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2015 Division Preview: NFC South

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The NFC South was the worst division in the NFL in 2014 and it won't be much better in 2015. However, someone has to win the division and make the playoffs. We tell you who and why.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC South was hands down the weakest division in the league in 2014 and one of the weakest divisions of all time. The 2014 division "champion" Carolina Panthers became just the second team in a non-strike season to win a division with a sub .500 record (7-8-1) and the NFC South featured the 31st and 32nd ranked defenses (New Orleans and Atlanta) and three of the four defenses were ranked 25th or lower.  In my opinion, the only team that got any better in the offseason - and only slightly - would be New Orleans, therefore I have a tough time seeing any team in this division getting more than eight or nine wins in 2015.

1) New Orleans Saints

2015 Prediction: 9-7

2014 Record: 7-9, 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 60%

Why the win the division:

Drew Brees - Brees has led the NFL in TDs four of the past seven years and led the league in yards in five of the past nine (including four 5,000+ yard seasons in the last seven years). And, for what it is worth, he is 2nd among active QBs (P. Manning) in both yards (56,033) and TDs (396). As long as Brees is behind center, the Saints have to be considered a division favorite and playoff contender.

Sean Payton - Regardless of what you think of him, he is an offensive genius and his presence (or lack thereof) was the main reason for the Saints drop in 2012. Payton and Brees have been together for eight seasons and in those eight seasons, they have five playoff appearances, one Super Bowl, three Division titles, two NFC Championship appearances and only two losing seasons (7-9 in 2007 and 2014).

The most balanced team with the least amount of holes - For a team that ranked 31st in total defense in 2014, this may sound odd, but I think they made some improvements on the defensive side in the offseason and the offense was ranked first overall in terms of yards per game - even without Jimmy Graham, the offense will still move the ball.

Reasons they may not win the division:

Loss of offensive weapons - I am concerned about the losses this offense has sustained over the past few years. Yes, the offensive line should be better in 2015, but in the last three years, the Saints have lost the best receiving running back in the game (Darren Sproles), the best tight end in the game (Graham), Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas. In fact, with the loss of Graham, Stills and Thomas, the Saints will be without three of their top five receivers from 2014 in terms of yards and receptions. Stills, Graham and Thomas accounted for 193 receptions, 2,198 yards and 16 touchdowns. That is a lot of productivity to make up for.

They aren't very good - This is true for any team in this division. There is not a team in this division that could compete for first (probably even second) in any other division in football. Stills, Graham and Thomas accounted for nearly one third of Brees's receptions and half of his yards and touchdowns. I think the run game will make up for some of the drop in the passing attack, but not enough. In any other division, this is probably a six or seven win team.

Overall:

As weak as the South is again, I could honestly see any of these teams winning this division and any of them finishing fourth. However, one team has a Super Bowl winning QB and coach, and when all else fails, I default to the team with either the best QB or the best coach and in this case, they happen to be the same team. I trust Brees and Payton more than any other QB or coach in this division and I think they bounce back a little in 2015.

2) Atlanta Falcons

2015 Prediction: 8-8

2014 Record: 6-10, 3rd Place

Confidence in Pick: 40%

How they win the division:

By scoring fast and often - The problem with the 2014 Falcons had nothing to do with the offense. The Falcons ranked 8th overall in terms of yards, 12th in points per game and 5th in passing yards per game. Matt Ryan had 28 touchdowns to 14 interceptions and Julio Jones hauled in 102 passes for 1,593 yards. In fact, Jones and Roddy White combined for 184 receptions, 2,514 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014. However, with this defense, the Falcons are going to need to outscore teams. While the defense should be better in 2015 - and how could it be worse - they are still going to surrender a lot of yards and a lot of points.

The emergence of a young back - The Falcons lost their leading rusher from 2014, but when the leading rusher is a 32 year old running back (Steven Jackson), three seasons removed from his last 1,000 yard season, that isn't exactly much of a loss. However, they will need one of their young backs, Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman to step up and give the Falcons a run game. Without a run game, teams can lock in on Ryan and the passing attack and keep the Falcons at bay.

A vast improvement of the defense - I don't see it happening, but if the Falcons could at least be an average defense, the offense is good enough to be a contender in the NFC. The problem is that the defense ranked last in total defense, last in passing defense and 27th in points per game in 2014. While I like the first and second round selections of Vic Beasley and Jalen Collins, those two rookies are not going to take this defense from last in the league to average.

Why they won't win the division:

Defense, defense, defense - If defense does indeed win championships, the Falcons don't have to worry about winning any championships in 2015. As I mentioned above, the selection of Beasley and Collins were good picks, but they aren't enough to elevate the defense where it needs to be in 2015.

Dan Quinn - Quinn is entering his first season as head coach of the Falcons after being the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks the past two seasons in which they went to the Super Bowl both years. In his first year as coordinator for the Seahawks, the team led the league in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed and turnovers with 231, 4,378 and 39 respectively.

Overall:

I love the Falcons' passing attack and believe it will be highly entertaining to watch again in 2015. However, much like 2014, I don't think the Falcons offense and coaching is enough to overcome one of the worst defenses in the league, even while playing in the worst division.

3) Carolina Panthers

2015 Prediction: 6-10

2014 Record: 7-8-1, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

How they win the division:

Cam Newton actually turns into Superman - Honestly, that is the only way I see this team three peating as division champs. In 2014, Newton completed just 58.5% of his passes for 3,127 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions (he also had 9 fumbles). That performance resulted in 7 wins, but amazingly enough, a division title. Those numbers will not result in seven wins in 2015 and they certainly won't result in a division title. If the Panthers want to win the division for the third time in three years, Newton is going to have to take a huge step forward, limit the turnovers and have somewhere in the range of 25-30 touchdowns passes - a very tough feat with zero proven receivers, but if accomplished, the Panthers will again be in the running for the NFC South crown.

