The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – NFC South

When I tweeted that this first portion of this guide was unsustainably long, I wasn’t kidding! Compiling this array of half-baked takes was supposed to be thing that keeps me busy in between diaper changes, in the few fleeting minutes where I have something resembling mental energy. Typing up 3,000 words on the least interesting division in the sport is not a judicious use of those resources! What business do I have running around trying to puff up my weak-ass opinions, anyway? Writing this guide was never going to be my ticket to the big time (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

What’s worse is I’ve clearly lost sight of the stated goals of The New Parents’ Guide, which is to provide an NFL season preview to the uh…masses?…without actually having the time to do so, and to achieve this lofty goal unburdened by the cumbersome yokes of quality writing, considered arguments, and supporting evidence. In light of Tuesday’s disaster, which left me exhausted, depressed, and feeling like an imposter trying to hang with the sportswriters who know what they’re doing, I hereby recommit to these stated goals of the New Parents’ Guide. Gone are the Pro Football Reference links and the padded-out team previews and the panicked hand-wringing as I try desperately to think of something interesting to say about each facet of every team. Instead, the the following opinions will be not only pithy, they’ll be so under-supported that they will effectively serve as riddles, and inevitably say more about me than the teams in question.

Enough babbling, time for some uh…other babbling!

Atlanta Falcons

The consensus opinion on the Falcons is that, in choosing to keep Matt Ryan around, the team is attempting to start winning as quickly as possible. I suppose that’s admirable, but also, why? The Falcons haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, and not simply because of bad luck. To the extent that they have any hope of making a playoff push this year, those hopes rest with an offensive revitalization, courtesy of new head coach Arthur Smith. At first, I though Smith was a weird choice – I didn’t think anyone thought the Falcons’ offense was the source of their woes – but they have struggled to run effectively as of late. Smith is another one of those zone running and play action guys, and should be able to get decent production out of small sample size champion Mike Davis, fresh off of his semi-impressive season with the Panthers.

I don’t know how many games the Falcons actually stand to win this year, but they should at least score some points. Julio is gone, having forced is way out of town via trade, but Calvin Ridley is also very good and should have little trouble serving as Ryan’s top target. People who are prone to be excited about rookies before they play a snap are excited to see what fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts can do, and while I’m sure Pitts is pretty good I am not one of those people, and tight end is a tough position for rookies to get the hang of. I am less sure about the defense. Turns out, they weren’t so bad last year; after Dan Quinn was fired, they did will enough to finish middle-of-the-pack in defensive DVOA. Grady Jarrett is a damn good defensive tackle, and Deion Jones is a guy whose name I…also know. That means he’s kind of good, maybe?

I’m deeply skeptical that a good offense and a possibly surprisingly effective, if everything goes right defense will be enough to drag the Falcons to as much as a Wild Card, but unlike their non-Tampa based competition in the division, they at least have a plan that makes sense enough on paper. That’s something, right?

Max Points: 8

Preseason strength of schedule analysis is largely meaningless, but it would seem that the Falcons’ draw isn’t too shabby. They have the NFC and AFC East, and also drew Jacksonville for their 17th game. They should be able to whale on the Giants and Jets at very least, and they have a clear leg up on the Panthers, and I’ll bet they can at least split their series with the Saints. Also, if they start overachieving and the offense looks better than advertised, I can easily see them being worth more points than this preliminary (and therefore, inherently conservative) estimate.

Predicted Finish: 2nd

Carolina Panthers

2019 was a couple of seasons ago, granted, but I’m a historically minded guy, and past is prologue. Since I live in Raleigh and didn’t have Red Zone that season, I ended up watching more Panthers games than a neutral observer should have to. After Ron Rivera was fired, I had never seen any professional sports team look more checked out. I don’t begrudge the players one bit, either. I’ve suffered through enough bullshit jobs where some asshole takes over as new boss, makes a bunch of horseshit changes in the name of “disruption” or whatever, and in so doing cause all of the workers to recognize that their job no longer deserves their best effort. This was my first impression of David Tepper as new Panthers owner, and it immediately established him as a guy who has no fucking clue what he’s doing, but is gonna do it anyway, because that’s what disruptors do, or whatever.

