2021 NFC South Preview: Can Tom Brady Lead the Bucs to a Division Title?

The NFC South is going to look a little different in 2021. For the first time since 2005, Drew Brees will not be under center for the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have ruled the South since Brees arrived from San Diego back in 2006, with seven division titles under their belt. New Orleans has won the NFC South in each of the last four years, as well.

The Carolina Panthers have won the division four times since Brees’ Saints debut, while the Atlanta Falcons have accounted for three division titles. Interestingly enough, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the NFC South just once since 2006 and just three times since the division was created back in 2002.

While division titles have been few and far between, the Bucs also happen to be the only NFC South team to have won multiple Super Bowls in that span. Tampa Bay won it all in the first year of the NFC South before upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs to win Super Bowl 55 on their home field back in February. While one future Hall-of-Famer has hung up his cleats, another is back for a run at what would be his eighth Super Bowl ring in 2021. Tom Brady – along with most of the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl-winning roster – will try to go back-to-back this season.

While the Saints have ruled the division over the last decade, New Orleans is actually the only NFC South team that has failed to appear in a Super Bowl during that stretch. The Panthers and Falcons lost consecutive Super Bowls in 2015 and 2016 before the Buccaneers won it all last season.

How should you bet on the NFC South in 2021? Let’s do a deep dive into the betting outlooks for all four clubs.

Atlanta Falcons Preview

  • 1st place (+700)
  • 2nd (+400)
  • 3rd (+220)
  • 4th (+115)

As you can see, oddsmakers aren’t bullish on the Falcons this season. The Atlanta Falcons fired head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff last October on the team’s way to a 4-12 last-place finish. Quinn was replaced by Arthur Smith this offseason, who came over after an impressive stint running the Titans’ high-octane offense. Atlanta could have used the No. 4 overall pick to draft a successor to Matt Ryan, but the team instead opted to give Ryan a new weapon in tight end Kyle Pitts out of Florida.

The Falcons also traded All-Pro wideout Julio Jones to Tennessee, which means Atlanta will lean on Calvin Ridley to step into a new role as Ryan’s top target.

Ridley has done nothing but produce since being taken with a first-round pick out of Alabama in 2018, with a total of 217 catches for 3,061 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first three pro seasons. That includes a career-high 1,374 yards on an average of over 15 yards per catch in 15 games a year ago.

The Falcons have high hopes for Ridley and Pitts, but depth could be a concern here. Atlanta will thrust Russell Gage and Olamide Zacchaeus into bigger roles, but neither is a proven commodity as a starter at this level. Pitts is one of the best pass-catching tight-end prospects to enter the league in years, but there is always a steep learning curve for young players at that position once they get to the NFL level. Mike Ditka (1961) is still the only rookie tight end to ever record at least 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

Atlanta also declined to draft a replacement for Todd Gurley in the backfield, which means free agent Mike Davis will likely begin the year as the starter. Davis showed flashes for the Panthers last season in place of the injured Christian McCaffrey, but he has never held up for a full season as a No. 1 back. Qadree Ollison looks like the primary backup, while Cordarrelle Patterson may get some looks as a change-of-pace option.

AJ Terrell showed flashes at corner after a solid rookie season, but this defense as a whole is incredibly young. Atlanta attempted to add a veteran presence by bringing in both Duron Harmon and Erik Harris in free agency, while Richie Grant will likely slot into a starting safety spot after being taken in the second round of the draft. Pressuring opposing QBs will be a major area of concern for a team that averaged just 1.8 sacks per game last year.

Over/Under 7.5 Wins

  • Over 7.5 wins (-140)
  • Under 7.5 wins (+110)

Ryan is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the league. Most bad teams don’t have established signal-callers running the show, which is one reason for Falcons fans to have some optimism heading into 2021. Atlanta’s 4-12 showing last year came on the heels of back-to-back 7-9 finishes. The Falcons haven’t finished above .500 since going 10-6 back in 2017.

