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2020 NFL Game-by-Game Predictions: NFC South

Which veteran will set the edge: Brees or Brady? Can the Falcons or Panthers spoil the Saints’ or Bucs’ party? One BTSC writer offers his take for each team in the NFC South.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the seventh installment of my 2020 NFL Record Prediction series, which will span 9 parts, I’ll be evaluating the revamped and explosive NFC South.

Note: These predictions are meant to reflect not just which team is better in a duel of two coteries, but who I feel the likely winner will be based on circumstances and situations.

Feel free to bookmark these articles as the year unfolds; as always, you are welcome to comment your own predictions as I go along, or even ask for justification for specific game outcomes!

Past Predictions: AFC North, AFC East, AFC South, AFC West, NFC North, NFC East

New Orleans Saints

Week 1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (W, 1-0)
Week 2: at Las Vegas Raiders (W, 2-0)
Week 3: Green Bay Packers (W, 3-0)
Week 4: at Detroit Lions (L, 3-1)
Week 5: Los Angeles Chargers (W, 4-1)
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: Carolina Panthers (W, 5-1)
Week 8: at Chicago Bears (W, 6-1)
Week 9: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (L, 6-2)
Week 10: San Francisco 49ers (W, 7-2)
Week 11: Atlanta Falcons (W, 8-2)
Week 12: at Denver Broncos (L, 8-3)
Week 13: at Atlanta Falcons (W, 9-3)
Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles (W, 10-3)
Week 15: Kansas City Chiefs (W, 11-3)
Week 16: Minnesota Vikings (W, 12-3)
Week 17: at Carolina Panthers (W, 13-3)

Every year since 2018, the Saints have ended at a 13-3 clip yet have failed to live up to postseason expectations. I have NOLA finishing with the same record, and this very well may be their final chance to exorcise postseason demons.

The Saints boast arguably the most daedal roster in the league. On offense, Sean Payton’s unit has utter stars in QB Drew Brees, RB Alvin Kamara, WR Michael Thomas—who just eclipsed the all-time record for receptions in a season by totaling 149 catches—and a premier offensive line. Factor in newcomer WR Emmanuel Sanders, TE Jared Cook and solid backup runner Latavius Murray who ranked 2nd among true backup running backs with 637 yards, and it’s a good thing New Orleans doesn’t give out free beignets for every point the Saints score.

Defensively, the Saints are also quite solid. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s contingent ranked 11th in Football Outsiders’ 2019 Defensive DVOA as star DE Cameron Jordan has now amassed double digit sacks in 4 of the last 5 seasons.

At the same time, 31-year-old corner Janoris Jenkins has played only 3 games—playoffs included—in Allen’s system, and his 12.9 missed tackle percentage in 2019 is a bit concerning. However, Jenkins does not nearly have to carry the weight, as he is surrounded by talent in young stud Marshon Lattimore, 3-time Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins, who is back in the Big Easy, and the underrated Marcus Williams, whose 10 INTs in 3 years has not proven enough to erase his missed playoff tackle of Stefon Diggs from NFL fans’ minds.

Fundamentally, all the pieces are in place for Payton. His team does have an arduous slate, playing numerous contenders like Tampa Bay (2x), Green Bay, San Francisco and Kansas City. But even without fans, playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will still be daunting as the Saints are tied for the 3rd best home record since 2016.

Heartbreak has welled in Saints’ fans bodies for the last 3 years, as miraculous endings, missed calls and inexcusable losses have doomed Brees’ attempt to hoist a 2nd Lombardi Trophy.

The good news? I project NOLA to finish as the NFC’s #1 seed, meaning the Saints will get a shot at redemption in the very building in which Brees has a 6-2 postseason record.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Week 1: at New Orleans Saints (L, 0-1)
Week 2: Carolina Panthers (W, 1-1)
Week 3: at Denver Broncos (L, 1-2)
Week 4: Los Angeles Chargers (W, 2-2)
Week 5: at Chicago Bears (W, 3-2)
Week 6: Green Bay Packers (W, 4-2)
Week 7: at Las Vegas Raiders (L, 4-3)
Week 8: at New York Giants (L, 4-4)
Week 9: New Orleans Saints (W, 5-4)
Week 10: at Carolina Panthers (W, 6-4)
Week 11: Los Angeles Rams (W, 7-4)
Week 12: Kansas City Chiefs (W, 8-4)
Week 13: Bye
Week 14: Minnesota Vikings (W, 9-4)
Week 15: at Atlanta Falcons (W, 10-4)
Week 16: at Detroit Lions (L, 10-5)
Week 17: Atlanta Falcons (W, 11-5)

It still feels like the Buccaneers are in some sort of magical haze. But their zany 2020 offseason is a microcosm of the year in and of itself.

