One month ago, the NFC South was a laughingstock in the making. Tom Brady had retired, Sean Payton had walked away from the Saints, the Falcons were entering the second year of a multi-year roster renovation, and the Panthers were Panthering at a very high level.
It still may turn out that way—things don’t often work out as cleanly as they’re supposed to in the NFL—but one month later the division is looking very different in a shaky NFC South. Brady is coming back, and even if that Buccaneers team figures to be a little diminished minus Ali Marpet and other talent they’re going to bleed, Tampa Bay will still be good. Carolina and New Orleans are jockeying for Deshaun Watson, and as deeply gross as it is to see teams pounce on him now with 22 civil cases still pending, the team that gives up a huge number of draft picks to get him is obviously going to have a significant upgrade at quarterback. All of this is happening before free agency and the draft even begin, and all four teams could feasibly improve significantly between now and the start of the season.
All that’s to say that it no longer looks like this is fated to be the worst division in football, and in a weird unsettled NFC, it’s entirely possible that one of the better teams in the conference will emerge from the NFC South. The fact that it seemed pretty unthinkable that would be the case a month ago unless you really believed in the Falcons rebounding this year is a testament to how easy it is to get tunnel vision with a league where breaking news is always around the corner. It’s also a testament to how devastating the loss of the most decorated coach and quarterback in the division felt, but that was always predicated on those guys staying gone and their teams accepting a step backward.
The division is likely to be a roller coaster ride again in 2022, as it so often has been in the past. We’ll hope that after the annoying returns and blockbuster trades are over, the Falcons are the team quietly taking the biggest step forward, and thankfully they can get started on that journey very soon.