It’s strange to ask this about a defending Super Bowl champion led by the most successful quarterback ever, but: Do we know how good the Buccaneers are?
If you rewind to last November, Tampa Bay dropped three straight home games to quality opponents (Saints, Rams and Chiefs) while the offense looked utterly disjointed. Then, coming out of a late-season bye week, the Bucs played five straight teams with losing records—including Washington in the wild-card round—to get back on track, and may not have survived a playoff game in New Orleans had it not been for three takeaways in the final 20 minutes. The defense was strong throughout, but, really, the Tom Brady–led offense didn’t seem to click until Super Bowl LV. This suggests the Bucs actually have room to improve in 2021.
The champs boast remarkable continuity, retaining free agents such as edge Shaq Barrett, wideout Chris Godwin, linebacker Lavonte David and DT Ndamukong Suh, while luring back tight end Rob Gronkowski and—at a discount due to myriad character concerns—wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Tampa Bay is the defending Super Bowl champ, but the Saints have actually won this division four consecutive years. Their defense is deep and talented, but for the first time in the Sean Payton era the question marks are all on the offensive side of the ball. Talented but turnover-prone Jameis Winston will get the first shot to replace Drew Brees, while Taysom Hill, a limited passer who expands the run game, could factor into gameplans more than ever. The bigger concern might be who catches their passes. After a record-setting 2019, Michael Thomas was injured and often ineffective last season, and will get a late start in 2021 after having surgery on his troublesome right ankle. Last year’s second- and fourth-leading pass catchers, WR Emmanuel Sanders and TE Jared Cook, left via free agency.
Before last season, the division’s most recent Super Bowl representative was the Falcons, in 2017—which seems like a long time ago, after three straight losing seasons. Despite moving on to a rookie coach, Arthur Smith, Atlanta has no interest in going into rebuilding mode. Smith, the former Titans offensive coordinator, brings a system similar to the one Matt Ryan played in during his MVP campaign of ’16. Future Hall of Fame receiver Julio Jones is in Tennessee now, but Ryan still has weapons in WR Calvin Ridley and tight end Kyle Pitts, a gifted pass catcher from Florida who went fourth in April’s draft. The bigger question: Can the defense stop anyone? New coordinator Dean Pees will have to shape up a unit that ranked 29th last year, and key to that will be manufacturing a pass rush, which Atlanta has lacked.
It feels as if the Panthers are one year away with a massive rebuild that began last season under coach Matt Rhule. In 2021 they’ll kick the tires on Sam Darnold, the 24-year-old QB whose production didn’t rise to his talent level in three substandard years with the Jets. The hope is that coordinator Joe Brady, a sharp offensive mind, can unlock the potential of the No. 3 pick of 2018. The defense is one to watch though, loaded with young talent in the pass rush (Brian Burns) and the secondary (eighth overall pick Jaycee Horn).
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Predicted Order of Finish
1. BUCCANEERS (11–6)
Best Case: The Bucs, who didn’t peak in 2020 until late, carry that momentum over into Brady’s second year in Tampa. The defense remains dominant while the offense looks sharper as they hand the keys over to the GOAT. Brady chases ring No. 8 well into the winter.
Worst Case: Playing 20 games last season takes its toll on a team heavy on 30-somethings. The Bucs look sluggish early, and the Saints jet out to a lead in the NFC South. Tampa Bay still grabs a wild-card spot, but the team never gives the impression that a repeat is really within its reach.
2. SAINTS (10–7, Wild-Card)
Best Case: Winston or Hill? Why not both? Payton befuddles defenses with a revolutionary quarterback rotation, featuring the dual-threat Hill as a devastating closer, and the Saints, still deep and talented, transition smoothly from the Brees era. They win the division for a fifth straight season.
Worst Case: Quarterback ends up being the least of their worries on offense, as Thomas never looks healthy and the heavy burden placed on RB Alvin Kamara results in the superstar’s breaking down. New Orleans can’t keep up with the Bucs, and settles for a one-and-done postseason as a wild-card team.
3. FALCONS (6–11)
Best Case: Atlanta shows it kept Ryan for a reason, as the 36-year-old QB looks revived in Smith’s offense and Pitts shows why he was the highest-drafted tight end ever. While the defense still struggles at times, the Falcons win enough shootouts to grab a surprise wild-card spot in the NFC.
Worst Case: The team spends most of the season searching for an identity, as Ryan is undeniably in decline and the offense—and the locker room—misses Jones. The defense is shaky once again, and the Falcons enter the offseason wondering whether they should finally commit to a complete rebuild.
4. PANTHERS (4–13)
Best Case: It’s still baby steps for the Panthers, but they clearly have something special brewing on defense, as Burns specifically takes a leap into superstardom. RB Christian McCaffrey, who last season missed 13 games with a variety of injuries, returns to his All-Pro form and Darnold shows enough to keep the job heading into 2022.
Worst Case: Darnold shows why the Jets bailed on him, as the quarterback remains far too erratic, despite making the occasional highlight-reel play. A rising young defense keeps the score respectable most weeks, but the Panthers know they’re going nowhere until they find a QB.
More Division Previews:
AFC East: Can the Bills Hold Off the New-Look Pats?
AFC North: Cleveland's Time Has Arrived
AFC South: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top
AFC West: The Chiefs, and Then What?
NFC East: It Can Only Get Better
NFC North: Leaders Are the Pack, Again
NFC West: Battle to Be Best of the Best