NFC South Review: Week 17

By Robert Knarr  NFC South

This week marked the end of the 2015-16 regular season.

There wasn’t much left to play for in the NFC South, since three teams had been eliminated from playoff contention, but it was still an exciting week as the Panthers fought for home-field advantage.  There was a lot of excitement throughout the division this year, and the competitiveness appears to be on the upswing.  The South could be one of the toughest divisions as early as next year.  The Bucs and Falcons could be much better, and the Saints could revitalize themselves with some keen defensive changes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: 10-38

Tampa Bay BuccaneersCarolina Panthers

The Bucs fired Lovie Smith earlier this week, but I feel that they had positive growth from their team and young players, despite falling off at the end of the season.  Winston was exciting and played better than I thought he would.  He finished with 22 TDs and 15 interceptions.  The interceptions aren’t great, but certainly aren’t bad for a rookie QB.  Plus, many of those came early in the season, as he threw nearly half of them (7) in his first 4 games, demonstrating improvement as the season went on.  Winston also had a completion percentage of 58.3, and threw for 4042 yards, adding 210 rush yards and 6 rushing TDs.  Those are more than satisfactory stats for a rookie.  He still needs work, which was clear when facing the Panthers defense, but he’s moving along nicely.

Jameis Winston -USA Today Sports Photo

Jameis Winston -USA Today Sports Photo

The Bucs played poorly against the Panthers, and their late season skid (they lost their last 4 games) was likely a big factor in Lovie Smith’s dismissal.  They started decently, finishing the 1st quarter 3-0, but then fell apart, scoring only once more the rest of the game.  Winston picked up a lot of yards, throwing for 325 yards, but couldn’t find the end zone and threw 2 picks.  The yardage is deceiving, because he struggled for much of this game.  The team fell way behind by the start of the second half, and had to play throw the ball for most of the 2nd half.  The Panthers did a good job of shutting Doug Martin down.  He had only 48 yards on 15 carries.  The interceptions hurt, but I don’t think the Bucs were going to be able to stop the Panthers offense.

The Panthers couldn’t be stopped last Sunday, and were playing hard after getting shut down by the Falcons.  They also wanted to secure home-field advantage for the playoffs, which will likely help them immensely.  Cam put on another show, and likely cemented his MVP candidacy.  He threw for 2 TD’s and rushed for 2 more.  He completed 21 of 26 passes and threw for 293 yards.  Brady and Palmer deserve MVP consideration, but I don’t think they rank as highly as Cam this season.  Plus, he played with a group of mediocre receivers who continuously dropped balls and was not talented enough to make tough plays against their opponents’ secondary.  The receivers played better than I expected, but they were consistently overmatched in terms of size and speed (except Ginn who has the hands of a clumsy toddler).  Brady didn’t exactly have a stud squad either, but he faded a bit down the stretch.

Cam Newton

Cam Newton

The Panthers defense also played well.  Norman was back to his usual ways, playing shut down defense and talking trash.  He riled up Evans who was eventually thrown out.  Peanut was unfortunately taken out of the game after destroying what was left of his knee, and will miss the rest of the season.  However, Robert McClain stepped in and performed admirably, grabbing an interception.  Davis also had a pick, completing another fantastic season.  The Panthers have a few issues heading into the playoffs, but they have a bye to try and correct their problems.  They have struggled to generate a pass rush, particularly from the edge.  The secondary is also a concern, since Tillman and Benwikere have both sustained season-ending injuries.  However, they are still one of, if not the best, team.  We’ll see if they can get over the hump and go deep into the playoffs.

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 20-17

New Orleans SaintsAtlanta Falcons

The Saints again showed a lot of toughness, beating a decent Atlanta team.  Both teams have a lot of talent, but had mediocre seasons.  The Falcons seem to be trending up, however.  They finished 8-8, which is better than a lot of people had them at the beginning of the season, including myself.  The defense was much better, but Ryan had an off year.  He needs another wide receiver, and perhaps could benefit from a new offensive coordinator.

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan

The game was meaningless, but still entertaining.  It was back and forth all game, remaining close until the end.  It came down to the wire, and the Saints won on a last second field goal.  The Falcons had an opportunity to win the game in the 4th quarter, which has been a recurring theme for them this season.  In addition to having a decent record, the Falcon were also in most games until the end.  This time, they were tied and driving in the 4th quarter.  However, Ryan threw a devastating pick that allowed the Saints to make a few plays and kick a game-winner. He played better this game, but wasn’t good enough.

The run game has been better than recent years, but Freeman lost a little explosiveness towards the end of the season, particularly after returning from injury.  He had 24 carries for 81 yards.  Julio Jones was a beast again, ending a fantastic season.  The Falcons have some nice pieces, and with a few improvements, particularly their overall play in the 4th quarter, they could win a playoff spot next year.

Drew Brees

Drew Brees

The Saints are moving in an interesting direction.  They are going to bring back Sean Payton, but nobody’s sure what’s happening with Brees.  They have to figure out whether they will bring him back or not before they can decide what else they will be doing.  My gut feeling is he will sign an extension, and they will try to repair the defense.  If they can form a decent defense, then they also will have a shot at a playoff spot.  I wouldn’t count out a Brees team, unless they fail to make any improvements.  There were a lot of adjustments they had to make during the season, since they got off to a terrible start.  So, a 7-9 season isn’t terrible.

The division should be a bit more competitive next year, but teams not named the Panthers will likely be vying for a Wild Card spot instead of the division.

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