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Here is the 2021 Pro Football Betting Guide preview for the NFC South.
THE FAVORITE: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Tampa Bay is looking to become the first team since 2003-04 to win back-to-back Lombardi Trophies. The last team to do that was the New England Patriots, led, of course, by Tom Brady. Brady is one of 22 starters who return in the Bucs’ quest to repeat. The Bucs are the only team in the salary-cap era, which started in 1994, to return all 22 starters from a Super Bowl win and the first team to do it since 1977. At 43, Brady threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns capped by a fifth Super Bowl MVP award — with new teammates and no preseason. Not only do all starters return, so do both coordinators, Byron Leftwich on offense and Todd Bowles on defense. Continuity is on Tampa Bay's side, but is history?
Last year was a tale of two seasons for the Bucs. They started a solid if pedestrian 7-5, did not win their division, yet won four straight games to end the regular season and then four games in the playoffs to become just the seventh wild card to win the Super Bowl. With the Saints retooling, the Falcons having a new coach and coordinators and the Panthers breaking in a new starting QB, the Bucs are the clear favorites to win the division title.
LIVE DOG: CAROLINA PANTHERS
While New Orleans is still the second choice in the division, the Panthers look to be the potential upstart. Carolina is in its second season under coach Matt Rhule, offensive coordinator Joe Brady and defensive boss Phil Snow. The Panthers added two important pieces with new starting QB Sam Darnold and new GM Scott Fitterer, who spent 20 years in the Seahawks’ front office. Getting out of New York is probably the best thing for Darnold. He is still just 24, and Carolina looks like a good spot to revitalize his career. The Panthers will look for a rebound from RB Christian McCaffrey, who played in only three games last season due to ankle and shoulder injuries.
The defense is still young but showed improvement last season, and Carolina has selected defensive players in the first round in each of the last three drafts. Rhule was a proven program builder in college, taking Temple from 2-10 to 6-6 to 10-4 in three seasons. He did the same at Baylor, improving from 1-11 to 7-6 to 11-3 in three years. If Carolina can follow the Rhule formula, this club should take a leap in his second year.
PROP PLAY: TOM BRADY UNDER 4,750.5 PASSING YARDS
Though the Buccaneers return all their starters, and though Brady did not have this sort of offensive talent most years in New England, he has not exceeded 4,750.5 passing yards since 2015. He is now 44, and the play-calling from coach Bruce Arians and coordinator Byron Leftwich could change to keep him healthy. The Bucs also have seven games against last year’s top 12 defenses in DVOA.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Green Bay at New Orleans (Sept. 12)
Teams with their fair share of offseason tumult meet in a rematch of Week 3 last season, when the Packers defeated the Saints 37-30 at the Superdome. The Aaron Rodgers soap opera in Green Bay has seemed to go on hiatus as he is back for one more try. Meanwhile, New Orleans begins a new era without Drew Brees, who retired in the offseason, leaving Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to battle for the starting QB job.
New York Jets at Carolina (Sept. 12)
Sam Darnold may or may not be seeing ghosts in the season opener, but he will be seeing familiar faces as his former team comes to town. No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson will lead the Jets on the road to face the man he replaced. Darnold is now the man in Carolina. Can Matt Rhule and Joe Brady give Darnold’s career a second lease on life?
Tampa Bay at Los Angeles Rams (Sept. 26)
The two shortest prices to win the NFC meet in a potential conference championship game preview when Tampa Bay (3-1) travels to Los Angeles (11-2). The Rams were in the Super Bowl against Tom Brady three seasons ago and traded for Matthew Stafford for a QB upgrade they believed was needed to get them back to the biggest stage.
Tampa Bay at New England (Oct. 3)
After the showdown with the Rams, Tampa Bay stays on the road as Tom Brady takes the field at Foxboro Stadium for the first time against the Patriots. Following a disappointing season, the takes were plentiful that Bill Belichick could not win without Brady. Brady has proven he can win without his old coach. Can Belichick do the same?
