New Orleans Saints (13-3, lost to Minnesota in Wild Card round)
What happened last year
It was another highly successful regular season for the Saints, who won the NFC South for the third-straight year. Drew Brees sustained a thumb injury in Week 2, but New Orleans did not lose a beat, as Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 in his place, contributing to the team’s 7-1 start. They lost 26-9 in a disappointing game to the Falcons following their bye week, but went 6-1 after that to close out the regular season as the NFC’s third best team. Michael Thomas had a historic season, breaking Marvin Harrison’s single season catch record en route to a 149 catch, 1725 yard and nine touchdown season. He became the first wide receiver to win AP Offensive Player of the Year since Jerry Rice in 1993. The playoffs, however, turned out to be another disappointing end to a promising season, as they lost to the Vikings 26-20 in overtime at the Superdome. While it was their first one-and-done exit since 2010, it was their sixth-straight postseason loss by one possession while becoming the first 13-3 team to ever lose in the Wild Card round.
QB Jameis Winston, WR Emmanuel Sanders, TE Adam Trautman, OL Cesar Ruiz, LB Zach Baun, S Malcolm Jenkins
QB Teddy Bridgewater, FB Zach Line, G Larry Warford, G Patrick Omameh, CB Eli Apple, S Vonn Bell
Week 9: Saints at Buccaneers
While they play to open the season, the second meeting will prove to have more stakes, as both teams figure to be contenders for the division title. By November, Tom Brady will most likely be very comfortable with his teammates during in-game situations, making them a much more dangerous team than the one New Orleans will play in September.
Week 10: 49ers at Saints
A rematch of an absolute thriller from the 2019 season in which San Francisco won in the final seconds, 48-46. The 49ers are picked to be in the mix once again after bursting onto the scene during their Super Bowl run last year, and the Saints will have to face them immediately after playing at Tampa. This could be a crucial two-game swing for New Orleans.
Week 15: Chiefs vs. Saints
This will be a great chance for New Orleans to see where they stand with the league’s best. A late-season matchup with the reigning Super Bowl champions will give them an opportunity to play against high level competition and to see what they need to tweak heading into the playoffs.
X Factor: Playoff Poise
The past few seasons have featured some heartbreaking losses in the postseason for the Saints. While the officiating had some say in a few of those, it still should be said that New Orleans has not lived up to its full expectations with this core group. As mentioned earlier, they have lost six-straight playoff games by one possession. They will need poise in January in order to ensure they will be playing in February for the first time since 2010.
The window certainly hasn’t closed on this core group yet, but it is definitely closer to the end as opposed to the beginning. A Super Bowl appearance should be at the top of every Saints fans’ list, and they are warranted to expect that. The continuity they have on offense should allow them to get off to a fast start. Between Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara struggling with injuries at different points in 2019, it was hard for New Orleans to get solid footing on that side of the ball. Expect that to change in 2020. A veteran, first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback along with some Pro Bowl and All-Pro weapons, complimented by a defense that was bolstered by the addition of Janoris Jenkins (midseason pickup in 2019) and Malcolm Jenkins (offseason addition), all adds up to a team that should be the favorites to win the NFC.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
It was quite the rollercoaster of a season for Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers in 2019. Jameis Winston led the league in passing with 5109 yards and had a career-high 33 touchdown passes, but also had a league-leading 30 interceptions. The talent was there for Winston, between Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard, but the turnovers often took them out of games. They were tied for the third-highest scoring offense in all of 2019, and bolstered a lot of flashy weapons on defense, including Shaquil Barrett, who racked up a league-leading 19.5 sacks. Despite all of this, they finished 7-9, including a 2-6 start. The interceptions proved to be counterproductive, including quite a few that were pick-sixes, something that dug too deep of a hole to climb out of. It was very difficult for them to build any form of momentum throughout a game due to the unpredictability of Winston’s arm. With that being said, they still had the talent to push a lot of teams for 60 minutes.
QB Tom Brady, QB Josh Rosen, RB LeSean McCoy, RB Leonard Fournette, TE Rob Gronkowski, OT Tristan Wirfs, OT Joe Haeg, S Antoine Winfield Jr.
