The Bucs’ free-agent signing of Tom Brady is the biggest in NFL history. His 20-year first act in New England included six Super Bowl wins and 11 consecutive AFC East titles. Now he joins a franchise whose most recent playoff appearance was during the George W. Bush administration, and whose last postseason victory was Super Bowl XXXVII, 18 seasons ago. Can Brady single-handedly reverse Tampa Bay’s fortunes?
Brady has said that he will run Bruce Arians’s offense, rather than the coach changing the system. In New England Brady often made quick-strike throws, but Arians prefers to get the ball downfield and typically utilizes all five eligible receivers, which will expose Brady to the pass rush. Offensive line play will be critical, especially considering the front five’s inconsistent play last year. One plus: Tampa Bay’s receivers far exceed what the Patriots had in 2019. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are All-Pro-caliber, and, oh yes, Rob Gronkowski has returned to join an already deep group of tight ends.
Tampa Bay’s biggest roadblock to a division title is the Saints, who are coming off back-to-back 13-win seasons and have the most complete team in the division. Drew Brees has mastered their ball-control passing game, and last year WR Michael Thomas racked up an NFL-record 149 catches despite the fact that every opponent knew the ball was coming his way. The availability of RB Alvin Kamara, who was slowed by ankle and knee injuries last year, will make the New Orleans offense even more dangerous; Sean Payton likes to align Thomas and Kamara on the same side of the formation to prevent defenses from doubling one of them. The Saints addressed a weakness in the secondary by adding Malcolm Jenkins to an already deep and talented group of safeties, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a midseason pickup last year.
Could the Falcons be New Orleans’s most dangerous challenger? Last year Atlanta rallied for a 6–2 finish after a 1–7 start, saving coach Dan Quinn’s job. That run was fueled by a stunning turnaround on defense: After allowing an average of 31.3 points over the season’s first eight games, the Falcons gave up just 18.6 over the final eight. The offense has the pedigree for a big year—all 11 projected starters (including new RB Todd Gurley) were first-round picks.
The Panthers pulled the plug on the most successful era of their franchise. Gone are former MVP Cam Newton (released and signed by the Patriots), two-time Coach of the Year Ron Rivera (fired, hired by Washington) and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly (retired). New coach Matt Rhule makes the leap to the NFL after running successful reclamation projects at Temple and Baylor. Free-agent QB Teddy Bridgewater rekindles his relationship with first-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady, LSU’s play-caller last year and an assistant with the Saints the year before that. The attack will still revolve around RB Christian McCaffrey. The question is what the defense will look like; Carolina spent all seven of its 2020 draft picks on that side of the ball.
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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
PROJECTED RECORD: 12-4
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Continuity and pure talent work in the Saints’ favor as they dominate the division for a fourth straight season and seize the NFC’s top seed. Getting the conference’s lone postseason bye proves keeps Brees fresh for a deep playoff run. New Orleans ends up going 10–0 at the Superdome en route to a Super Bowl return.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The window of opportunity slams shut when the Saints least expected it, as the arm strength of Brees, now in his 20th season, sinks to 2015 Peyton Manning levels. The defense holds up, but after struggling to claim a playoff spot, New Orleans is knocked out quickly, a one-and-done for a second consecutive January.
PROJECTED RECORD: 10-6
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Falcons pick up where they left off in 2019, starting 7–2 before facing the Saints or Bucs. The offense hums, with Gurley regaining All-Pro form. But it’s the defense, with free-agent signee Dante Fowler rushing off the edge, that propels Atlanta into the playoffs.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Last year’s second half proves to be a mirage, and the inexplicable struggles at home (12–12 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium since it opened) continue. The Falcons wobble through the early part of their schedule before getting pummeled down the stretch, when they play New Orleans and Tampa Bay twice each and travel to Kansas City.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
PROJECTED RECORD: 9-7
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: All the shaming over his pandemic workouts was worth it for Brady; the new-look Bucs hit the ground running in September. He thrives with weapons he could only dream of last year, showing off his still-impressive arm with deep shots, made possible by an improved O-line that gives him plenty of time. Tampa Bay captures its first division title since 2007.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The pandemic makes it hard for Brady to acclimate to the new system and supporting cast, and the offense never coheres. Brady’s frustrated body language becomes a topic of conversation (and, to many, source of joy) around the league. Not even a soft late-season schedule keeps Brady from watching the playoffs on TV.
PROJECTED RECORD: 2-14
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: No one knows what to expect from a franchise that has been rebuilt from top to bottom, and that unpredictability plays in the Panthers’ favor all year long as they prove to be a stubborn out. Brady is hotly pursued after working his magic with Bridgewater, while Rhule’s retooled and rookie-laden defense shows promise as Carolina scrapes together seven wins.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Carolina just doesn’t have the horses to compete, especially in a division this stacked. After not drafting an offensive player last spring, the Panthers break that streak by selecting Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick of the 2021 draft.