Friday, June 21 2024

Of course, a bunch of games against teams with losing records might not be a recipe for success for the Falcons, who somehow went 5-4 against teams with winning records in 2023, but 2-6 against teams with losing records. Atlanta lost to the Panthers (2-15), Cardinals (4-13), Commanders (4-13) and Titans (6-11) last year, so they’ll need to reverse that trend to take advantage of a favorable schedule in 2023.

4. Can they beat elite NFL opponents?

After all four teams had losing records in 2022, the NFC South picked up ground last year by having the Bucs and Saints finish at 9-8 overall, but the division still struggled overall. It went 11-28 against teams that finished with winning records — again, Atlanta went 5-4, so the other three teams went a combined 7-24.

If you look at the division’s record against teams that won 10 games or more, the NFC South went just 2-12 last year, with both wins coming against the Texans and one of those coming somehow from the two-win Panthers. The Bucs went 0-5 in such games in the regular season, though they dominated the Eagles in the playoffs; the Saints went 0-3, though all three were one-score losses.

This year’s NFC South schedule has 18 games against teams that won 10 or more games in 2023 — four each against the Chiefs, Eagles and Cowboys, and any wins in those 12 will be seen as quality wins for the division. Of the other six, the Bucs have three (Ravens, 49ers, Lions), the Saints have two (Browns, Rams) and the Falcons have one in the Steelers.

In the past seven seasons, the NFL has had 56 division champs, and only four won fewer than 10 games — the NFC South in the last two seasons, and the NFC East champs in 2019 and 2020. If the South is to get out of that slump and produce a 10-win team in 2024, the division will need some team to beat elite opponents more consistently — or have the Falcons take care of business against lesser teams.

5. Beat the young quarterbacks

Whether Penix takes the field or not this season, the NFC South will likely see its share of rookie quarterbacks, with all four teams playing Washington (and Jayden Daniels) and Denver (and Bo Nix), plus Carolina facing Chicago (and Caleb Williams) and Atlanta facing Minnesota (and J.J. McCarthy). All four teams will also face the Raiders, who will have either Aiden O’Connell or Gardner Minshew starting from one of the league’s worst quarterback rooms.

Is the Michael Penix Jr. draft pick actually justifiable for Atlanta?

That’s likely more games than a year ago, when Carolina and Atlanta were able to beat Houston’s C.J. Stroud and the Bucs took care of Tennessee’s Will Levis. The Bucs, Falcons and Saints went 5-1 against Carolina and rookie Bryce Young, who totaled just two passing touchdowns in those six games, but that total is likely to increase significantly in 2024. Will the Panthers’ division win total get a bump up as well?

The NFC South hasn’t produced a wild card in the past three years, since the Bucs won a Super Bowl as a wild card in 2020, and the AFC South is the only other division to go so long without sending a second team to the playoffs. That stands as the division’s only wild card in the last six years. Every other division in the league has had at least three in that span. Can the NFC South end that drought and send two teams to the postseason in 2024? We shall see.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the BuccaneersFalconsPanthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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