The Panthers' repeat divisional titles in 2013 and 2014 broke a long-standing tradition of NFC South winners not repeating. That unfortunate event got me thinking about how the teams in the South have fared since the division was created in 2002, and I decided to see just how successful the Falcons have been in relation to their crummy, stupid peers.
To break this down properly, I've put together win totals for the regular season, win-loss records for the playoffs and potential paths for these four teams heading forward. Hope you enjoy.
As you might expect, there's quite a bit of parity here, plus more than a few roller coaster seasons. No team was genuinely dominant for more than a couple of years in a row in the NFC South, which is why the division is such a model of disarray.
Here's the win totals, with a handy breakdown so you can see how it went by season.
Overall, the Falcons were the second-most successful NFC South team in the regular season, trailing the Saints by just four wins. The Panthers were 11 behind the Saints and the Buccaneers were a really, really distant fourth thanks to their anemic 2011-2014 stretch. Nothing here is too surprising, though the Falcons were this close to being the best regular season team. No laurels for us.
Unfortunately, the Falcons fall behind here. The Panthers have participated in the most playoff games since the NFC South's founding with a total of 11, and they've managed a winning record in that span. The Saints have one fewer game, one fewer loss and that all-important (and loathsome, because it's the Saints) Lombardi trophy. The Buccaneers have managed just five playoff games but won a Super Bowl back in 2002.
The Falcons, meanwhile, have the only losing playoff record in the division, thanks in large part to the team's lousy 1-4 record in the Mike Smith era. There were a lot of factors that went into that record, of course, but it's not hard to understand why everyone's ready for a new era of Falcons football.
Buccaneers: 3-2, 1 Super Bowl title
Saints: 6-4, 1 Super Bowl title
What Lies Ahead
The easy answer is that no one knows what's ahead for the four teams of the NFC South, but we do have a sense of where these teams are headed in the short-term.
Buccaneers: A young team that absolutely bottomed out in 2014, the Bucs have a well-regarded head coach in Lovie Smith, intriguing young pieces on both sides of the ball and the #1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. They're also in pretty good cap shape compared to the rest of the division, meaning they could land a couple of big ticket free agents to help their next quarterback out. This is a team that projects to be on the rise over the next three years, with the strong potential for a winning record in the next season or two. Their ceiling likely depends on whether the defense improves and their #1 overall pick is genuinely impactful.
Falcons: The Falcons have a new, defensive-minded head coach, one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, a stud wide receiver and an elite cornerback, plus a handful of useful pieces across the roster. They have a moderate amount of cap space and the #8 overall pick, which should be helpful. There's also numerous holes on this roster, a genuinely terrible defense and a raft of impending free agents who need to be replaced or re-signed. The Falcons could very well be the class of the NFC South again by 2016, but they really need to nail the next couple of offseasons to return to relevance. Thankfully, the resources are there.
Panthers: The Panthers have won the division twice in a row, which would be a cause for celebration if they hadn't gone 7-8-1 in doing so. This is a team with a potent quarterback in Cam Newton and a defense that is coming together, but a razor-thin margin of error thanks to a middling offensive line, weak receiving corps outside of Kelvin Benjamin and holes dotting the entire roster. They're also sitting on just $11 million in cap space per Over the Cap's latest estimate and have a lot of money tied up in players who are aging, unproductive or both. Clearing some of that dead weight out and mortaring over the holes Marty Hurney punched into the roster via his bad signings and draft picks will take some time, and the Panthers are likely to take a step back before they take another step forward.
That said, with Newton and a solid defense, they're likely to be in the mix every year.
Saints: No team in the division is in worse shape than the Saints right now. You'd be a fool to declare them dead in the water, given their cap wizardry and collection of talent, but this is a team that's projected to be $23 million over the cap, has an underwhelming secondary and defense in general and can no longer rely on Drew Brees and the passing attack to carry them to victory when nothing else is clicking. Digging out of their cap hole is doable—Mickey Loomis has done it before—but unless last year's subtle signs of decline for Brees proved to be a fluke, the Saints probably are heading for the end of this current, wildly productive era of football in New Orleans.
Ultimately, this division is likely to stay in year-to-year flux, because none of these teams look potentially dominant in the years ahead. But as the NFC South has shown us time and time again, nothing is promised. Whether that's good news for the Falcons or not remains to be seen.