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Tabeek: Landscape of NFC South has already changed dramatically


It's hard to believe that the Falcons' last preseason game was only 19 days ago and, my oh my, have things changed considerably in the NFC South since then.

C'mon, you remember those not-so-distant days of training camp, when all of the preseason prognosticators and NFL experts were making predictions like they always do – and, boy, were they high on the New Orleans Saints. And I get it. Unless you're a Falcons fan, there was a lot to like about the defending NFC South champs heading into 2019.

John Breech of not only predicted that the Saints would repeat as division champs, he picked Drew Brees to be walk away with the NFL's Most Valuable Player award at season's end.

Breech wasn't the only one. Tadd Haislop of The Sporting News predicted Brees and the Saints would run away with the division with a 13-3 record before ultimately falling in the NFC title game.

And who could forget when Seth Walder of ESPN simulated the entire 2019 NFL season – yes, every single game – and his analytics forecasted the Saints hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, throwing a massive party in South Beach and having an even bigger parade down Bourbon Street.

OK, I made up the part about South Beach, but Walder's piece was written only 15 days ago.

Seems so much longer ago, doesn't it? I bet it does for the Saints and their fans right now.

Not only did New Orleans fall 27-9 to the Rams in a rematch of last year's NFC title game on Sunday, but the team down in Louisiana also lost their best and most important player in Brees.

According to at least one report, the Saints quarterback is expected to undergo thumb surgery and that could sideline him for as many as six weeks. That same report pointed out that Brees is still deciding who would do the surgery and when.

I wonder what Walder's simulations are looking like right about now.

In case you're wondering (and counting), the Saints' bye week just happens to be in six weeks. And guess who they play the week after? Yes, the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 10 in New Orleans.

And by then, the Saints – and the NFC South – could look much differently.

Take a peek at what the Saints (1-1) are facing as they embark on life without Brees over the next several weeks: three road games against the Seahawks, Jaguars and Bears as well as three home games against the Cowboys, Buccaneers and Cardinals.

That slate would have been a difficult one with Brees under center. Now their hopes hinge upon the play of backup Teddy Bridgewater.

New Orleans isn't the only team in the NFC South with question marks at the most important position, either.

In case you weren't paying attention, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in January and in the Panthers' first game – a 30-27 loss to the Rams – he didn't have a completion longer than 17 yards. According to Brendan Marks of The Charlotte Observer, two-thirds of Newton’s 239 passing yards came on completions within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

That performance led to speculation about Newton's shoulder. Lots and lots of speculation.

And during the Panthers' 20-14 loss at home to the Bucs a week later, the ninth-year quarterback just didn't look or play the same. While Newton might have more rushing touchdowns than any other quarterback in the NFL, he has just minus-2 yards on five carries this season with two fumbles.

Newton's performance prompted Jonathan Jones of Sports Illustrated to write, "There is a belief that the Cam we all once knew won't return."

"This is 2019 – and Newton has two shoulder surgeries in his past, plus an ankle surgery, plus broken bones in his back, plus a couple head injuries, plus broken ribs, plus a foot sprain suffered just three weeks ago. ... Newton dunking over the line of scrimmage is no longer a guaranteed slam dunk."

And neither is his playing status.

Sitting at 0-2, the Panthers aren't sure if Newton will be ready to play in Arizona on Sunday after he aggravated the sprained left foot injury he suffered in a preseason game.

Will Newton eventually return to form? Will the injuries be an ongoing issue for him? I have no idea, but it certainly changes how you look at the Panthers' chances without him. Backup Kyle Allen and third-round pick Will Grier are currently taking all the snaps in practice.

Take that and chew on it.

The Buccaneers are going through some changes as well, and how things shake out down in Tampa Bay is anyone's guess at this point.

I can tell you this much: the Bucs have just two winning seasons (2010 and 2016) over the last 10 years and in every other year during that span they've finished dead last in the NFC South.

Quarterback Jameis Winston is in his option year without a new deal in place. The good news for the former No. 1 pick is that he should have a clean slate with new coach Bruce Arians in town. Arians is known for being aggressive in the down-the-field passing game (which should fit the quarterback's skill-set nicely).

For now, the Bucs are sitting at 1-1 and Winston has looked, well, like himself so far (part good, part turnover machine). In the Bucs' first game of the year, he tossed three interceptions in a 31-17 home loss to the 49ers. Against the Panthers last week, he didn't throw any picks but completed just 16 of 25 passes for 208 yards and a score.

No one is writing off any of these teams, but the landscape of the NFC South has changed. And when you take Brees and Newton out of the equation for any amount of time, the playing field looks much different.

Will the Falcons take advantage of it? Right now, Dan Quinn's squad is focused solely on the Colts and beating them on Sunday would be the first step in doing so.

When Quinn was asked if he was keeping up with things in the NFC South, he said, "I think you always check around because it's always in your mind about where you are at on the division."

Make no mistake about it, the Falcons are fully aware of their surroundings.

And what's in front of them is a golden opportunity.

*Note: All opinions here are Matthew Tabeek's unless otherwise noted.

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