It seemed few experts had first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady venturing to Tampa Bay after spending 2 decades with Bill Belichick in New England, but that’s exactly what ended up occurring.

Brady, no doubt, was allured by the best WR tandem in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin who accumulated a combined 153 catches for 2,490 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2019. For comparison, the Saints’ Thomas had 149 catches for 1,725 yards and 9 touchdowns, or a yards per reception mark nearly 5 yards lower than what the dynamic duo posted.

Brady is certainly losing arm strength—and possibly accuracy, as his 60.8 completion % in 2019 was his lowest since 2013. However, he should see gaudy numbers with Evans and Godwin in 2020.

GM Jason Licht’s offseason became even more incredible when he lured the Henry Kissinger of the Brady cabinet, 4-time All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, out of retirement. Gronkowski will likely start the year at TE1, but I presume his numbers will not be superb: Tampa has two other phenomenal tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

When the Bucs acquired Brady in March, their roster had two major holes: Offensive line and secondary. Licht addressed both areas via the 2020 NFL Draft by snagging two highly touted prospects in RT Tristan Wirfs and rangy S Antoine Winfield, Jr.

Winfield, Jr. will slot right in at free safety for a largely inexperienced secondary, arguably Tampa’s lone weak spot. However, corners Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting won’t have to stifle receivers for long considering the Buccaneers’ front 7 tied for 7th by sacking opposing quarterbacks 47 times.

The Bucs have done enough to enter the conversation of Super Bowl contenders. However, I anticipate two unforeseen losses in Weeks 7-8: Monday night in Las Vegas, where former Bucs coach Jon Gruden faces off with the gunslinger some thought would land in Sin City, and Week 8 in MetLife Stadium, where the Giants have only lost by a combined 4 points in their last two home clashes with Brady.

Tampa Bay could certainly win both of those matchups. Even if they falter in those games, they should still easily earn a playoff berth. I have them doing so by garnering the NFC’s #5 seed.

Atlanta Falcons

Week 1: Seattle Seahawks (L, 0-1)
Week 2: at Dallas Cowboys (L, 0-2)
Week 3: Chicago Bears (W, 1-2)
Week 4: at Green Bay Packers (L, 1-3)
Week 5: Carolina Panthers (W, 2-3)
Week 6: at Minnesota Vikings (L, 2-4)
Week 7: Detroit Lions (L, 2-5)
Week 8: at Carolina Panthers (W, 3-5)
Week 9: Denver Broncos (W, 4-5)
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: at New Orleans Saints (L, 4-6)
Week 12: Las Vegas Raiders (W, 5-6)
Week 13: New Orleans Saints (L, 5-7)
Week 14: at Los Angeles Chargers (L, 5-8)
Week 15: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (L, 5-9)
Week 16: at Kansas City Chiefs (L, 5-10)
Week 17: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (L, 5-11)

The Falcons have many of the same offensive personnel since their Super Bowl LI appearance—one that ended in a 28-3 meltdown. In spite of a high-throttle offensive unit, Dan Quinn’s team is likely not going to get anywhere close to another Big Game appearance in 2020.

Last year, the Falcons were 5th in the league with 379.7 yards gained per game and scored around 24 points per contest. Former Bucs coach turned Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter enters his second year with a bevy of talent in potential gold jacket recipient Matt Ryan paired with another supreme 1-2 punch of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.

At the same time, I believe it is unrealistic for former Rams workhorse Todd Gurley to return to All-Pro form. Gurley, just 26, posted a career-low 857 rushing yards last year—more notably, he was allegedly seen walking with a limp in practice, an ominous sign for a player who was diagnosed with arthritis in 2019. Gurley should be viewed with the same lens as former Falcon Devonta Freeman—both had dismal 2019 campaigns, and Gurley likely won’t offer much upside if he is not healthy.

