Coming into the 2021 season, the NFC South arguably had the most question marks. Tampa Bay came in looking to defend their Super Bowl title from the year before. The New Orleans Saints were starting the post-Drew Brees era with Jameis Winston at the helm. Carolina was debuting their new quarterback, Sam Darnold, who they acquired from the New York Jets. And 2021 is the debut season for Atlanta’s head coach Arthur Smith. The NFC South has been a very competitive division over the past 10 years, and this year has been no different, with all four teams currently in the playoff picture 10 weeks into the season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3)
As expected, Tampa Bay is currently the NFC South’s leader. At 6-3, the Bucs have been led by their passing attack with Tom Brady leading it all. 10 weeks in, Tampa ranks as the league leader in passing touchdowns, as Brady has thrown 27 of them. Brady also ranks first in yards per game, third in QBR, and fourth in passer rating.
The receiving duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin has been the main beneficiaries of Brady’s hot season. Evans ranks second in the league in receiving TDs with 9, only behind Cooper Kupp of the LA Rams. Godwin currently ranks in the top 10 in receptions and receptions per game. Another component of the 2020 team that has carried over is their run defense. After being the top rushing defense in regards to yards, touchdowns, and attempts, the Bucs ranks as second in attempts and yards, and fifth in TDs allowed on the ground.
The catch with the Bucs comes with the injuries. Firstly, the secondary has taken quite a beating this year. Both starting corners, Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting, are on injured reserve. Richard Sherman and Antoine Winfield Jr. have also missed time this year. On offense, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski have only played five and four games respectively due to injury. In addition, they have now lost two straight, including one at Washington on Sunday, prompting some scathing remarks from head coach Bruce Arians.
New Orleans Saints (5-4)
There’s inconsistency, and then there is the Saints’ season so far. In their first season since Drew Brees’ retirement, their season has been a rollercoaster. For instance, starting the season with a big victory over Green Bay, to getting blown out the next week at Carolina. There are some quality wins on the Saints’ resume this year, but also some tough losses as well. In fact, three of them came within one touchdown, including a backbreaker last Sunday against Tennessee.
Sean Payton’s offense has seen better days. Receiver Michael Thomas, continuing to recover from ankle surgery, has not seen the field in 2021. In addition, starting QB Jameis Winston was lost for the year in Week 8 to a torn ACL. As a result, the offense has suffered. The Saints are currently averaging 24.7 points a game, down from the 30 that they averaged in 2020. Their yards per game is down to 321 from 376 from the year prior. And their 3rd down conversion ranking has fell from 8th last season to 21st this year. It’s also been a relatively rough year for Alvin Kamara so far, who’s averaging his lowest yards per carry in his career (3.6).
While the offense is in flux, the defense has been able to remain consistent. With a lot of their core still intact, the Saints ranks 7th in the league in scoring defense, 2nd best in the NFC South. They also rank as the best rushing defense in the NFL. The main strength, however lies in the secondary, who ranks in the top five in pass breakups and interceptions. They are also in the top-10 in passer rating allowed and completion percentage allowed. In fact, they’re one of two teams ranked in the division in these stats. The other team? Carolina.
Carolina Panthers (5-5)
The hype was building around the Panthers after their 3-0 start. Sam Darnold, looking for a fresh start from his New York Jet years, looked like he figured things out. The defense ranked as one of the league’s best. And there was young talent on both sides of the ball, However, the hype faded just as quickly as it built up. And now the Panthers sit at .500, their starting QB has both regressed and got placed on IR, and now the fate of the season could be in the hands of Cam Newton.
October was not pretty for Carolina, as they went 1-4 in that span. Among those losses includes a blown 4th quarter lead to Philadelphia. A heartbreaking overtime loss to Minnesota. And a blowout loss to the then 1-5 New York Giants. One main culprit has been Sam Darnold. In that October skid, Darnold was only able to complete 56% of his passes. He was only able to throw 4 TDs in contrast to 7 INTs, along with being sacked 15 times. Now with Darnold placed on IR, Cam Newton makes his return to Charlotte. While Newton made the exclamation that he’s back last week, the question becomes if he can turn the offense’s fortunes around. An offense only averaging 20 points a game, the most penalties in the league, and in the bottom 5 in turnovers.
The good thing for Newton is that the defense has remained stout. Carolina’s unit ranks first in passing yards allowed per game, second in the league in total yards allowed per game, and sixth in scoring defense. The focus is aggressiveness. Carolina ranks 7th in blitz percentage, resulting in 27 sacks as a unit, good for 4th in the league. The secondary benefits also, as they allow the lowest amount of yards through the air in the league.
Atlanta Falcons (4-5)
In a lot of ways, the Falcons can be considered the polar opposites of the Saints. The Falcons do not have a great defense, the running game is mediocre, and even their turnover differential are exact opposites. The Falcons have a -5 TO differential, the Saints have a +5. The kicker is, all four of their wins have come within one score. While they’re mathematically in the race, there may be too many holes to fill this year.
Atlanta has some progress to make with rebuilding the roster, and it really shows on defense. Defensively, this unit ranks second-worst in the league in scoring, passer rating, and 3rd down conversion rate. Worst of all, they are dead last in sacks with only 11 of them. For context, Carolina has 27, Tampa Bay has 22, and the Saints have 20. The Falcons also allow the most passing TDs in the NFC South, as they’ve given up 19 of them.
The running game has been an issue for years and it looks to be hitting rock bottom in 2021. Despite signing Mike Davis and Wayne Gallman, Atlanta ranks in the bottom 3 in yards per carry. Davis in particular has had it rough, as he ranks last in the league in that category (3.3 YPC). There are also only 4 rushing touchdowns combined for the Falcons rushers, which also ranks in the bottom 3.
On the bright side, Atlanta has found some offensive pieces to step up. First, there’s Cordarrelle Patterson, who’s has found his footing in Atlanta as an RB/WR hybrid. While Patterson has played in the role in the past, he is posting career-highs in receiving yards, yards per catch, and receiving touchdowns. Then there’s Kyle Pitts, the 4th overall pick from the 2021 Draft. Serving as a focal point of the offense early on, Pitts has tallied 606 yards, good for 3rd among tight ends. Pitts has also proven to have great potential as a downfield target, as his 15 YPC is 2nd among TEs.
NFC South Outlook
The NFC South is a division where all four teams can beat up on each other, and we have seen it this year. We have seen the Saints beat the Bucs already, the Falcons edge out the Saints, and the Panthers beat the Falcons. All of which happening over the course of two weeks. Tampa Bay looks to continue getting healthier as the postseason push nears, specifically with their secondary. If Tampa Bay maintains the division lead, that leaves the other three teams vying for wild card spots. January 2nd, Week 17 could be a crucial matchup between Carolina and New Orleans, where the winner could be in the driver’s seat for the playoffs.