QB Jameis Winston, RB Peyton Barber, WR Breshad Perriman, OT Demar Dotson, DT Beau Allen, DE Carl Nassib, OLB Sam Acho, S Andrew Adams
Week 1: Buccaneers @ Saints
Tom Brady did not get any favors with his first-ever game in a new jersey, as he has to travel to play the division-favorite Saints in Week 1. What helps is cause tremendously is that fans won’t be allowed into the Superdome until Week 3. Dodged a major bullet there. He still however has to play one of the most prolific teams from last year, and will have to keep up with the point production of Brees, Kamara, and Thomas.
Week 6: Packers @ Buccaneers
A solid October test for the Buccaneers as they face another prolific quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay was one win away from the Super Bowl last season, and will be looking to get back this season with the Rodgers window seemingly closing by the year. The Tampa offense, in theory, should be much more in sync by this point as opposed to the first month.
Week 15: Buccaneers @ Falcons
A lot of people are high on Atlanta this season, and Tampa Bay won’t get its first look at them until Week 15. Having two of their last three games against the Falcons screams a split, but Brady and company hope to be on a nice roll by that point. If they can win the first meeting, that could go a long way into deciding divisional positioning. A loss would definitely hurt their chances within the division, assuming New Orleans takes care of business themselves against Atlanta.
X Factor: The Offensive Line
The Buccaneers’ offensive line last season was inconsistent to say the least. Bringing in a 43 year old quarterback should make solidifying that a priority. To Tampa’s credit, they used their first round pick on Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, someone who many think will step in with an immediate impact. During his time in New England, Brady was most effective when playing with a healthy, sturdy offensive line. If the Buccaneers can replicate that this season, they should be able to get the most out of their offseason investments on the offensive side of the ball.
When looking at the offseason moves, it draws comparisons to the “Dream Team” Eagles and last season’s Cleveland Browns. Loading up on prolific talent and trying to exceed expectations from previous seasons, Tampa Bay hopes to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007. That is a realistic expectation with this team, and one they should meet. All of the offseason workouts that Brady held, along with camp, should hopefully be parlayed into the beginning of the season. Expect a slow start, but a team spoiled with talent on both sides of the ball should be able to figure things out rather quickly. New Orleans might be the better team within the division, but still expect Tampa Bay to be in the playoff mix come January.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
It was a tale of two seasons within the 2019 campaign for the Falcons. They got off to an abysmal 1-7 start, with a large group of people calling for Dan Quinn’s job. Arthur Blank remained confident in the coaching staff, saying in October that he had hope they will fix things and start winning games. His wish came true in a big way, as Atlanta went 6-2 during the second half of the season. Quinn’s defensive background came through in a huge way, as he turned around a defense that was allowing 31.3 points per game through the first half of the season, as they allowed only 18.3 over the second half. They posted some solid wins during that stretch as well, defeating New Orleans and San Francisco both on the road.
RB Todd Gurley, WR Laquon Treadwell, TE Hayden Hurst, G Justin McCray, C Matt Hennessy DE Dante Fowler, DE Marlon Davidson, CB A.J. Terrell
RB Devonta Freeman, TE Austin Hooper, OT Ty Sambrailo, G Wes Schweitzer, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Jack Crawford, DE/OLB Vic Beasley, DT Tyeler Davison, LB De’Vondre Campbell, CB Desmond Trufant, S J.J. Wilcox, P Matt Bosher
Week 4: Falcons @ Packers
A huge opportunity for Atlanta to thrust themselves into the playoff conversation on Monday Night Football against the Packers. They proved that they could beat the NFC’s best on the road last season, and an early-season win over Aaron Rodgers would go a long way in ensuring their credibility this season.
Week 6: Falcons @ Vikings
This Vikings match-up is sandwiched in the middle of some easy games for the Falcons, who play Carolina the week before, and then Detroit and Carolina again after. If Atlanta can go on the road and avenge their 28-12 loss in Week 1 of 2019, it could go a long way in a potential four-game winning streak if everything falls into place.
Week 9: Broncos @ Falcons
Right after that stretch of winnable games, the Falcons host the Broncos right before the bye week. Assuming they win at least three of those four coming into this game, they will be one of the hotter teams in the league. Denver poses a feisty threat, with a young quarterback who is developing with the young weapons around him. A win here would be vital going into the bye.
X Factor: The Defense
The defense is huge this season. Due to what happened last year, Atlanta better hope they get the defense from the second half of the season, or else they will get torched by the prolific offenses of New Orleans and Tampa Bay, who they play twice each. They also play Dallas, Green Bay, and Kansas City all on the road. If Quinn can get the defense to hold steady, despite losing guys such as Vic Beasley (their sack leader from 2019) and De’Vondre Campbell (their tackle leader from 2019), they will be able to contend in a lot of these games.
