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2014 NFC South Team Rankings
If there is one thing the NFC South is known for, it’s the passing of the torch for the yearly division winner. The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints have mostly dominated the top of the division for the past decade, but the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have also had their day in the sun.
There has been a bit of a musical chairs approach to the NFC South lately, as the Falcons won in 2012 and the Panthers won in 2013. Heading into the 2014 NFL season, fans of all four teams in the NFC South naturally are wondering whether or not we are once again in for a change of hands when it comes to the division crown.
Carolina boasts an at least borderline elite defensive unit and one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the game, but with the Saints getting back in the post-season last year and the Falcons and Bucs both seemingly set to rise up, things could easily change.
To get a better idea of where everyone stands and where they will ultimately rank inside the division in 2014, let’s break each team down and rank each NFC South team heading into 2014:
1. New Orleans Saints
Without Sean Payton the Saints were inconsistent, yet still competitive. With Sean Payton, they were immediately once again a legit contender to make a deep playoff run. With Rob Ryan turning around a horrible defense in one season with a new 3-4 scheme, there is real hope the Saints can claim the division title in 2014 and make a deep playoff run.
Even without the NFC South title in 2013, New Orleans still finished a respectable 11-5 and went on the road to Philadelphia and beat the Eagles. They eventually ran into the Seahawks and lost in Seattle, but gave it a much better go compared to their blowout loss in the regular season, while it’s not easy for any team to win more than one game on the road in post-season play. With the Saints having an eye on getting a little more balanced on offense and their defense steadily improving (they added elite safety Jairus Byrd to the mix), New Orleans will be in the mix for the division title as the season winds down, and should be a real contender to make a Super Bowl run, as well.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta had a horrific 2013 season. Their offensive line play was crap, they dealt with numerous key injuries, their defense was shaky and they couldn’t establish a consistent rushing attack on offense. Losing Julio Jones to a foot injury marked the end of the line before midseason, while the Falcons were simply fundamentally flawed across the roster. Atlanta figures to be much healthier in 2014, while they are also expected to shore up key positions like running back and their pass rush. Still a team that is just one season removed from narrowly missing out on a trip to the Super Bowl, the Falcons absolutely have the talent and coaching to make another run at a division title.
Largely viewed as a soft or finesse team, the Falcons do need to figure out a solution at tight end with Tony Gonzalez retired, while their pass rush and secondary need to be addressed in the 2014 NFL Draft. Atlanta has already made an effort to get stronger on the defensive line, and could be just one impact pass rusher away from drastically improving their defense as a whole. Thanks to their explosive offense and their tendency to take care of business at home, Atlanta could be right back up there with the elite teams if they can just stay healthy and add an impact player or two on defense.
3. Carolina Panthers
As quickly as they rose and took over the division in 2013, they could also rapidly fall. Cam Newton is a menace as a runner and can work magic with his arm, but as of right now he has absolutely no wide receivers he can trust, and by the time the 2014 season rolls around, the only real talent at receiver will probably be rookie blood. That puts Carolina’s seemingly progressing offense behind the eight ball, which could in turn put unwanted pressure on their rushing game, as well as their defense.
Luke Kuechly still leads a very aggressive and effective defense, but they also lost some talent in the secondary and will need to adjust on the fly. With their running back talent aging and somewhat inconsistent, it’s not crazy to think Newton and co. could suddenly run into a down season. Factor in the competitive NFC South, and it’s downright likely.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs rank fourth heading into the 2014 NFL season, but there is no way anyone should be sleeping on them. New head coach Lovie Smith is no stranger to winning, as he led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl appearance and even was still a solid 10-6 in his final season with the Bears. Smith is a much more personable and creative coach than Greg Schiano, and will have the attention and focus from his team from day one. More importantly, Smith quickly upgraded over erratic quarterback Mike Glennon by bringing in Bears holdover, Josh McCown. While not a world beater by any means, McCown was extremely productive in Marc Trestman’s offense in 2013, tossing 13 touchdowns against just one interception. Expecting that type of efficiency again in 2014 might border on insane, but Smith knows McCown from his days in Chicago, and he immediately gives the team a more reliable decision-maker under center.
McCown isn’t on his own, either. Doug Martin returns from injury, Vincent Jackson is one of the league’s best play-makers down the field and the Bucs even added Brandon Myers to help solidify the tight end position. With the offense seemingly taken care of, the only question will be if the defense can continue it’s progression and be an elite unit. Smith knows defense, so even with Darrelle Revis being let go, that’s not a crazy though.