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2018 may be the most brutal year for the NFC South yet

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One thousand things could go wrong between now and the end of the year, but the division looks ridiculous.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at the NFC South today, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that this might be the best version of the division top-to-bottom since it was incorporated back in 2002.

The division has a justified reputation as the best in football, or at least the most competitive. A year ago, the NFC South sent three (!) teams to the playoffs, and has sent two teams to the big dance on six other occasions over the last 15 years. Last year’s three teams were probably the best slate the division has sent, even if none of them advanced to the Super Bowl.

This year, though? The Buccaneers significantly upgraded their biggest weaknesses (mostly), and have no excuses left for not at least making a healthy playoff push. The Falcons still have one of the better rosters in football, and the Saints are loaded up to make another playoff run in one of Drew Brees’ final seasons, even if their trade up for Marcus Davenport may come to haunt them at some point in the near future. The prime regression candidate here would seem to be Carolina, a team with a top flight quarterback, a potentially dominant defensive line, and some question marks on offense and in the secondary. On paper, though, this is four playoff-caliber teams jousting for one or two spots in the hyper-competitive NFC.

Injuries and unexpected lousiness could and often do blow that up—the 2017 Falcons were significantly worse than we anticipated on offense, and the 2017 Bucs once again failed to turn their talent into real success, for example—but aside from an NFC West that features the dangerous 49ers, loaded Rams, and typically dangerous Seahawks, I can’t think of a division in football that’s likely to boast such strong teams. Of course both those divisions are in the NFC, too.

That means that while the Falcons’ schedule looks pretty manageable on paper, they’re unlikely to catch any easy games in the NFC South. They’ll likely need to be a lot closer to 2016’s brilliant romp through the division than 2017’s shaky one to come out on top of the South, which means they’ll need to be on top of their game.