NFC South 2019 preview: Best- and worst-case scenarios for each team

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New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees goes over the top for the winning touchdown in overtime to beat the Atlanta Falcons 43-37 in an NFL football game in Atlanta in 2018. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 5.

Today, we look at best- and worst-case scenarios for the NFC South. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2019 standings.)

New Orleans Saints

2018 finish: 13-3, lost OT heartbreaker to Rams in NFC Championship

Major additions: RB Latavius Murray, TE Jared Cook, C Nick Easton, C/G Erik McCoy, S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

Major subtractions: RB Mark Ingram, C Max Unger, TE Ben Watson

Best-case scenario: They win the division for a third consecutive year, get a first-round bye and advance to the Super Bowl. The Saints could be in the midst of a dynasty, yet after dramatic playoff exits in back-to-back years thanks to a miraculous Case Keenum-to-Stefon Diggs walk-off TD and the worst non-call in recent NFL playoff history, the Saints have come up empty-handed.

However, since Sean Payton’s roster is built around Drew Brees (whose completion percentage has stayed at or above 70 per cent since 2016) plus elite ancillary stars like WR Michael Thomas, RB Alvin Kamara and DE Cameron Jordan, the Saints remain a team capable of legitimately contending for a championship.

Worst-case scenario: Brees’s age finally catches up to him, the offence can’t stretch the field and the fan base begins pondering whether or not Taysom Hill has what it takes to be the starter in 2020. If the defence remains a middle-of-the-pack unit and they start losing the close games they won in 2018 – four of which were by a field goal or less – it’ll feel like this team is stuck in second gear and capable of much more. They were also the NFC’s best road team in 2018, going 7-1, which was a complete anomaly for New Orleans and likely unsustainable.

2019 prediction: 11-5 with an early playoff exit

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Atlanta Falcons

2018 finish: 7-9, missed playoffs

Major additions: G James Carpenter, G Jamon Brown, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Allen Bailey, G Chris Lindstrom, OT Kaleb McGary, CB Kendall Sheffield, K Giorgio Tavecchio.

The team is also getting back starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, plus linebacker Deion Jones after all of them went down with long-term injuries by Week 3 last season. Neal and Jones in particular are potential All-Pros and vital to the success of this defence.

Major subtractions: G Andy Levitre, K Matt Bryant, RB Tevin Coleman, CB Robert Alford, DB/ST Justin Bethel

Best-case scenario: The defence performs like the dynamic, aggressive, ball-hawking group Dan Quinn envisioned them being and the offensive remains just as productive. Julio Jones leads the league in receiving yards for a second straight year, while Matt Ryan returns to his 2016 MVP form because he’s afforded more time in the pocket. We saw the Colts spend two high draft picks on offensive linemen in 2018 and it paid off with a surprise playoff appearance. The Falcons did the same in 2019, selecting RG Chris Lindstrom 14th overall then trading back into the first round to take RT Kaleb McGary at No. 31. If the youthful right side of the line holds up, this Dirk Koetter offence has no excuse not to be great.

Worst-case scenario: The injury-bug biting again and/or the offensive line not holding up is top concern, but the Falcons also have an odd and difficult schedule to deal with. They don’t play a divisional opponent until Week 10 following their bye, which means six of Atlanta’s final eight opponents are against NFC South rivals.

2019 prediction: 11-5 with a surprise trip to the NFC Championship

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Carolina Panthers

2018 finish: 7-9, missed playoffs

Major additions: DT Gerald McCoy, C Matt Paradis, DE/OLB Bruce Irvin, WR Chris Hogan, WR Aldrick Robinson, DE/OLB Brian Burns, OT Greg Little, QB Will Grier

Major subtractions: C Ryan Kalil, LB Thomas Davis, WR Devin Funchess, DE Julius Peppers, S Mike Adams

Best-case scenario: Cam Newton’s shoulder doesn’t hinder his ability to make plays and the offence returns to form, while the revamped 3-4 defence gives opponents nightmares. Six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy joining fellow 300-pounders Kawann Short and Dontari Poe on the d-line with Luke Kuechly still holding down the fort at linebacker gives this team an imposing front seven, which naturally makes the secondary’s job that much easier.

Worst-case scenario: Newton’s off-season shoulder surgery doesn’t improve his ability to throw the ball – a rather important skill for a QB to possess, we think – or his pre-season foot injury becomes a problem and they resemble the team that went 1-7 in the second half of 2018. The good news is Carolina has one of the better offensive lines in the league and a playbook full of throw-short, run-long type plays that should aid Newton. If the Panthers finish below .500 for the third time in the past four years, head coach Ron Rivera’s job might be in jeopardy.

2019 prediction: 9-7 with a shot at a wild-card spot

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2018 finish: 5-11, missed playoffs for 11th straight season

Major additions: DT Ndamukong Suh, DE/OLB Shaq Barrett, LB Deone Bucannon, S Kentrell Brice, LB Devin White, CB Sean Bunting, CB Jamel Dean, S Mike Edwards, DT Anthony Nelson, WR Breshad Perriman, G Earl Watford, P Bradley Pinion, K Matt Gay

Major subtractions: DT Gerald McCoy, LB Kwon Alexander, CB Brent Grimes, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Adam Humphries, DE Vinny Curry, RB Jacquizz Rodgers

Best-case scenario: The newly formed all-star coaching staff led by Bruce Arians, OC Byron Leftwich and DC Todd Bowles galvanizes a team that has become far too familiar with the NFC South’s basement and they become one of the feel-good success stories of the 2019 season. In order for this to happen, you guessed it, quarterback Jameis Winston needs to have a career year. The first-overall pick from 2015 hasn’t lived up to expectations but there is a real sense of optimism that the 25-year-old has finally turned the corner. Good news is he’s got the weapons to succeed, namely star wide receiver Mike Evans.

Worst-case scenario: Despite a slew of promising defensive upgrades, which was the focus of their draft and in free agency, they remain a Swiss cheese defence with a porous secondary. The roster doesn’t gel with the new head coach and coordinators and Winston continues making the silly, ill-timed mistakes he’s become known for. With a weak run game plus backup QBs that lack the “Fitzmagic” required to steal games, this team won’t even sniff .500 if Winston stays the same Winston football fans have become familiar.

2019 prediction: 7-9 but progress is made

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