NFC South Preview
June 10, 2014
By Joe Nelson
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The NFL draft gets all the attention in the spring but the recent release of the 2014 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the NFC South in this schedule preview. The South featured two playoff teams in 2014 with a big rise for the Panthers and a big fall for Atlanta. This should be a competitive division again as in the 12-year history of the division there has never been a repeat champion with all four teams taking three titles each.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went 13-3 in the 2012, falling just short of the Super Bowl in a tough NFC championship loss to the 49ers. With a much tougher schedule and some key injuries, the Falcons took a big fall in the standings last year, going just 4-12 in 2013 and winding up as one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL. Atlanta was the worst rushing offense in the NFL last season and one of the worst defensive teams, particularly against the run. Seven losses for the Falcons came by seven or fewer points last season, including each of the first four losses of the season, so Atlanta was not far from being a much more competitive team in 2013. The Falcons did not win a game by more than eight points, however, getting an overtime win and a one-point win among the season’s four victories.
Heading into 2014, Atlanta has been limited in free agency with several highly paid veterans on the roster and Atlanta draws a third place schedule as they ‘won’ the tiebreaker with Tampa Bay, who also finished 4-12 last season. With the entire South playing the NFC North, the difference is playing the Giants and Cardinals instead of the Redskins and Rams. The NFC South plays the solid AFC North teams meaning four fairly tough games and the Falcons have the Bengals and Ravens on the road, likely the more difficult of the draws. Atlanta will also play at Green Bay late in the season and the Falcons only have seven home games in 2014, surrendering a home date to play the Lions in London. In addition to the long travel overseas, Atlanta will play three sets of back-to-back away games on the year with substantial travel overall this season. Getting off to a good start will be critical for the Falcons, but with the Saints and Bengals in the first two weeks, that could be a challenge and the Falcons also have a daunting closing schedule playing Arizona, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Carolina in the final five weeks. It will be tough for Atlanta to be as bad as it was in 2013, but a huge improvement also seems unlikely with this slate.
Atlanta Falcons 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .512 (11/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 9 road/neutral games (includes London): 9,452
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 2 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Monday Night)
Carolina Panthers: 2013 was the breakthrough season for the Carolina Panthers with head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton delivering a division title after some serious struggles the previous two seasons. The Panthers were 7-1 at home last season and 5-1 in the division, but they lost at home in the playoffs against San Francisco. The first place schedule does mean that the Panthers have to play the Seahawks, but that game will be in Charlotte this season. That matchup will come in a grueling mid-season run of tough games as Carolina has a very challenging early season schedule. The Panthers will play nine consecutive games against teams that won at last seven games last season starting in Week 2, and the toughest stretch features back-to-back road games at Cincinnati and at Green Bay, followed by home games with Seattle and New Orleans and then a Monday night game in Philadelphia. It would not be a surprise if the Panthers had as many losses as all of last season by mid-season as most of the big games come in the early part of the schedule. That does mean that five of the final six games of the season will come against teams that had a losing record last season.
Carolina has the latest possible bye week coming in Week 12, which could add to the toll of the early season schedule and the Panthers were a team that won five games by four or fewer points last season, something that will be difficult to replicate. That included narrow wins over the 49ers, Patriots, and Saints late in the season and Carolina will need more big wins against marquee opposition to contend for the playoffs again in 2014. Four of Carolina’s six games against 2013 playoff teams will be on the road but Carolina does not have long travel miles ahead with no west coast games on the schedule. The Panthers should be a competitive team but a few bounces may fall the other way this season and the tough early slate might send the Panthers back to being closer to a .500 team.