The defense holds opponents to less than 17 points per game - As bad as the Panthers' offense is likely to be in 2015, the only way they are going to win is with Cam Newton and defense. I think Newton has the ability to will the offense to 17-20 points a game, and if the defense can hold opponents to 17 points or less, the Panthers may win more than they lose.

Why they won't win the division:

Cam Newton - Take a look at the two quarterbacks below.

GS

Record

Att

Cmp%

Yds

TD

Int

Rush TD

Fum

Rating

Game Winning Drives

Player A

62

30-31-1

1,923

59.5%

14,426

82

54

33

30

85.4

8

Player B

64

40-23-1

2,111

61.6%

14,758

99

66

11

19

85.2

13

Both players were drafted in 2011 to bad teams and neither had the advantage of training camp. The games started, yards, total touchdowns, total turnovers and ratings are almost identical, however, Player B has a significantly better record, completion percentage, passing touchdowns and game winning drives. Player A is Cam Newton. Player B? Andy Dalton. Dalton manages to get blasted in the media and somehow Newton is still perceived as a top quarterback. My point? If you don't think Dalton can lead a team to division titles and deep playoff runs, what makes you think Newton can? Yes, he has the size and athleticism that makes evaluators drool, but he has one winning season after four years in the league. His only playoff win came in a year the Panthers made the playoffs as a sub .500 team (7-8-1) and had the opportunity to play an Arizona Cardinals team that had more injuries than a civil war battlefield and was starting a third string quarterback. Since entering the league, Newton has averaged just 20.5 touchdowns per season and 13.5 interceptions. Those are not the type of numbers that will win this division in 2015.

The offense as a whole - Even with Kelvin Benjamin, this team only averaged 21.2 points per game (19th). Without Benjamin and without DeAngelo Williams to back up an oft injured running back (Jonathan Stewart), I don't see this offense being able to put up enough points to win consistently. The defense is solid, but not good enough to carry the offense.

The offensive line- In 2014, Carolina quarterbacks were sacked 42 times. Throw in the fact they have one of the biggest, strongest and most mobile quarterbacks in the league, and you get an idea of how bad the line was. Surprisingly, the Panthers elected to not take an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft and their only additions to one of the worst lines in football was the signing of veteran tackle Michael Oher and taking a fourth round tackle (Daryl Williams). Oher is no longer a starting quality tackle and though Williams has been getting good reviews in the preseason, it is preseason.

The defense - The Panthers defense is not as good as their reputation. In 2014, the Panthers ranked 10-16 in total yards, passing yards and rushing yards per game - not bad, but not great - but ranked 21st with 23.4 points per game. This is a formidable defense, but not one that is going to win games week in and week out by themselves.

Overall:

The 2014 Panthers became only the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a sub .500 record (7-8-1). They beat one team with a winning record and their seven wins came against teams with a combined winning percentage of .357 (40-72). Without Benjamin, I don't see the 2015 squad being any better than the 2014 squad which won just seven games.

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2015 Prediction: 4-12

2014 Record: 2-14, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 33%

How they win the division:

Smoke and mirrors - The Bucs were 2-14 in 2014, and outside of rookies, didn't add much to either side of the ball - at least no players that will make much of a difference for a 2-14 team. released their veteran quarterback and will be starting a rookie on a team that ranked 25th or lower on offense and defense in terms of yards per game, passing yards per game, rushing yards per game and points per game. Their defense

Why they won't win the division:

Jameis Winston - After an impressive freshman season resulting in a National Championship, Winston saw a huge drop in his play in 2014. In his sophomore season, Winston's completion percentage dropped from 66.9% to 65.3%, his yards per attempt dropped from 10.6 YPA to 8.4 YPA and his rating dropped from 184.8 to 145.5. Most concerning was the huge drop in his touchdown to interception ratio which dropped from 4/1 to 1.39/1. His touchdowns dropped from 40 to 25 and his interceptions rose from 10 to 18, and if you watched his games, those interception numbers could have easily been over 20. Those are concerning numbers, especially given the fact that the ACC is not exactly a littered with excellence football teams. Winston has the physical tools, but tries to force the ball at times and gets himself in trouble. One thing is certain, defenses in the NFL are going to be more difficult than those in the ACC. And while we all know the preseason means very little, one thing is a given and that is teams don't play complex defenses in the preseason, yet Winston has struggled (48.9% completion %, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions).

Because they were 2-14 in 2014 - The Bucs were 2-14 in 2014, and outside of rookies, didn't add much to either side of the ball. Their biggest offseason move was the releasing of their veteran quarterback (Josh McCown). The Bucs will be starting a rookie (Winston) on a team that ranked 25th or lower on offense and defense in terms of yards per game, passing yards per game, rushing yards per game and points per game. Not a recipe for a lot of wins.

Overall:

The Buccaneers were the worst team in the NFL in 2014 and while I like some of their offensive weapons, the defense is average at best and I don't think Winston is the quarterback to lead this franchise back to prominence - certainly not this year.

Final division analysis:

The NFC South is still the worst division in football and in my opinion, it is not even close. However, that doesn't mean the division itself will not be competitive, in fact, I think it will be very competitive. While I do not see any team reaching double digit wins in this division, I could easily see first and fourth place only being separated by two or three games.