer. Each quarterback has proven they can succeed at the NFL level, and oddsmakers seem to believe either will be set up for success with running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas as part of the supporting cast.
There are no real certainties beyond Thomas on the receiver depth chart, however, as even Tre’Quan Smith must prove his ability to serve as a consistent No. 2 receiver. Meanwhile, the tight end room also lost valued veteran Jared Cook – who recorded 16 touchdowns in his two Saints seasons – this offseason.
Luckily, New Orleans should also once again wield one of the NFL’s most fearsome defenses after allowing the fourth-fewest total yards (310.9) while also recording 45 sacks and 18 interceptions in 2020. The organization also focused on fortifying that side of the ball in the draft, going defense with each of their first three selections.
Given it’s still Payton at the helm, the offense boasts a top-5 player at both running back and receiver and the defense has a chance to remain dominant, a flyer on New Orleans at current prices is certainly worth considering.
The Falcons are hoping the flipping of the calendar to 2021 and subsequent hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach definitively closed an ugly one-season chapter in the franchise’s history. Atlanta limped to a 4-12 mark last season, sinking to the bottom of the division and posting the NFC’s worst record.
Matt Ryan, as has usually been the case throughout his successful career, is still the key cog in the wheel. If Smith can replicate the success he enjoyed while mentoring Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, Atlanta would have the foundation for a notable improvement over last season.
The health of Julio Jones is essentially 1-A in terms of importance. The perennial Pro Bowl receiver missed six games last season and was limited to 22 snaps in another, and a full season out of the 32-year-old would be essential to Atlanta’s chances of keeping up with the likes of the Bucs and Saints. Be advised though of a potential Julio Jones trade, as speculation is growing he could be dealt to alleviate Atlanta’s salary cap issues.
The hope is also that offseason signings Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson can revive a running game that didn’t do much to help out Ryan last season, and that the pass rush and pass coverage can both be markedly better than a year ago despite only a modest amount of personnel turnover.
With appreciably more question marks than either Tampa Bay or New Orleans, it’s little wonder oddsmakers have given the Falcons the second-longest odds in the NFC South.
The degree of success, or lack thereof, in the second year of Rhule’s tenure in Carolina will likely come down to how much a change of scenery will positively impact Sam Darnold. The health of McCaffrey after shoulder and thigh injuries will also be crucial after being limited to three games last season.
Additionally, whether Darnold and Robby Anderson can successfully renew their connection from their days with Gang Green will be a key factor, especially after Anderson displayed excellent rapport with the departed Teddy Bridgewater.
The Panthers defense wasn’t necessarily a liability last season and ranked about middle of the pack in a number of categories. However, it’s naturally prudent to stock up on defensive backs playing in a division that houses the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Carolina snagged one of the very best in this year’s draft class in Jaycee Horn, the first cornerback taken.
Nevertheless, the pass rush, which netted just 29 sacks last season, could continue to be an issue; although, the free-agent addition of Haason Reddick could help in that regard.
The price on a Panthers division win in 2021 NFC South odds is undeniably enticing, but depth questions at receiver and tight end seem likely to make it difficult for Carolina to keep up with the NFC South’s top-two powerhouses.