Atlanta’s offense is essentially its saving grace in 2020, as its defense has major question marks.

DT Grady Jarrett and MLB Deion Jones are the lone consistent contributors. Former 1st rounder Takk McKinley posted a mere 3.5 sacks in his 3rd year, and if signee OLB Dante Fowler Jr. can sustain his 11.5-sack pace from a season ago, the Falcons may have more success downing quarterbacks like Brees and Brady. Regardless, its secondary is wildly inexperienced as 2020 #16 overall pick A.J. Terrell will likely take his first snaps of professional ball in an actual game, and 1-time Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal has played in just 4 games since 2018 because of injuries.

Does Atlanta have the propensity to upset teams because of its vaunted offense? Most definitely. But considering I predict their final 8 opponents to end with an average of over 10 wins, the Falcons’ chances will likely be dashed by a brutal end-of-year attack swooping in from overhead.

Carolina Panthers

Week 1: Las Vegas Raiders (W, 1-0)
Week 2: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (L, 1-1)
Week 3: at Los Angeles Chargers (L, 1-2)
Week 4: Arizona Cardinals (L, 1-3)
Week 5: at Atlanta Falcons (L, 1-4)
Week 6: Chicago Bears (W, 2-4)
Week 7: at New Orleans Saints (L, 2-5)
Week 8: Atlanta Falcons (L, 2-6)
Week 9: at Kansas City Chiefs (L, 2-7)
Week 10: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (L, 2-8)
Week 11: Detroit Lions (L, 2-9)
Week 12: at Minnesota Vikings (L, 2-10)
Week 13: Bye
Week 14: Denver Broncos (W, 3-10)
Week 15: at Green Bay Packers (L, 3-11)
Week 16: at Washington Football Team (L, 3-12)
Week 17: New Orleans Saints (L, 3-13)

If you thought the Falcons were lopsided, the Panthers are an even better definition of the word.

Carolina is oozing with skill on offense, spearheaded by the undisputed best back in the NFL: Stanford product Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey totaled 2,392 scrimmage yards and 19 rushing plus receiving touchdowns in 2019, both of which led the league.

McCaffrey, fresh off of signing a 4-year, $64 million deal, is now surrounded by even more explosiveness in a super WR trio of D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel. In addition to signing Anderson from the Jets, owner David Tepper also nabbed former Saints backup QB Teddy Bridgewater to man the Panthers’ QB position for the next 3 years—that is, unless Carolina adds a superstar gunslinger in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Bridgewater finally broke out in Drew Brees’ bout with a thumb injury. After tearing his ACL during a team practice with the Vikings in 2016, Bridgewater overcame a grueling recovery to reap the rewards of a 5-0 record as a starter, passing for 1,384 yards, 9 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions.

It should be noted, though, that Bridgewater’s play may be hindered by having to adjust to rookie offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s nascent system.

Brady aided now-Bengals QB Joe Burrow by serving as LSU’s passing game coordinator as he galvanized Burrow to a Heisman campaign and was rewarded by taking home the Broyles Award as the best assistant coach in college football. Burrow consistently aired the ball out under Brady’s regime, but Bridgewater had an intended air yards per pass attempt (IAY/PA) of only 6.2—which was 61st among all QBs. In layman’s terms, Bridgewater may have to become more aggressive and throw the ball deeper, an action that could result in more interceptions.

Speaking of turnovers, the Panthers have to replace players who combined for 6 takeaways last season: Generational MLB Luke Kuechly, OLB Bruce Irvin and CB James Bradberry. Further, Carolina incurred major losses via the departures of defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Mario Addison.

Carolina made a valiant effort to fill such gap via the Draft, selecting Auburn DT Derrick Brown at #7 overall and taking defenders like edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos and safety Jeremy Chinn. But outside of pass rusher Brian Burns, inside linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Tre Boston, the Panthers have few game changers on defense.

What complicates matters is Carolina plays only 2 games with below average offenses: against the Chicago Bears (Week 6) and at the Washington Football Team (Week 16). The Panthers will be in a shootout almost every week, and that spells trouble considering almost all of their 2020 foes have superior defenses.

If new head coach Matt Rhule can prime a sensational quarterback this spring (or summer) via the Draft, Carolina could be a true contender in a few years. But for now, growing pains are almost certain to ensue.