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To say Tampa Bay is the team to beat is an understatement.
The Buccaneers enjoy unprecedented continuity, becoming the first defending champion since the 1977 Raiders to bring back all 22 starters from the Super Bowl, which has the Bucs talking loud (and vulgar, so beware) about a repeat.
Whoa, slow down there, Buccaroo.
In the salary cap era, none of the six defending champions to return 20 or more starters got back to the conference championship game, let alone the Super Bowl — and two of them missed the playoffs altogether, including the 2003 Bucs. And there hasn’t been a repeat champion since 2004, when Tom Brady’s Patriots did it.
There are only two reasons I think this team will flirt with running the table: For one, the NFC doesn’t appear to have a clear and obvious challenger; for another, I’m done betting against Tom Brady. If anyone can pull off the impossible (like still playing a contact sport at a ridiculously high professional level in your mid-40s), it’s Tom Terrific.
Injury is the only way the Bucs stop short of Los Angeles in February.
New Orleans begins Year 1 of life without Drew Brees much like the Brees era started: displaced by a hurricane.
The Saints have been practicing in Dallas and will travel to Jacksonville to play their “home” season opener.
Jameis Winston had a strong preseason and won the competition to get the first crack at replacing Brees at QB. Under Sean Payton’s tutelage, Winston could realize the potential that made him a No. 1 overall pick. But the Michael Thomas saga looms over the offense, and the Saints’ pass-catchers were pretty thin beyond him and Alvin Kamara anyway. Marquez Callaway had a great preseason and New Orleans went 8-1 without Brees over the last two seasons, so I suspect the transition probably won’t be too rough if Thomas comes back healthy and happy.
New Orleans has been so defined by its offense that the defense continues to fly under the radar, but the Saints’ D was ranked in the top five in scoring and yardage in 2020. This unit lost more than it gained in the offseason, though (yes, despite selecting three defensive players in the top 100 picks), so it’s likely to regress this season, especially with Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen and Tom Brady (twice) on the schedule.
I’m banking on the Saints’ offense to be more explosive (albeit less efficient) with Winston at the helm — just enough to overcome their defense’s likely fall back to the mean. But a long displacement by Hurricane Ida could derail everything.
Atlanta is about to go through some growing pains.
Much like Kirk Cousins and Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan put up numbers for a losing team in 2020. Matty Ice is playing for an offensive-minded head coach for the first time in his pro career, but Arthur Smith’s unit won’t have Julio Jones (traded to Tennessee) and Alex Mack (free agency). It’s yet to be seen whether rookie Kyle Pitts overrides those losses, but regardless, the Falcons should be fun to watch with a prolific passer throwing to the next great tight end.
However, Atlanta has been “meh” on defense for years and lost more than it gained in the offseason. Not to mention, this franchise is saddled with salary cap issues, so don’t be surprised if Ryan gets dealt in the offseason to clear more than $8 million in cap space and perhaps get enough picks to jump-start the rebuild.
But make no mistake about it: Atlanta is rebuilding. And it’s gonna sting a little.
Ok, let me get this straight: Carolina traded for Sam Darnold, who is coming off a third season that ranks as his worst and who won half as many games as his predecessor, Teddy Bridgewater, who had career highs in completion percentage and touchdown passes? And Bridgewater had a passer rating and QBR more than 20 points higher than Darnold’s?
Matt Rhule truly is a gambling man.
I’ll say this for Darnold: He’s young. At 24, he’s got time to recover from the train wreck that was his tenure with the Jets. Talk out of Panthers camp is that Darnold went from seeing ghosts in Gotham to a new glow in Carolina, but that remains to be seen in games that count. (Incidentally, his first game as a Panther comes against his former team.)
Darnold has elite-level weapons in Christian McCaffrey, former Terp D.J. Moore and (kind of) Robby Anderson, and an offensive line better than anything he had in New York. But I don’t see why they think this is a safer bet than keeping Bridgewater, whose career was derailed by injury, not putridity.
Haason Reddick was the biggest-name acquisition for a young defense that spent all of its 2020 draft picks on that side of the ball, so this is a middle-of-the-road unit, at best.
I could be wrong about this team. Rhule is known for having big turnarounds in his second and third seasons. And Carolina got a huge break in the schedule — they don’t play any teams coming off a bye and overall have a plus-13-day rest differential relative to their opponents over the course of the year. That’s tied for the highest rest differential among all team schedules since 2002 (though there is an extra game this year).
But Rhule’s turnarounds happened in college, not the pros. Even if Carolina cashes in on those schedule advantages, they’re not better than Tampa or New Orleans, making this either a third-place team or a cellar-dweller. Either way, impatient owner David Tepper is likely to start applying some heat to Rhule’s seat in 2022.