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NFC South 2018 divisional preview Week 1 is finally upon us! The Falcons play football in approximately 48 hours Youth Keanu Neal Jersey , which is awesome. Before that, however, it might be a good idea to check in on our greatest competition: our rivals in the NFC South. This is a division that sent three teams to the playoffs in 2017, which is a pretty incredible feat in a stacked conference. Is that likely to happen again in 2018, and who ends up on top when the dust clears? Check out my predictions and thoughts on the other teams below.For reference, here is how the division finished in 2017:New Orleans Saints* 11-5Carolina Panthers* 11-5Atlanta Falcons* 10-6Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11New Orleans Saints2017 Record: 11-52018 Projection: 10-6Major Additions: EDGE Marcus Davenport (draft), CB Patrick Robinson (FA), LB Demario Davis (FA), S Kurt Coleman (FA), TE Benjamin Watson (FA), QB Teddy Bridgewater (trade)Major Losses: S Kenny Vaccaro, OL Senio Kelemete, CB Delvin Breaux, WR Willie Snead, QB Chase DanielThe Saints were among the NFC’s best teams in 2017, and the trend is likely to continue in 2018. They benefited greatly from a phenomenal draft class that produced five starters, and managed to stay relatively healthy throughout the year. New Orleans also had a ridiculously efficient offense that is likely to come back down to earth somewhat this season.The Saints added some interesting pieces this offseason. Marcus Davenport required two first round picks—a gamble that the developmental pass rusher will turn into a top-tier player sooner rather than later. Patrick Robinson, Demario Davis, and Kurt Coleman are all serviceable starters. Ben Watson is quite old and their only real option at TE—that position is likely to be a weakness in 2018. A last minute trade for Teddy Bridgewater solidified their back-up QB spot, but it was a costly move that required a 3rd round pick.New Orleans lost a few big names—Vaccaro and Breaux were long-hyped by Saints fans as high-level players—but nobody that will significantly move the needle for this team. Willie Snead seemed to fall out of favor last season, but had been a quality receiving option before that. Chase Daniel was a dependable and reliable back-up QB—his loss had the Saints scrambling for QB help, and they ended up trading for Bridgewater.The Saints will still be very good in 2017, but this “all-in” strategy is going to cost them long-term. Giving up next year’s first and third round pick will make 2019 a thin class at the top. We’ve seen how big trades can gut the depth of rosters—look no further than 2013 and 2014 in Atlanta. With the Saints already cutting three of their 2018 draft picks—4th round T Rick Leonard, 5th round DB Natrell Jamerson, and 6th round CB Kamrin Moore—the stage is set for this team to potentially face a serious downfall after Brees’ retirement in 1-2 seasons.Carolina Panthers2017 Record: 11-52018 Projection: 8-8Major Additions: DT Dontari Poe (FA), WR D.J. Moore (draft), CB Donte Jackson (draft) Authentic Julio Jones Jersey , S Da’Norris Searcy (FA), WR Torrey Smith (trade) Major Losses: LG Andrew Norwell, EDGE Charles Johnson, CB Daryl Worley, S Kurt Coleman, QB Derek AndersonThe Panthers were an exciting team in 2017 that—arguably—overachieved based on their roster. Carolina went an incredible 8-1 in one-score games last season, a feat that is nearly impossible to replicate. There is almost certainly going to be some regression to the mean from probability alone, but what about the state of the roster?Obviously Cam Newton is the engine that drives the offense, and sophomore RB Christian McCaffrey is going to be called upon to become a focal point. The Panthers fired longtime offensive coordinator Mike Shula and brought in Norv Turner for the job—the same Norv Turner that quit in Minnesota in 2016. I’m not sure how well Turner’s offensive style fits with the Panthers, but it might not matter all that much. The reason? Injuries, particularly on the offensive line. LT Matt Kalil is on IR. LG Amini Silatolu is hurt. RT Daryl Williams appears to have made a miraculous recovery after a knee injury that could’ve been season-ending, but he’s still only a little over a month past his surgery. Carolina already lost LG Andrew Norwell—among the best in the game at his position—in free agency. This offensive line could end up being a huge liability.Former Falcons DT Dontari Poe signed a big deal to join the Panthers and should help solidify a stout defensive line. Carolina added WR D.J. Moore and CB Donte Jackson in the first two rounds of the draft. S Da’Norris Searcy came in to replace Kurt Coleman, but that is likely going to be a downgrade. CB Ross Cockrell—who was expected to be the CB2 next to James Bradberry—suffered a season-ending injury in camp. The secondary is short on proven players with Daryl Worley shipped off to Philadelphia in the offseason. Carolina will be depending on a lot of young players on both sides of the ball to keep them from falling behind.Tampa Bay Buccaneers2017 Record: 5-112018 Projection: 6-10Major Additions: C Ryan Jensen, EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul (FA), EDGE Vinny Curry (FA), DT Vita Vea (draft), RB Ronald Jones (draft)Major Losses: EDGE Robert Ayers, C Joe Hawley, S T.J. WardOh, the Bucs. It seems like every year, Tampa Bay gets hyped as the “up-and-coming” team. The trendy pick to go from worst-to-first. And, like clockwork, every year they fall spectacularly short. This year appears no different, but fewer people are behind them now with the news of Jameis Winston’s 3-game suspension. That suspension—for groping an Uber driver—has put Winston’s future with the team in doubt, and he’ll need to put together a very good season for the Bucs to consider giving him a big contract after this year.That means we’ll get to see Ryan Fitzpatrick once again for the first three games of the season—and those three games are absolutely brutal for Tampa Bay. Most are projecting them to go 0-3, and it would be genuinely surprising if they didn’t. Recovering from 0-3 (or worse) certainly isn’t impossible—we saw the Saints do it last season—but it’ll be very difficult for this Bucs’ team against an absolutely stacked NFC South.The good news for Tampa Bay is that the defensive line looks much better all-around. Additions like Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry should give the Bucs’ some semblance of a pass rush for the first time in forever. C Ryan Jensen was brought in to replace the retiring