Oddsmakers are expecting slight improvement with an over/under of 7.5 wins this season, with the juice (-140) slightly favoring the over. Atlanta is blessed with one of the easiest schedules in the league based on last year’s winning percentages, as well. The Falcons have the third-easiest schedule in football after their opponents went just 123-148-1 a season ago.

Don’t Be Surprised if the Falcons Get Off to a Surprisingly Good Start

Three of the Falcons’ first five opponents failed to make the playoffs last season. After their date with Washington in Week 4, the Falcons will face just one other playoff team (New Orleans) before Week 13. Of course, the Saints are also expected to take a step back after losing Brees.

The schedule looks favorable enough to where the Falcons should easily improve on their four-win 2020 season. Atlanta can potentially compete for a Wild Card berth if they make the most of it, but a division title looks rather unlikely with Tampa Bay looking like a juggernaut. The over on 7.5 wins is certainly in play at -140. Carolina and New Orleans may both take steps back this season, and the Falcons have enough talent on offense to do damage against that weak schedule.

Atlanta Falcons –Over 7.5 Wins (-140)

Carolina Panthers Preview

  • 1st place (+1000)
  • 2nd (+475)
  • 3rd (+190)
  • 4th (+100)

The Carolina Panthers traded QB Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos this offseason just one year into a three-year, $63 million pact. The move came on the heels of Carolina’s decision to trade for ex-Jets QB Sam Darnold, who has been a letdown since entering the league in 2018. The Panthers are hoping a change of scenery will help the former No. 3 overall pick realize his elusive ceiling.

Darnold hasn’t been good, but he also hasn’t had much help. The Jets’ roster has been incredibly devoid of talent since Darnold entered the league, and he spent each of the last two seasons trying to develop under the woeful Adam Gase. Injuries have also been a factor, as Darnold hasn’t played more than 13 games in any season to this point.

The physical tools are there, though, and the Panthers will be able to surround him with better weapons. Christian McCaffrey is back to full strength after missing most of last season with a variety of injuries. McCaffrey is still only a year removed from posting one of the most prestigious individual seasons we’ve ever seen from a dual-threat running back. If he can stay on the field, the Panthers’ offense should improve by default.

Darnold will be reunited with Robby Anderson in Carolina, who is fresh off of an outstanding first season with the Panthers. Anderson and DJ Moore both topped 1,000 receiving yards last season with Bridgewater leading the charge, while David Moore and Terrance Marshall will try to replace the departed Curtis Samuel.

Carolina’s defense is incredibly young, but there is reason for optimism here. No team finished last season with more tackles from rookies (287) than the Panthers did, and the Panthers added another standout young talent in rookie Jaycee Horn with the No. 8 pick in April’s draft. Horn and Donte Jackson give the defense some legitimate starters at both corner spots, while safety Jeremy Chinn was one of the league’s standout rookies a season ago. Last year’s first-round pick, Derrick Brown, also enjoyed a productive rookie campaign.

The Panthers signed Haason Reddick after a 12.5-sack season for the Cardinals last year, and he should give the defense some balance opposite Brian Burns for the Panthers’ pass-rush.

Over/Under 7.5 Wins

  • Over 7.5 wins (-105)
  • Under 7.5 wins (-115)

Carolina went 5-11 last year under first-year head coach Matt Rhule, and the team is going back to square one with Darnold replacing Bridgewater at the QB spot. While the viability of the offense likely hinges on whether McCaffrey can stay healthy, the Panthers’ chances of exceeding preseason expectations will ultimately depend on whether Darnold can prove he’s worthy of a starting gig at the NFL level.

So far, we haven’t seen Darnold look anything like the star the Jets had hoped he would become. He had a lot working against him during his time in New York, so perhaps a fresh start with the Panthers is just what the doctor ordered.

Darnold will have his chance for revenge right away, as the Panthers will welcome the new-look Jets to Charlotte in Week 1. Carolina will face just two playoff teams from last season in their first 12 games of 2021. The Panthers will host the Saints in Week 2 before the Washington Football Team comes to town in Week 11. Every other game before the Week 13 bye will be against a team that failed to qualify for the tournament last year.

