With Drew Brees Out, the Battle for the NFC South Opens Up

Drew Brees
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 15: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints stands on the sideline during the second half after injuring his throwing hand in the first quarter of the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

As probably all of us know by now, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees suffered a hand injury in the loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2 and will be out about six weeks. The question is, what happens in the NFC South now? The Saints were expected to be division champs again and even Super Bowl contenders going into this season. And it didn’t seem that most were expecting any of the other three teams in the division to make a playoff run. But now – even though Brees will return – the South is suddenly wide open, at least for the time being.

What Happens in the NFC South With Drew Brees Out?

Saints Aren’t Exactly Dead

Despite the loss of Drew Brees for over a month, this hardly finishes the Saints. They had a talented roster coming in to begin with well beyond Brees. They’ve still got a couple of superstars on offense in Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. Granted, the level of talent tapers off a little after that. But they’ve got a decent defense to help carry them too.

The question does in part become how well Teddy Bridgewater (or Taysom Hill?) can play. He doesn’t need to be spectacular. He just needs to not be terrible and to not make critical mistakes in crunch time. It’s hard to know what to expect out of him, given that he’ll be getting his first regular season start since 2015. But ultimately, it’s very unlikely that the Saints are just going to lose every game until Brees returns. Based on the schedule – and assuming that Brees returns after Week 9’s bye week – it’s fair to assume they might be 3-5 or 4-4 by then. The question is if they’ll have fallen behind in the division race by then – and if Brees is indeed ready to play by then.

The Next Two Best Chances

The Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers look to be the teams with the best shots at taking advantage of this situation. Some might think that it would clearly be the Falcons, but that’s not necessarily the case. The Falcons defeated the Philadelphia Eagles on primetime, but just the week before they got destroyed by the Minnesota Vikings. So while they do have a pretty loaded offense, the offensive line itself is still rather suspect and the defense is iffy as well.

The same is true of the Buccaneers. While it’s tempting to write them off just because of Jameis Winston, the team doesn’t rely entirely on the quarterback to do anything like with last year. The defense has notably improved; it mostly kept the San Francisco 49ers offense in check and shut down a depleted Carolina Panthers offense as well. Furthermore, they have Bruce Arians at coach now. And he’s likely to keep this team fighting even if they aren’t exactly expected to be a contender. But of course, Winston will still be Winston. And as such, the Buccaneers are still going to lose games now and then.

Write off the Panthers

This leaves the Panthers, and they’re probably the one team in this equation that you can safely write off. Cam Newton has looked like a shell of himself in the first two weeks, and now we find out that he could potentially miss time. And Christian McCaffrey isn’t quite as huge a threat when Newton can’t run. And it’s difficult to see this team doing much with Kyle Allen or Will Grier at quarterback, should Newton miss any time.

Last Word

So ultimately we’re left with a three-way battle for the South, after initially expecting the Saints to run away with it. The Saints could still very well be okay without Brees, but the Falcons and even Buccaneers still stand to benefit from this situation. On paper, the Falcons look to have the best shot at taking the South lead here. But they also have to get out of their own way and not give up too many sacks. The Buccaneers may be an underdog here, but don’t be shocked if they end up contending for the division lead as well.

An also possible scenario here is that none of these teams take a decisive lead over the next six week and that we have a two or three-way tie by the time Brees is expected to return. In that case, the Saints would be in good shape to presumably get back to running away with the division. But it’s also within the realm of possibility that Brees isn’t ready by then. Watching this NFC South situation unfold over the next several weeks will surely be interesting nonetheless.

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