Entering the 2023 NFL season, many pegged the NFC South as the worst division in football. With the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Carolina Panthers all in retool mode but playing better than expected, the division is flipping the script in a manner that would make any Hollywood writer proud.
As we enter week 3, the division yields three unbeaten teams: New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta. The Saints, with veteran quarterback Derek Carr freed from his Raiders handcuffs, were expected to be where they are and easily win the division. But the Falcons and Buccaneers are turning heads and have made everyone think twice about how 2023 may play out.
But the question looms large: Can these teams sustain their blazing start? Let’s delve into analyzing the potential of each, and the pitfalls ahead.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers lead Surprising Underdogs
Let’s begin with the least expected but most shocking turn of events in the NFC South – the Buccaneers and the Falcons’ faster-than-expect rejuvenation.
The Buccaneers, buoyed by a reinvigorated Baker Mayfield, are changing minds thanks, in part, to the play of their new quarterback who replaced legend Tom Brady. Mayfield seems to have found his rhythm, marshaling his team with the sort of fiery enthusiasm and pinpoint accuracy that was anticipated when he initially entered the league.
Many believed Mayfield viewed this as his last true chance to gain a role as a starter in the NFL and he’s taken advantage going 47-of-68 (69.1%) for 490 yards and three touchdowns for a QB rating of 104.4. Mayfield has only been sacked once and has yet to turn over the ball.
Tampa Bay isn’t alone in this newfound spotlight. The Atlanta Falcons have a welcomed advantage in the form of newcomer Bijan Robinson, who has made a remarkable entrance into the league, exuding the poise and self-assurance of a veteran. Robinson is coming off a 19-carry, 124-yard performance against Green Bay and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry over two games.
Add in a nice performance by first-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder, and the Falcons accelerated journey to respectability seems on track.
The New Orleans Saints advantage
It’s simple to look at the rosters of all four teams in the NFC South and see that the Saints have the most complete and ready-to-compete team. The addition of Carr was huge for Dennis Allen’s team, and with a balanced attack on both sides of the ball and a leadership core that seems poised for a deep run, the Saints are certainly the team to beat in the division.
Yet their two wins were not decisive and Carr has been good but has shown some of the inconsistencies that drove Raiders fans crazy for almost a decade. Carr is completing 64% of his passes, averaging 7.7 yards per completion. But he has just one touchdown and two interceptions in the Saints’ first two games — not exactly a hot hand.
The Saints are also struggling in the red zone scoring on only 37.5% of possessions inside the 20 with only three touchdowns in two games putting them 29th overall in the NFL.
Despite that, all the weapons are there on offense for the Saints to eventually score more. New Orleans’ three wide receivers are putting up impressive numbers as Chris Olave (198), Rashid Shaheed (152), and Michael Thomas (116) all find quick connections with Carr. The Saints’ rushing game is missing its best weapon in the suspended Alvin Kamara, who returns in Week 5 but getting by.
The Saints’ defense has continued its dominance managing to hold their opponents under 20 points for an impressive 10 consecutive games. That’s a franchise record and the timing couldn’t be better as the offense finds its way in the red zone.
The litmus test: Upcoming NFC South schedules
As we look ahead further into the season, the true test of this resurgence in the NFC South will be found in the remainder of the three team’s schedules.
According to Sharp Football Analysis, the two easiest schedules in the NFL belong to the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, in that order. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were ranked as having the 10th most difficult schedule in 2023 showing the Buccaneers have a big hill to climb to keep on pace with the other two teams.
Besides the schedules, all three teams must maintain or increase their current production level over time. That’s not always easy in a league where injuries and attrition have a way of evening things out as the season progresses.
The Saints seem poised to fulfill preseason predictions of winning the division come January. Unexpectedly, the Buccaneers and Falcons are breathing down their necks with every game becoming a potential banana peel opening the door to a Cinderella story.