Tampa Bay at New Orleans (Oct. 31)
Tampa Bay avenged a regular-season sweep last season by going to New Orleans and defeating the Saints in the divisional round, ending the Hall of Fame career of Drew Brees. Will Jameis Winston get a crack at his old team as the starting QB, or will it be Taysom Hill?
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Tom Brady joined Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to win a championship as the starting quarterback for two franchises when he won Super Bowl LV in February. The Buccaneers also became the first team to win a Super Bowl on its home field. Brady struggled at times, throwing 12 interceptions — his worst since 2011 — and forgetting which down it was and costing his team the game in Week 5 at Chicago. However, he also threw 40 touchdown passes — his best since 2007 — and had a 22-4 TD-INT ratio in the Bucs’ eight-game winning streak to end the season.
All four of Brady’s top targets return, including Mike Evans, the sole 1,000-yard receiver of the group, who tallied 13 touchdowns on 70 grabs. Chris Godwin signed a franchise tag after catching 65 passes for 840 yards and seven scores. Tampa Bay should also have a full season of Antonio Brown. The former All-Pro had 45 catches, 483 yards and four touchdowns in eight games. Plus there’s Rob Gronkowski, who shook off the rust of retirement for 45 catches, 623 yards and seven touchdowns. Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette combined for over 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Eleven starters return for a unit that led the NFL against the run and ranked sixth in total defense and eighth in scoring defense.
While a Super Bowl repeat is the clear top objective, Bruce Arians and his group would also like to add their first division title since 2007. The Buccaneers earned their championship after defeating New Orleans and Green Bay on the road and the league’s top team, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the Super Bowl. However, Tampa Bay defeated only one club with a winning record during its 11-5 regular season. And the Bucs had major injury luck, losing only 25.6 games to injury per Football Outsiders’ injury-lost metric while every other team lost at least 41, so regression would not be surprising.
The Bucs draw a second-place schedule, but it includes six teams with winning records from 2020. Had the Bucs won the NFC South last year and drawn a first-place schedule, I would have looked to the Under on the season win total of 12. That looks like the right number with this club, since it has only three of nine road games against clubs with 2020 winning records in the Rams, the Saints and the Colts. Furthermore, Brady has led his teams Over their win totals in 15 of his 19 seasons, going 15-2-2.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
For the first time since 2006, the Saints will be breaking in a new quarterback. Drew Brees has retired to the NBC broadcast booth. The Saints went 12-4 in his final year, including a 10-game winning streak to secure the NFC South for the fourth consecutive time. The Saints fell to eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in the divisional round. This season is not only a new chapter for the Saints organization but also uncharted territory for coach Sean Payton.
Payton and Brees arrived in New Orleans together in 2006. It was a great marriage that resulted in 143 wins for Payton and nine playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl XLIV title. Now Payton will turn to Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston to lead his squad. The Saints went 3-1 in Hill’s starts last season. Payton has long wanted to prove that he can turn Hill into a bona fide starting quarterback, but Winston has shown at least the capability of starting, considering he led the NFL in completions, attempts and passing yards just two seasons ago. On the other hand, Winston also led the league in interceptions and turnovers. A happy medium would likely at least keep the Saints in the playoffs.
Whoever wins the gig will work with an elite offensive line and running game. Alvin Kamara makes plays as a ball carrier and a receiver. He was named second-team All-Pro in 2020 after rushing for 932 yards and 16 touchdowns on top of 83 catches, 756 receiving yards and an additional five touchdowns. Latavius Murray also contributed 656 yards and four touchdowns. Star receiver Michael Thomas elected to forgo surgery on an injured ankle and seems to be making progress in his rehab but does not appear likely to be ready for the season opener, so the Saints will be thin at wideout to start the season.
