Opening Drive 2019: NFC South

Each team has one burning question that encompasses their 2019 season, and it's being asked here. Projected finish is in presentation order.

Do the New Orleans Saints have the mental wherewithal to recover from last year's NFC Championship controversy? The most talked about non-call in recent NFL playoff history has meant something for those affected. For the Los Angeles Rams, it turned into a Super Bowl berth that left them rendered ineffective as the New England Patriots marched to a sixth NFL title. For the NFL, it was yet another officiating firestorm whose backlash included a virtual boycott of Super Bowl LIII by the city of New Orleans as fans in the state of Louisiana were outraged over such an injustice. For the Saints team, however, their response will be directly related to their play on the field in 2019. The offense returns largely intact, with the retirement of center Max Unger as the most notable loss. Quarterback Drew Brees, running back Alvin Kamara, and wide receiver Michael Thomas are the headliners of the unit and look to be among the league elite in terms of production. The defense will not be asked to do more its capable of under coordinator Dennis Allen, and are expected to be a complementary component to Brees and company. But even with all the pieces in place to challenge for the NFC crown, a loss of that magnitude under such circumstances has the potential to demoralize a roster and/or an organization. It would not be a stunning surprise if the Saints were to retreat into a middling form with so many young men feeling as if fate is conspiring against them. But this team and this region have bounced back from worse, and the Old Gold & Black should be the class of the NFC South for at least one more year.

Can Cam Newton return to his early 2018 form to make the Carolina Panthers contenders both in the division and conference? For better or worse, the Panthers' emotional center lies in Newton, and the team's play shows it. When he plays with confidence and bravado, Carolina is a difficult team to beat, as evidenced by their 2015 NFC Championship. When Newton is not, however, the Panthers suffer. Early in 2018, they were 6-2 and running step for step with the Saints in the NFC South. Then, a Thurday Night game in Pittsburgh where the Steelers blew out the Panthers began a 7 game losing streak where Newton's play dropped significantly then rendered inactive due to a shoulder injury on his throwing arm, serious enough to require an arthroscopic procedure in January. Your humble scribe is under the impression that he sustained that nagging shoulder issue against the Steelers and tried to power through it until it was clear that Carolina was not destined to return to the postseason. If Newton comes back to his early 2018 form, then the Panthers become a contender for the Saints' crown and become a legitimate conference threat. Anticipate Carolina to be a dangerous wild card entrant at least, a top NFC seed at best.

Does Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn survive 2019 after the purge of his coordinators after 2018? The Falcons were absolutely decimated by injuries last year, especially on the defense. But the offense was hit as well, as the loss of RB Devonta Freeman after Week 2 severely hampered the run game and made the entire offense essentially one dimensional. The overall struggles on both sides of the ball would cost all three coordinators their jobs; Steve Sarkisian on offense, Marquand Manuel on defense, and Keith Armstrong on special teams. The departure of those coordinators leaves the unmistakable impression that head coach Dan Quinn is fighting for his job in 2019. That probably explains why Quinn is the de facto defensive coordinator, while deposed Tampa Bay head coach and previous OC Dirk Koetter has returned to run the offense. The cupboard is not bare for the Falcons, but the run game will require a retool as Freeman left for San Francisco, leaving Tevin Coleman as the projected primary ball carrier. If Atlanta can avoid the crippling number of injuries and utilize their talent to its potential, the NFC South becomes a three horse race with the Falcons showing their 2016 form. But given where their divisional competition is at this point in time, the Dirty Birds find themselves caught in the wash. Expect them to challenge for a wild card berth.

Can reinvigorated Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians salvage QB Jameis Winston? There are those times where a young player, especially one anointed the future of a franchise, will be tested to see if he is the real deal. And for Winston, the #1 overall pick in the 2015 Draft, that time is now. He does show promise, but men drafted in his position are expected to have that. That pick is supposed to be a key piece in a franchise rebuild, and that is where he has been shaky. Between incurring a suspension last year due to a violation of the league's Personal Conduct Policy and not performing transcendently, he is already being labeled as a bust in many circles. Enter Arians, the formerly retired Arizona Cardinals head coach whose ability to maximize the potential of his passers is his hallmark. If Winston has the skill, talent, and desire to become a top flight NFL quarterback, Arians will find it to ensure the Bucs aren't forced into starting over at this crucial position. While Winston's development under Arians is a long term project, the Pewter Pirates will struggle in the short term. The defection of free agents and the installation of Arians' philosophy in a loaded division will translate into a losing season and a fairly high draft pick in 2020. Whether it's for a quarterback will depend on what happens on and off the field in 2019.