The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t win the NFC South last year, or at any point in the last 14 years, but NFL.com’s 30-voter panel made them a unanimous choice to unseat the New Orleans Saints on top of the division this season. Winning the Super Bowl must have helped raise their profile.
Read that again: 29 different analysts including Brian Baldinger, Judy Battista, Jeremy Bergman, Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Gil Brandt, David Carr, Brooke Cersosimo, Jeffri Chadiha, Gennaro Filice, Chase Goodbread, Marcas Grant, DeAngelo Hall, Dan Hanzus, Maurice Jones-Drew, Shaun O’Hara, Dan Parr, Kevin Patra, Scott Pioli, Adam Rank, Chad Reuter, Gregg Rosenthal, Marc Ross, Adam Schein, Marc Sessler, Nick Shook, Matt Smith, Joe Thomas and Lance Zierlein each took a look at the NFC South and put the Bucs down as shoo-in, unchallenged division champs.
These writers, analysts, and experts didn’t pencil it down — they wrote it in permanent ink. It makes sense to be down on the Saints after all of their losses this offseason, including Drew Brees and multiple starters on defense. But the burial of the Saints didn’t stop here.
After casting votes on the various division winners, the panel then turned its attention to the wild-card teams. I’ll quote from NFL.com’s explainer, which reads: “We asked voters to pick the three wild-card teams from each conference, ranking their picks from 1 to 3 based on where they project the squads to land in the pecking order.”
So how did that work out for the Saints? With three wild-card seeds available, they ended up ranking fourth behind three NFC West teams: the Seattle Seahawks, the Los Angeles Rams, and the San Francisco 49ers. The good news is that the Rams are also projected to win the division, freeing up a spot at the bottom for the Saints.
But everyone seems to be down on New Orleans this year. Just three of the voters — Baldinger, Goodbread, and Parr — picked the Saints as the fifth seed. Six of them selected the Saints as the sixth seed, and four linked the Saints to the seventh seed. Add those together and you’ll see that fewer panelists had the Saints in the playoff picture at all (13) than those who left the Saints out of the playoffs altogether (16). That’s less than ideal.
It’s also not impossible. There’s a lot riding on Jameis Winston to lead the Saints to success this year. All of the losses the team has taken up and down its depth chart (and in the coaching staff) might make this the most daunting challenge Sean Payton has faced since his first year on the job. New Orleans will be working with a very thin margin for error all season long, and there’s a very real chance they miss the playoffs, much less win the division, after stringing an unprecedented four-year streak of NFC South titles together.
So will these panels be proven right? We’ll be sure to check back in a few months.
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