The team’s final four games of the year will come against playoff teams, however, with two of their last three games coming against the defending Super Bowl champs. A division title certainly isn’t in the cards for this team this season. The Panthers are more likely to jockey with the Falcons for a third-place finish than they are to challenge Tampa Bay at the top.

I’ll side with the under on 7.5 wins for this team in 2021. While the schedule is easy, Darnold’s lack of development doesn’t inspire much confidence in this team moving forward.

Carolina Panthers –Under 7.5 Wins (-105)

New Orleans Saints Preview

  • 1st place (+325)
  • 2nd (+130)
  • 3rd (+240)
  • 4th (+625)

The New Orleans Saints have ruled the NFC South for the last half-decade, but we are likely to see a changing of the guard in 2021. Brees has traded the playing field for the broadcast booth, which means Sean Payton will have a new starting QB for the first time since taking the head coaching job back in 2006.

As of now, we don’t know who will begin the year as Brees’ successor. Taysom Hill filled in as the starter for Brees when the latter was injured a season ago, but Jameis Winston was re-signed this past offseason. Winston put up some impressive numbers earlier in his career with Tampa Bay, but turnovers have always been a problem for the former No. 1 overall pick.

That said, Hill is far from a proven commodity as a passer at this level. The Saints have used Hill in a utility role offensively over the past few seasons, but whether he can hold up as a full-time QB1 is still a question mark. Hill completed nearly 73 percent of his throws in limited duty last season while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. The Saints’ QB competition will be one of the more intriguing storylines of the preseason.

Whichever QB winds up winning the job will have a questionable supporting cast, as well. Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook both left in free agency. The Saints were also dealt a blow when Michael Thomas was forced to offseason undergo ankle surgery that is expected to keep him sidelined into the regular season. That means New Orleans will be leaning heavily on an unproven group of pass-catchers to lead the offense. Tre’Quan Smith is expected to slot in as the WR1, with Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway earning significant playing time. Adam Trautman will likely fill in for Cook as the new starting tight end, as well.

The Saints have one of the most talented offensive lines in football, though, and Alvin Kamara is a proven game-breaking back. The team leaned heavily on Kamara last season with Brees battling injuries, and he finished the campaign with nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage with 21 total touchdowns in 15 games.

It’s safe to assume Kamara will play a massive role again with the team facing so many other offensive question marks in 2021.

The Saints’ defense was also hit hard, with Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, Janoris Jenkins, and Malcolm Brown all departing this offseason. New Orleans still has Marshon Lattimore, Cameron Jordan, and both starting safeties in the mix, but there are depth concerns elsewhere. Defensive tackle David Onyemata will miss the first six games because of a suspension, while the 34-year-old Patrick Robinson is expected to start opposite Lattimore at a corner spot.

Over/Under 9 Wins

  • Over 9 wins (-105)
  • Under 9 wins (-125)

The Saints went 12-4 last season, and the team has won at least 10 games in every season since 2016. That said, New Orleans’ string of four consecutive division titles looks likely to end in 2021. The Buccaneers are returning the vast majority of the roster that won last year’s Super Bowl, while the Saints will attempt to patch up holes at a number of key positions.

New Orleans will face a major test right away with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers coming to town in Week 1. The schedule lets up a bit before the Saints’ early Week 6 bye, but they’ll then face Seattle, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Tennessee immediately afterward. The second half of the team’s schedule is laden with up-and-comers, including games against the Bills, Cowboys, and Dolphins in addition to the two games against Tampa Bay.

I’m bearish on the Saints this season. With an uncertain QB situation and their best receiver sidelined indefinitely, there’s no telling how ugly this offense may be early on. An explosive offense has been the key to the Saints’ rise to the top of the NFC over the past decade, but it’s hard to have too much faith in a team with this many hurdles to clear.

I’ll gladly bet the under on 9 wins for New Orleans at -125.