Carolina Panthers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .473 (22/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 5,159
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 3 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night)
New Orleans Saints: In what felt like a transition season with the Saints getting head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines and with Rob Ryan taking over the defense, the Saints managed to go 11-5 and earn a Wild Card spot. Despite a challenging travel situation, New Orleans won in Philadelphia on the road in the playoffs before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Seattle. New Orleans was the only team in the NFC to go 8-0 at home last season and getting back to the top of the division and earning home field advantage will be a priority if the Saints have another Super Bowl run left in the Drew Brees era. In terms of 2013 win percentage, New Orleans will face the weakest schedule of the four teams in the NFC South and the Saints will only play one road game against a 2013 playoff team, playing division rival Carolina in Charlotte in a mid-season Thursday night game. That game comes in a tough situation following up a Sunday night tilt with the Packers, but the home date in the series with Panthers will be a favorable situation for the Saints as it will be the second of back-to-back road games for Carolina.
New Orleans will not play a team that had a winning record in 2013 until Week 8 as the Saints should be in position to get off to a great start and emerge as one of the teams to beat in 2014. New Orleans does open with three of the first four games on the road, but they get to catch Cleveland and Minnesota in the first three weeks, teams with coaching transitions that could feature some growing pains early in the season. Four of the first six games of the season for the Saints will come against a new coaching staff, a huge advantage over the rest of the division that will play most of those teams later in the schedule. The Saints have an early Week 6 bye, which may not be ideal for an older team, but New Orleans also only plays one 2013 playoff team in the final six weeks of the season. The meat of the schedule starts in late October with consecutive games against Green Bay, Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, although only the division game against the Panthers in that run will be on the road. With its toughest games at home and one of the best home field edges in the league, this slate lines up well for the Saints to return to prominence in the NFC. New Orleans also only plays back-to-back road games once and that run comes in the first two weeks of the season when the team might be in a better position to handle it. Overall, the Saints have one of the better looking schedules among all of the expected NFC contenders.
New Orleans Saints 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .469 (23/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 5 (four home, one away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 6,571
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1
Primetime Games: 5 (1 Thursday Night, 2 Sunday Night, 2 Monday Night)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Given that Lovie Smith is a veteran coach that featured a strong track record despite his firing two seasons ago, many expect Tampa Bay to be the team with a new coaching staff that could deliver success right away. The Buccaneers have a talented receiving corps and made some big moves in free agency, but there are still questions on what was a terrible defensive team against the pass last year and with the quarterback situation led by Mike Glennon and the least productive passing offense in the NFL from 2013. There were many distractions last season in a 0-8 start to the season for the Buccaneers, but several of the losses came in tight defeats against high quality teams. The Buccaneers only won once on the road last season, but most of the toughest games out of the division in 2014 will come at home.
Tampa Bay will have to play three straight road games from Week 3 to Week 5 for a daunting travel run in early in the season and the closing slate is tough as well with the Panthers, Packers, and Saints in the final three weeks. Tampa Bay also plays four road games in five weeks late in the season including some potential cold weather games in November. The Buccaneers will know where they stand early with a division game against each team in the first five weeks with two of those games coming on the road. If Tampa Bay can survive a fairly tough six-game run to start the season before a Week 7 bye, they could emerge as a serious playoff contender. After the bye week, the Buccaneers play four straight games against teams that combined to go 16-47-1 last season before a fairly daunting closing schedule. Tampa Bay will be considered a sleeper for the playoffs with this schedule and at the very least improvement by multiple wins over last season seems very possible in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .484 (19/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (four home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 7,110
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3 (including a back-to-back-to-back)
Primetime Games: 1 (1 Thursday Night)
20-5 L25 Picks, 10-3 L13 G-Plays
3-1 Sunday, 19-8 L27, +1,147 TY
21-6 L2 Sundays, +1,270 TY
10-4 L4 Sundays, 17-9 This Year
4-2 Sunday, 14-5 L4 Sundays
3-1 Sunday, 15-6 This Season
5-1 +440 Sun., 11-4 +745 L15
8-3 L2 Sundays, 9-4 L13 Picks
3-1 Sunday, 7-3 L10 Selections
10-4 L14 Guaranteed Plays
3-1 G-Plays, 4-1 NFL Week 4