Our preview of the NFL's eight division races wraps up with last year's laughingstocks from the NFC South. This might be your best source for football picks in 2015.
We all go through some rough patches in our lives. By some combination of our own incompetence and dumb luck, we experience the same ups and downs as our heroes do on the football field. The trick is to keep getting better at what we do, take it one day at a time, give it the proverbial 110 percent – the usual boilerplate stuff.
Speaking of incompetence and dumb luck, the NFC South. All four teams in this division performed better than their 2014 records would suggest, according to the Estimated Wins metric at Football Outsiders. But the NFC South also gave us the league's two worst defenses, and its worst offense. Excellent. That means plenty of “buy low” opportunities for our NFL picks this year.
The Beautiful South
Not that we expect the South to produce any miracles. Here's our last batch of final standings “predictions” for 2015, based as always on the regular season win-loss totals and the best of the stat-nerd projections available for free on the Interwebs:
Before we proceed, we didn't make individual projections for each of the 256 games on the 2015 schedule, so if you add up all the teams and their records, you might not come up with 256-256. That's not the point; all we're trying to do is come up with a reasonable baseline expectation for the new season and work from there. In this case, each of the top three teams could end up doing far better than we expect – especially the Atlanta Falcons.
The Dirty South
Believe it or not, this is Year Eight for Atlanta under QB Matt Ryan, who's been a rock from the very beginning. This is also Year One for head coach Dan Quinn, formerly the defensive co-ordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, and the Falcons just happened to have the worst defense in the league last year according to Football Outsiders. The NFL odds favor them very slightly to go UNDER 8.5 wins, but FiveThirtyEight projects Atlanta as a 9.4-win team, nearly two wins more than TeamRankings (7.5).
The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers also have some wiggle room to get better. New Orleans had the No. 31-ranked defense last year, and we can't blame Bountygate this time, so something needs to be done to fix that mess. Carolina's defense was cut down at the knees when DE Greg Hardy was suspended, and he's gone now. Otherwise, there's enough talent there to at least challenge for the division lead again.
As for buying low, the Bucs had the worst offense in the league last year, so the bar has been set for QB Jameis Winston to provide an instant upgrade. He's a classic boom-or-bust prospect, but if you asked us right now whether he'll turn into Andrew Luck or JaMarcus Russell, we'd have to go with the latter. Not everyone can get into Stanford.