Joe Hawley, and he should be an upgrade there. In the draft Matt Ryan Jersey , Tampa Bay added DT Vita Vea and RB Ronald Jones in the first and second rounds. Neither of those two are likely to have major roles to start the season—Vea because of injury, Jones because of...well, he’s been bad. That’s not a great omen.Overall, this team basically has the same issues that it has had over the past two years. The offensive line is passable but not a strength. There are big problems in the secondary, where Brent Grimes is solid but the rest of the group is a giant question mark. Somehow, Chris Conte is still a starting safety in Tampa Bay. The Bucs have a quality group of receivers and TEs, as usual, but the RBs are not a position of strength. I think this Tampa Bay team improves in the win column, but not enough to make much of a difference.The NFC South is still quite talented in 2018, but I expect the Saints to regress slightly and the Panthers to regress in a big way. The Bucs will actually improve—albeit by 1 game—but that probably won’t be enough to save Koetter’s job. This is still going to be a difficult division, and the Falcons’ playoff fortunes will likely rest on how well they play against their closest rivals.Here is my final prediction for how the NFC South will shake out in 2018:Atlanta Falcons* 12-4New Orleans Saints* 10-6Carolina Panthers 8-8Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10The changing of the guard continues at the top of the NFC South, as is customary, with the Falcons taking home the division title in 2018. New Orleans is right behind them at 10-6, and they lock up a Wild Card berth despite playing a tough first place schedule. The Panthers fall a bit to 8-8 due to some statistical regression and a few very thin position groups—the offensive line and secondary come to mind. Tampa Bay is...well, they’re still in the basement of the division. Until they get a new coaching staff, they’re likely to stay there.What are your thoughts on the NFC South heading into the 2018 season? Which team are you most concerned about this season? Who do you think might surprise—in a good or bad way—this year? The Atlanta Falcons came into the season with such high expectations.Then, a jarring dose of reality.As if a carbon-copy loss in Week 1 wasn't bad enough, two significant injuries on defense have left this team reeling as it prepares for Sunday's home opener against division rival Carolina.The Falcons lost hard-hitting strong safety Keanu Neal to a season-ending knee injury and were forced to put middle linebacker Deion Jones on injured reserve with a foot problem. While Jones is facing a much shorter recovery period, he won't be eligible to return until Week 11.Just like that, the Falcons are missing two cornerstones of their promising young defense, a pair of third-year players who were both picked for the Pro Bowl last season."Let's not sugarcoat it," defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said after practice Wednesday. "This week, honestly, were two devastating blows."Duke Riley, who had been starting on the weak side, will move inside to replace Jones. Neal's starting spot in the secondary goes to Damontae Kazee, who was one of the team's most impressive players during the preseason but it still rather new to the position after playing cornerback in college."We'll ask those guys to do the things they do best http://www.authenticsatlantafalcons.com/cheap-matt-bosher-jersey ," coach Dan Quinn said. "We won't feature them in exactly the same way we did Deion and (Neal). We'll ask them to play the style that suits them and suits us, too."The Falcons had been working Riley as both a middle and outside linebacker with this very scenario in mind. He was a bit of a disappointment as a rookie, but Quinn said he had shown significant improvement heading into his second season.The trickle down of Jones' injury is that rookie Foyesade Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale, moves up to start on the outside. Kemal Ishmael could also get playing time at that position."That's football. People get injured," Ismael said. "New guys have got to step up. We created this team just for that."While the defense is breaking in two new starters, the offense is still dealing with the same ol' issue.Ineptitude in the red zone.In an 18-12 loss to Super Bowl champion Philadelphia, the Falcons managed only one touchdown and nine points out of five drives inside the Eagles 20. On the final play of the game from the 5, Julio Jones landed out of bounds after leaping to catch Matt Ryan's pass 鈥?essentially, the same way the previous season ended with a divisional round playoff loss to the Eagles.The opener turned up the heat on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, whose play-calling was widely panned on social media. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner tweeted that Philadelphia ran the same defensive scheme on the last four plays of the game, but the Falcons never seemed to figure it out."They played 7 across," Warner wrote. "Needed to attack 1 zone w/ 2 guys & it's an easy TD 鈥?they kept sending guys 2 different zones??? Beat zone by overloading it!"Quinn came to Sarkisian's defense.Well, sort of."For sure, we're not scoring in the red zone like we're capable of," Quinn said. "It's not all execution or the calls. But we've got plenty of work to do down there. There are a number of things where I would like to see improvement."Most notably, the Falcons attempted 43 passes against Philadelphia but ran the ball only 18 times."We play best when we have good balance between the run and the pass," Quinn said. "That's what we need to be. The run game 鈥?how we feature our backs, the play action that goes with it 鈥?that's where so many of our explosive plays come from. We've got to work to get that right."Ryan agreed with that assessment, but also said it's far too soon to go into panic mode."It's a small sample size," the quarterback said. "I believe the work we put in is going to pay off for us as we move forward. I believe that our execution is going to be better the next time we're down there."Notes: RB Devonta Freeman (knee) did not practice Wednesday, raising concerns that he may not be ready to go against the Panthers. RB Brian Hill was promoted from the practice squad, a further sign the Falcons are concerned about Freeman's status. ... OG Ben Garland (calf) and WR Russell Gage (knee) also sat out practice.Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at s://apnews/search/paul%20newberry
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