Therefore, I had more or less written off Matt Rhule as destined for failure as soon as his hiring was announced, and I am pleased to note that last year’s Panthers showed me absolutely nothing to dissuade me from this line of reasoning. They brought in my dude Teddy Bridgewater, gave him an actually kind of fat contract, and then, when Bridgewater proved he’s still fundamentally himself (reads the field well, but too eager to take the easy check down and sucks in the red zone) Rhule and company shunted him off to Denver for the football equivalent of a half-eaten bag of circus peanuts, but not before (or was it after? I don’t remember and can’t be bothered to look it up) trading away actual draft capital – not so much as a first round pick, but actual picks nonetheless – for fucking Sam Darnold.

If Carson Wentz was maybe the Worst Quarterback in Football last season, his only real competition for this dubious prize was Darnold. And yeah, Adam Gase sucks mondo ass and has a demonstrated tendency to make his quarterbacks worse, but I simply cannot fathom the level of coach brains involved in believing you can fix Darnold’s issues and make him the solution to your problems a scant year after giving Bridgewater a sizeable contract, then shipping him off when you couldn’t fix his issues in a sufficiently timely fashion. I have no idea what this coaching staff thinks they’re doing, and I don’t think they do, either.

Max Points: 2

Well, they have the good fortune of playing the Texans, so there’s one win right there. Outside of that, though, I have a tough time finding games where I’m even comfortable penciling in a win, including against the likes of the Giants. There’s probably enough talent on the team that they’ll overcome some (but not all) of the crappier teams they face, and they can probably squeak out a 2-4ish division record, but I cannot rightly advise trusting this team with your precious points.

Predicted Finish: 4th

New Orleans Saints

Imagine you’re the Saints. After spending a few seasons wandering in purgatory despite having the services of a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback on your team because your defense is world historically terrible, you end up with such a monster draft class that it not only fixes your defense more or less overnight, it also immediately pries open an honest-to-flying-spaghetti-monster Super Bowl contention window! This isn’t just any contention window, either; it lasts a full four fucking seasons, which is often a season or two longer than most such windows end up being. But alas, this window ends up entirely wasted. It doesn’t result in as much as a single Super Bowl appearance, and only lands you in one NFC Championship Game. You go into four separate playoffs with realistic title aspirations, and leave all four empty-handed, with all four defeats each being deeply improbable in their own unique way. As a final insult, the last of these elimination humiliations came against a division rival you not only utterly pantsed twice in the regular season, but has a quarterback who is somehow both older and more vital than your own, now visibly toasted legend. After the game is over, your quarterback retires, slamming the contention window shut with a conclusive thud.

So then, if you’re Sean Payton and the Saints, what do you do now? It’s not like your team is suddenly untalented; your defense has at least one superstar at every level, and your offense sports quite possibly the single best dual-threat running back in the game today. But great quarterbacks simply do not grow on trees, and your options are particularly thin. Your first (and probably best) option is a guy who supposedly has all the physical tools you could want at the position but almost none of the mental ones, and who therefore hands the ball to someone wearing the wrong color jersey a little too readily. Your other option is a best described as a gimmick player; he can line up at a bunch of different positions and do some impressive things at all of them, but can only consistently complete a forward pass when the opposing defense doesn’t actually think he’s gonna throw one.