New Orleans Saints –Under 9 Wins (-125)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Preview

  • 1st place (-190)
  • 2nd (+215)
  • 3rd (+825)
  • 4th (+4000)

The 2020 season was just about everything the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have possibly hoped for. Tampa Bay put itself on the map with the shocking addition of Tom Brady, and everything fell into place from there. While it took several weeks for the Bucs to find their stride, they did so at the perfect time. Tampa Bay won three straight playoff games on the road before becoming the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl on their home field.

The Bucs faced an uncertain offseason with plenty of their stars due to hit free agency, but the team was able to bring just about everybody back. Most importantly, Brady is back and as motivated as ever to make a run at another title. He proved a season ago that he still has plenty left in the tank at the age of 43, and that he wasn’t merely a system-related success during his dynastic run in New England.

All 22 starters are back in the mix this year. As a result, the Buccaneers are clear-cut favorites to win the NFC South, and to represent the conference in Super Bowl 56. Now that they have had more than a year to gel, there’s no reason to expect Brady and co. to get off to another sluggish start. Tampa Bay was 3-2 last season before ultimately rallying to win eight of their last 11 games to finish 11-5.

Brady put up massive numbers in his first season in Bruce Arians’ pass-happy offense. The seven-time champ completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 4,633 yards with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions a season ago. Brady has a decorated group of weapons featuring Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, while Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones are back to headline the underrated rushing attack.

The Bucs’ offense gets plenty of attention, but this is actually one of the best defensive squads in football. Devin White, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shaq Barrett is a legitimately terrifying linebacking corps, while the Bucs feature Pro Bowl talent at all three levels. Let’s not forget that this defense held Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ vaunted offense without a touchdown in Super Bowl 55.

Over/Under 11.5 Wins

  • Over 11.5 wins (-160)
  • Under 11.5 wins (+130)

At this point, it’s fair to wonder whether Brady will ever actually age. People have been trying to predict Brady’s age-related decline for the better part of a decade now, and all he does is defy Father Time on a yearly basis. That decline may come at some point, but we have seen no signs of it just yet. Given the Bucs’ insane amount of talent, Tampa Bay should be able to put points on the board even if Brady does finally start to show some decline.

Assuming they stay healthy, this team is essentially a lock to make the playoffs in the NFC. They may also be the only team in the South to qualify for the playoffs this season. The Bucs kick off the season at home with the Cowboys on September 9 before another home clash with Atlanta 10 days later. Brady will have his first chance at revenge when he takes his new team into Foxborough to face the Patriots in Week 4, while the Bucs’ first outing against the new-look Saints will go down on Halloween.

A favorable schedule only solidifies the Bucs as massive favorites to win the NFC South for the first time since 2007. Tampa Bay has the fourth-easiest schedule in the league based on last season’s winning percentages. Tampa Bay will steamroll their way to a division crown, and the over on 11.5 wins is easy money at -160.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers –Over 11.5 Wins (-160)

Who Wins the NFC South in 2021?

This division really looks like no contest. Parity is real in the NFL on a yearly basis, but no team in the South can hold a candle to what Tampa Bay brings to the table on both sides of the ball. This may be the least competitive division in all of football, so a bet on any team other than the Bucs to win the South looks like a losing proposition.

We’ll see whether any of the other three teams can compete for a Wild Card spot. The Saints are facing an uncertain future with a new starting quarterback in the mix, while the Falcons and Panthers are both rebuilding. Here’s how the NFC South will pan out in 2021:

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1st (-190)
  • Atlanta Falcons 2nd (+400)
  • New Orleans Saints 3rd (+240)
  • Carolina Panthers 4th (+100)
Taylor Smith

Taylor Smith has been a staff writer with GamblingSites.org since early 2017. Taylor is primarily a sports writer, though he will occasionally dabble in other things like politics and entertainment betting. His primary specialties are writing about the NBA, Major League Baseball, NFL and domestic and international soccer. Fringe sports like golf and horse racing aren’t exactly his cup of tea, but he’s willing to take one for the team on that front every now and then.

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