Power Shifts Back to Saints?
The New Orleans Saints ruled the NFC South from 2017 to 2020, winning four consecutive divisional titles with quarterback Drew Brees leading the charge. There was a shift of power when Tom Brady joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the division in 2021 and 2022. Following Brady’s retirement, New Orleans could take over the South once again after signing quarterback Derek Carr in free agency. NFL odds have tabbed the Saints as the favorite ahead of the 2023 season (+115).
Some NFL expert picks are calling for a breakout season, with the Saints’ projected win total sitting at 9½. Reaching double-digit wins while winning the NFC South is certainly in the cards. It could even be expected due to the Saints’ strong defense and solid skill position players, led by wide receiver Chris Olave and running back Alvin Kamara.
However, New Orleans is not the only team that could enjoy a turnaround in the NFC South. Could a divisional rival prevent the Saints from winning their fifth title since 2017? Let’s check out New Orleans’ competition and who has the best chance to top the South.
Meet the Contenders
The Atlanta Falcons (+250) and Carolina Panthers (+350) should compete for the divisional crown, while the Buccaneers (+700) are expected to fall off with Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask starting at quarterback. Atlanta and Carolina made substantial upgrades after finishing 7-10 last season.
Both teams added instant-impact players in the 2023 NFL Draft. The sportsbook has Falcons’ rookie running back Bijan Robinson (+275) and the Panthers’ quarterback Bryce Young (+450) as the top choices for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Atlanta finished second in rushing yards per game last season. Robinson should take the run game to the next level with the potential to become one of the league’s best ball carriers. In 2022, Carolina’s clear weakness was the quarterback position. Young’s playmaking and accuracy could give the Panthers their best QB play since Cam Newton’s reign from 2011 to 2019.
The Falcons could also have improved quarterback play, with Desmond Ridder taking the starting role in his second season. Second-year wide receiver Drake London, who posted 866 receiving yards in his rookie season, and third-year tight end Kyle Pitts have breakout potential.
Carolina has a promising defensive corps with defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown and cornerback Jaycee Horn. Burns is drawing some attention from NFL predictions for Defensive Player of the Year (+2500). The Panthers’ run game could also improve with the addition of running back Miles Sanders and the development of 2022’s No. 6 pick, offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu.
Tampa Bay’s chances are slim. Its projected win total is 6½, and the under is the favorite choice among NFL picks (-130). The Bucs would need a surprise season from Mayfield or Trask, and the defense would have to dominate.
Dirty Birds Back in Hunt
Atlanta has not had a winning season since 2017, with its last South title coming in 2016. The Falcons could officially exit the rebuild in the upcoming season. They are drawing hype on betting markets – it’s warranted.
The offensive line broke out as one of the league’s best last season. All-Pro Chris Lindstrom was the heartbeat of the line, emerging as one of the NFL’s best guards. The rushing attack could be nearly unstoppable, with Robinson joining the fun. Ridder should also give Atlanta an improved passing attack, which will open coach Arthur Smith’s play-action onslaught. Pitts has not lived up to the hype after being named the most talented tight end prospect ever ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. With an improved supporting cast and quarterback, Pitts could break out.
Most importantly, Atlanta improved its defense, which finished 26th in allowed yards per game last season. The Falcons added former All-Pro safety Jessie Bates III, defensive tackle Calais Campbell, edge rusher Bud Dupree and cornerback Jeff Okudah.
The NFC South title could be decided by head-to-head matchups between Atlanta and New Orleans, with the Falcons’ projected win total at 8½. The Saints have a strong defense, but their run defense was a weakness, finishing 24th in surrendered yards per game. Atlanta also totaled over 200 rushing yards on better than five yards per carry in both meetings last season.
— Cougs in the Pros 🤙🏼 (@BYUpros) December 18, 2022
New Orleans attempted to upgrade its run defense by drafting defensive tackle Bryan Bresee in the Draft’s first round. However, the Saints lost depth in free agency with David Onyemata joining the Falcons and Shy Tuttle signing with Carolina.
The Saints’ ability to stop the run could be a weakness once again. Running the rock is Atlanta’s greatest strength. Most gamblers are searching for the juiciest odds when betting online. The Falcons listed at +250 could be the best bet in the South, offering a higher payout than New Orleans.
The Saints will remain the favorite to win the division throughout the offseason. Don’t expect the NFC South to be a cakewalk, though. Atlanta and Carolina are headed in the right direction with the chance to make leaps in 2023. However, the Falcons stand out as New Orleans’ best competition to rule the South.