The defense was rated No. 2 in DVOA last season but lost four starters. New Orleans selected defenders with its first three picks of the 2021 draft. A step back is likely for a group that ranked fifth in yards per pass allowed, fourth in yards per rush allowed, fourth in passer rating allowed, first in interceptions, fourth in total yards allowed and fifth in points allowed. Still, the Saints are a good football team with plenty of talent, and a three-game drop in the win total seems a bit much.
Last season started promisingly at 3-2 but quickly came apart as the Panthers lost nine of their last 11 games. QB Teddy Bridgewater is gone after one season. Enter Sam Darnold. New general manager Scott Fitterer sent the New York Jets three picks to acquire the former No. 3 overall selection. Darnold struggled to develop a rhythm over his first three seasons, going 13-25 as a starter. He threw for 2,208 yards, nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions over 12 games in 2020. However, second-year coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady believe they can find the recipe to fix what Adam Gase could not. The Jets were ready to give up on Darnold, but he is still just 24 and needed a change of scenery.
He will be aided by the return of running back Christian McCaffrey. The former first-team All-Pro battled three injuries in 2020 but still managed to score six touchdowns and average 124.7 yards from scrimmage in three games. McCaffrey is one of the league’s best all-purpose backs when healthy. He racked up 4,357 total yards and 32 touchdowns over the 2018-19 seasons. Carolina will also get help in the backfield with fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard of Oklahoma State, who has looked good in the preseason. The underrated receiving corps is led by DJ Moore, who had 66 receptions for 1,193 yards and four touchdowns. Robby Anderson, who played for Rhule at Temple, had a career year in Brady’s system with career highs of 95 receptions and 1,096 yards. Second-rounder Terrace Marshall Jr. played for Brady at LSU and had 13 touchdowns as part of the Tigers’ 2019 national championship team. He will have to replace Curtis Samuel, who was lost in free agency.
The defense is still young but showed improvement last year, and the Panthers have drafted first-rounders on that side of the ball each of the last three seasons — DE Brian Burns in 2019, DT Derrick Brown in 2020 and CB Jaycee Horn in 2021.
Four of the first six games are at home plus a road trip to Houston, which is likely to be one of the worst teams in the league, so Carolina has ample opportunity to start well. In fact, the Panthers play only one team through Thanksgiving that had a winning record in 2020. They also do not have a week off until Week 13, so Carolina could keep strong momentum going against a soft early schedule.
The Falcons started 2020 with an 0-5 record, including two massive blown leads against Dallas and Chicago. In fact, no team in NFL history had given away two 15-point fourth-quarter leads over an entire season. Coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were dismissed after Week 5, and Atlanta finished 4-12. Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and Saints assistant general manager Terry Fontenot came aboard as coach and general manager, respectively. After 10 seasons in Atlanta, Julio Jones asked for a trade and was dealt to Tennessee. Amid all the change, quarterback Matt Ryan remains and will be part of the rebuilding at 36. The Falcons had the opportunity to trade Ryan and start anew with a young quarterback available at No. 4 in the draft, but Atlanta elected to grab another weapon for Ryan by taking tight end Kyle Pitts from Florida.
The first-team All-American should be a star in Atlanta, and many draftniks tabbed him as the best player in the draft regardless of position. Ryan, who threw for 4,581 passing yards — fourth most in the league — and 26 touchdowns, still has something left in the tank. Calvin Ridley should be able to fill the loss of Jones, as he erupted for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns on 90 catches last season. But the Falcons have many question marks, including offensive line and running back. Mike Davis came in from Carolina to be the featured back and had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in relief of Christian McCaffrey last season. But is he good enough to be the Falcons’ lead dog?
Atlanta’s defense was middle of the pack last year but still lacked high-end talent. The Falcons went 1-8 in games decided by seven or fewer points and had just a minus-18-point differential, so they probably should have finished closer to .500. Those numbers would indicate that positive regression to the mean should be in order. They will be better coached with Smith and new defensive coordinator Dean Pees, but the roster has too many glaring holes to back the Over with much confidence.
Lean: Under 7.5