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NFC South Preview and Predictions: It’s Still Brady’s Bucs After Offseason of Upheaval

The GOAT continues to stand tall in Tampa while the rest of the division scrambles for a semblance of order.

No division in football has undergone more upheaval than the NFC South, where every team will enter the 2022 season with either a new head coach or a new projected starting quarterback. The team with the greatest claim to stability? It’s the one whose coach and Hall of Fame tight end retired—and whose quarterback retired, too, only to reverse course after 40 days, and then took a chunk of the summer off.

The Bucs’ change at the top should not be that radical, because Todd Bowles had been Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator for three seasons before he was promoted to replace head coach Bruce Arians. And Tom Brady, 45, is the ultimate stabilizer. Any hand-wringing over his age seems foolish given his continued level of excellence; last year he threw for a career-high 5,316 yards. But it is fair to wonder whether he will be affected by the retirement of Rob Gronkowski and the questionable status of receiver Chris Godwin, who tore his ACL last December and will likely miss time early in the season, or by season-ending injuries to two interior linemen, center Ryan Jensen and left guard Aaron Stinnie. The NFL’s fifth-best scoring defense returns largely intact, with the only change of note being that veteran free agent Akiem Hicks replaces Ndamukong Suh on the defensive line.

New Orleans will be led by someone other than Sean Payton for the first time in 15 seasons, but the team is not simply tearing down and starting over under new coach Dennis Allen, promoted from defensive coordinator. When they lost veteran safeties Marcus Williams (to free agency) and Malcolm Jenkins (to retirement), the Saints went out and added replacements in Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. The defense, the team’s strength, is still loaded with veteran talent, including two 30-something All-Pros, linebacker Demario Davis and edge rusher Cam Jordan. On offense New Orleans replaced another free-agent loss, tackle Terron Armstead, by trading for a second first-round pick and grabbing Trevor Penning of Northern Iowa. While the receiving corps should be strong, with a Michael Thomas returning and being joined by Chris Olave, the speedy 11th pick from Ohio State, and new slot man Jarvis Landry, quarterback is a question. Jameis Winston tore his ACL in October; backing him up is recent Bears discard Andy Dalton.

The Panthers should have a new starting QB after acquiring Baker Mayfield from the Browns on July 6. Even though Cleveland chose to move on from the top pick of the 2018 draft, Mayfield is just two seasons removed from a career year with the Browns, and he’ll have plenty to work with in receivers D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson, as well as Christian McCaffrey as a pass-catching force out of the backfield. It will be up to Carolina’s new offensive coordinator, former Giants head coach Ben McAdoo, to get the parts working.

The Falcons seem to be setting up shop in the division’s basement, especially after a humiliating divorce from 14-season starter Matt Ryan following the team’s failure to acquire Deshaun Watson, the subject of more than two dozen accounts of sexual harrasment and sexual assault when the Falcons were pursuing him. So Marcus Mariota, who had been a Raiders backup the last two seasons, reunites with coach Arthur Smith, his former offensive coordinator in Tennessee. If Mariota falters, Smith could bench him (as he eventually did with the Titans) for third-round rookie Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati. The good news in otherwise-bleak Atlanta is that 21-year-old tight end Kyle Pitts and 23-year-old cornerback A.J. Terrell have a chance to be perennial All-Pros.

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1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 13–4
Best Case: The defense carries the team early as the offense finds its footing with two new receivers (Russell Gage and Julio Jones), and Brady has all the parts working by the time the playoffs arrive. The quarterback makes his 11th Super Bowl start.
Worst Case: Anything short of a Super Bowl victory is a disappointment for a Brady-led team, which is why a second straight divisional-round loss doesn’t go over well. Brady’s second free-agency tour (Miami? San Francisco?) unofficially starts in January.

2. New Orleans Saints: 9–8
Best Case: The defense is spectacular all year and delivers two more dominant performances against Brady’s Bucs (Allen is 4–1 against them). Thomas returns to All-Pro form, helping Winston and the offense, and the Saints have a wild-card spot wrapped up by Week 17.
Worst Case: Payton’s absence looms as large as Drew Brees’s did last year (and continues to do so). Winston forces throws into coverage and deals out interceptions in bunches. Their defense’s stellar season is wasted, and the Saints decide to tear it all down heading into 2023.

3. Carolina Panthers: 5–12
Best Case: Carolina starts 3–0 for a second straight year, but this time it sustains that success. The young defense takes the next step, but the big story is the odd couple of Mayfield and McAdoo; the QB and coordinator revive their careers as the Panthers clinch a wild-card spot.
Worst Case: Mayfield, like Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold before him, proves he’s not the long-term answer in Carolina. And the next Panthers quarterback will be selected by a different coach and general manager as owner David Tepper cleans house after the season.

4. Atlanta Falcons: 3–14
Best Case: They don’t have the right pieces, but the Falcons do have a roster that competes and steals a half dozen wins. WR Drake London is the Offensive Rookie of the Year, while Ridder starts and impresses in three late-season victories, earning the No. 1 job heading into 2023.
Worst Case: The Falcons are winless heading into December and at risk of becoming the first 0–17 team in NFL history. Their first victory, in a home game against the Steelers, comes in a near-empty stadium; the fan base seems more invested in Ryan’s run in Indy.

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