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The Panthers Are Alone Atop The NFC South

To go with our 2016 NFL predictions, FiveThirtyEight is previewing each division.

The NFL is back, and we’re booting up our Elo ratings again in preparation for the 2016 season. For those new to Elo, it’s a power rating that tries to estimate each team’s strength at any given moment, based on who it beats (or loses to) and by how much. The ratings can also be used to simulate the season thousands of times, which allows us to estimate how likely each team is to win its division or the Super Bowl and can give us a sense of which teams play the toughest schedules.

One drawback to Elo is that its preseason ratings are simply each team’s number from the end of last season reverted to the mean. So to flag teams whose Elo ratings might need some mental adjustments from last year, we’re also looking at a composite ranking of three well-regarded offseason grades.1

Here, we take a look at the NFC South, home of the defending conference champion Carolina Panthers … and some other teams.

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After losing the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos, the Carolina Panthers dropped from first in Elo to third, directly behind the rival Seattle Seahawks (whom Carolina blew out 31-24 — in the most lopsided one-score game of the playoffs — en route to the big game). The Panthers had a mixed offseason, bringing back defensive end Charles Johnson but also losing All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman after rescinding his franchise tag. Even so, Elo considers Carolina to be far and away the most talented team in the NFC South, a mantle the team will likely carry throughout the season.

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In a division that was once infamous for its turnover — no team repeated as champ in the division’s first 12 years of existence — the Panthers have a 66 percent chance of winning the South for a fourth consecutive season. The biggest question for Carolina will be whether a defense that ranked as the NFL’s second-best last season (trailing only the historically great Broncos) can continue to dominate without Norman. But last year’s breakout season from quarterback Cam Newton and the Panther offense makes Carolina a safer division choice than if the team were relying on its defense alone.

Behind the Panthers, Elo considers the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints to be near-equals, although both teams are long shots to wrest the division away from Carolina. The Falcons improved to 8-8 last season, but they’ll have to contend with one of the NFL’s toughest schedules this year, with trips to Denver and Seattle among their most daunting non-division matchups. Atlanta posted a below-average Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) in each phase of the game last season; Matt Ryan will probably have to rediscover his Pro Bowl form if the Falcons hope to have their first winning season since 2012.

The Saints, meanwhile, have been trending in the wrong direction, with a point differential that has fallen from +110 in 2013 to -23 in 2014 and -68 last season. They still have legendary quarterback Drew Brees (despite our editor-in-chief’s suggestion that the two break up), but even he wasn’t able to overcome what was the NFL’s worst defense and seventh-worst special teams corps last season. The quarterbacks most similar to Brees (Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Warren Moon) had a decent amount of production left in the tank at Brees’s age, but after the Saints spent an offseason shoring up cap space rather than getting better on defense, it’s doubtful things will be very different in the Big Easy this season.

Bringing up the rear of the South are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were one of the youngest teams in the league last season (weighted by the Approximate Value of each player on the roster), and QB Jameis Winston had a solid rookie season from which the franchise may be able to build a foundation. The team’s offseason contained just enough positives to make for an intriguing worst-to-first sleeper pick. But Tampa Bay probably isn’t ready to contend for the division yet, particularly because the Bucs, under new coach Dirk Koetter, are facing the NFL’s fifth-most-difficult schedule.

That leaves the Panthers as commanding favorites in this division. They almost certainly won’t repeat last year’s 15-1 record, but Newton and company are at the top of the NFC South class and might use that perch as a springboard for another deep playoff run.


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Footnotes

  1. Specifically, the grades from ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, ProFootballFocus.com and an ESPN panel of experts.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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