I think I’ve made my point here, so enough of the rhetorical gimmicks. I feel like I’ve seen multiple articles predicting the Saints will still be pretty good this year, and to me, that’s overlooking the obvious. I also feel like I keep hearing that Taysom Hill is ahead in the QB competition, which makes me worried Sean Payton considers said competition a practical joke being made at the expense of the entire league, including his own team. Then again, Jameis Winston sucks ass. He couldn’t do a good job when he had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and Cameron Brate to throw to, and the Saints have no such riches at receiver. Yes, they still have Michael Thomas, but they may only have him for the moment; as of this writing, Thomas is so disgruntled with the team he’s sending out vague subtweets in Comic Sans, although it looks like he deleted the Tweet in question. I hold Alvin Kamara in the highest respect, but he’s only one man, and he’s a running back, to boot. The Saints are not going to have the good fortune of playing the 2020 Vikings seventeen times this year, so even a back of Kamara’s caliber will only be able to do so much.

This has been a lot more words that I’ve had for any of the other teams in this division, but that’s because I find these Saints fascinating. That’s not a compliment, though. Yes, Sean Payton is a smart guy, and if anyone can figure out how to craft an effective offense with no quarterback and maybe one wide receiver, it’s him. And there is enough talent elsewhere that, even if their passing game stinks, winning ugly with ball control and defense is a potentially viable path to success. But betting on a team being able to win ugly is a sucker bet in this day and age, and I think the chances the Saints will struggle without a real quarterback are too damningly high, especially with the potentially resurgent Falcons and the loaded Buccaneers in their division.

Max Points: 7

I know I engaged in a lot of pessimism just now, so allow me to once again point out that this team is still swimming in talent in a lot of key positions, and they have one of the finest coaching staffs in the league, to boot. My point is that I don’t think much of this team’s ceiling; their floor, on the other hand, is pretty high indeed. I doubt the wheels come off entirely, and I’m reasonably certain Payton and Co. will find ways to handle business against some (if not all) of the crappier teams on their schedule.

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Well, shit. Against the expressly stated wishes of the sports-observing public and decent folk everywhere else, the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers won the fucking Super Bowl. It took everything within me not to type “the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers won the fucking Super Bowl, again” despite the obvious fact that this was the first time this happened, or could have happened. The Buccaneers spent the regular season looking streaky – capable of smashing the Packers into goo but also losing to the Bears, and a clear second banana to the Saints – and then ran through the playoffs with relative ease, to a degree that made their eventual victory feel inevitable in hindsight. Goddammit.

The Buccaneers are also bringing back all of their starters from last year, and with Brady looking perfectly capable despite his age and also coming into this season with both experience with and comfort in Bruce Arians’ legendarily difficult offense (albeit in no small part by adding tweaks of his own), the Bucs are the clear favorites to win the NFC, yet again. If you are looking for comfort from the harsh truth of this team’s inevitability, you’ll have to look elsewhere, towards even less reputable take providers who are even more willing to say untenable shit in search of precious clicks. That said, I think it is worth pointing out that every year, everyone and their cats talks up the reigning Super Bowl Champions as loaded and primed to repeat, despite the fact that no one repeats as Super Bowl Champions anymore. Really, the 2014 Seahawks, 2017 Patriots, and last year’s Chiefs are the only teams that have come close in the past 15 years or so. And, upon reflection, even three teams coming close to repeating feels like kind of a lot. The league is volatile, and few seasons go according to expectation. Also, the Bucs have more or less sacrificed their salary cap future to Melektaus in order to bring everyone back in the first place, so this year might be their last as true contenders, even if Brady keeps playing at a high level until climate change renders organized professional sports an untenable pursuit.

Max Points: 16

Again, they’re the favorites in the NFC for what feels like a countless number of reasons. On top of that, plenty of the games that I consider potentially tricky for their rivals scan as more than manageable when a superior team is playing them. I’m not going to think twice about picking the Bucs when they play a team on the level of Washington or Miami or whatever, and since they seem vastly better equipped to handle business than the other teams in their division, it also follows they’ll mostly feast on them, too.

Predicted Finish: 1st

AFC South / AFC East / NFC East / AFC West / NFC West / AFC North / NFC North

9 thoughts on “The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – NFC South

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