Atlanta is one of the most intriguing teams in the NFC this season. They could go 10-6, they could go 6-10. No one really knows what to expect from this team. There will be a lot of pressure on the offense, who with the addition of Todd Gurley now has a first-round draft pick at every single position. If the offense can score points like they did in 2016-17, then the defense won’t have to be as honed in on, but Atlanta probably does not want to get into scoring duels with Brady and Brees. This is a franchise that has not made the playoffs since the 2017-18 season, despite retaining a lot of key pieces over the years. Being able to keep guys like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones for so long is a rarity, and before this window closes, they need to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, they play in the same division as two first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Gurley should help add another dimension to the offense, and the addition of Hayden Hurst should give Ryan another place to throw to. If they were in any other division in football it might be an easier playoff pick, but this season it’ll be a wait-and-see deal with the Falcons.
Carolina Panthers (5-11, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
2019 marked the final season of the most successful stretch in Carolina’s franchise history. They fired Ron Rivera during the season, who won 76 games from 2011-19, and led Carolina into seven playoff games, including a Super Bowl appearance. Cam Newton, a former MVP, only played in two games due to injuries, and was released. Luke Kuechly, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, retired suddenly in January. It can be argued that there are very few teams in the league that have lost more than the Panthers have. In terms of their overall season, they won four-straight games with Kyle Allen at quarterback after a 0-2 start with Cam Newton. The Allen success was short lived, however, as they won one game over the final ten games of the season, failing to score more than ten points in three of those contests and more than 20 in six.
HC Matt Rhule, QB Teddy Bridgewater, QB Phillip Walker, WR Robby Anderson, WR Seth Roberts, OT Russell Okung, G Michael Schofield, G John Miller, DE Stephen Weatherly, DT Derrick Brown, DT Zach Kerr, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, LB Tahir Whitehead, S Juston Burris
HC Ron Rivera, QB Cam Newton, QB Kyle Allen, TE Greg Olsen, OT Daryl Williams, G Trai Turner, DE Mario Addison, DT Gerald McCoy, DE/OLB Bruce Irvin, CB James Bradberry, CB Ross Cockrell
Week 1: Raiders @ Panthers
Game one of the Matt Rhule era in Carolina comes against Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders. It will be important for Carolina to be at least competitive in this game, to start this completely new chapter in the franchise on the right note. A blowout at home would certainly not be received well.
Week 4: Cardinals @ Panthers
A battle of two teams at different stages of a rebuild. The Cardinals seem to be much further along in the process, and will have a dangerous, mightily under-looked team in 2020. This would be a quality win if Carolina could get it done at home.
Week 8: Falcons @ Panthers
In what appears to be the lone primetime game of the season for the Panthers, this could prove a big stage to show they are on the right track by beating Atlanta on Thursday Night Football. A win like this could also impact Atlanta’s chances within the division as well.
X Factor: Head Coach Matt Rhule
Matt Rhule has very big shoes to fill after taking the place of Ron Rivera, someone who is mightily respected all throughout the NFL ranks. A college coach who got his first crack at the NFL, Rhule’s task ahead of him is a daunting one. Losing Newton and Kuechly, along with some of the other incredibly vital pieces, 2020 won’t be easy to say the least. When you look at other newly-hired coaches, not many have a rebuild quite of this magnitude. If he can gain the respect of the players and develop some of the young talent they got in the draft, it will be a successful year one for him.
The Panthers have the unfortunate reality of being in the NFC South, which makes them play Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan a combined six times. Throw in Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, which makes this schedule absolutely brutal for a team who underwent so much change during the offseason. The do have one of the best offensive weapons in football in Christian McCaffrey, and he will keep them in and perhaps win them a few games along the way. If he and Teddy Bridgewater can develop some chemistry, that will go a long way for the future years. Losing all of the pieces they did on defense hurts though, and it will be a perfect time for others to step in and fill those holes, especially since all seven of their draft picks were spent on defensive players. It won’t be pretty, but Carolina should have a lot of opportunities against good competition to develop the team and assess their talent.
(Cover Photo: design by Ryan Waldis, photos via USA Today Sports, Charlotte Observer, and The Advocate)