The NFL tends to operate with the same basic barometer — Al Davis’ “Just win, baby!” — thanks to the parity that results from a hard salary cap and an annually impactful draft. The reality is, unless your name is Jeff Fisher, you have to make the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach or you’ll be looking for work.
But success can still be relative for teams that are either rebuilding, ascending or ready to contend. The strength of the division as well as the conference, and a team’s schedule can help determine how high the bar can realistically be set.
All22.com is taking a close look at each of the division races to see which teams have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
In this installment, the NFC South:
Carolina Panthers (15-1, first place, lost to Denver in Super Bowl in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Panthers win at least 11 games, win the division and return to the NFC Championship Game. The Panthers overachieved last season before the Broncos exposed a few cracks in the foundation, such as pass protection and quarterback Cam Newton’s performance as a passer over the middle. Repeating a 15-1 season is nearly impossible for any team, but with enough of the foundation back on offense and defense, another strong run at the Super Bowl should be in the cards.
Why it should happen: The Panthers still have one of the best defensive front sevens in football and the reigning MVP on offense in Newton, and the coaches who masterfully built schemes out around those pieces are back. Josh Norman’s departure could be offset by Kelvin Benjamin’s return to a No. 1 receiver role, something that could take Carolina’s diverse run-first offense to a new level of unpredictability. The rest of the division doesn’t feature any gimme games, but it doesn’t boast a roster on Carolina’s level either.
And if it doesn’t: It could just prove to be the year for the Packers or the Cardinals or the Seahawks, and the Panthers fall victim to it. The NFC playoffs will be rugged, so falling short of winning the league wouldn’t be a failure … yet. But with Kawann Short’s contract coming up in a league that now throws money at top defensive linemen, the approach of general manager Dave Gettleman to not invest too much in any one player will be heavily tested and could shift the waters even more a year from now.
Atlanta Falcons (8-8, second place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Falcons win nine games behind stronger play from quarterback Matt Ryan. Dan Quinn’s group took a roundabout way to a .500 record in his first season as a head coach, peaking early and then fading fast. The roster heading into Year 2 screams perfectly average as well, and the schedule is one of the toughest out there. That said, coaches aim to make progress, and enough talent is there to do that.
Why it should happen: It’s a passing league, and Atlanta has the tools to be better than it has been of late. Ryan turned in one of his worst statistical seasons in his first year in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback-friendly system. His struggles due to interior pressure was part of the problem, so the addition of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, who has experience in Shanahan’s zone scheme, should better allow Ryan to use wide receiver Julio Jones and set up one-on-one opportunities for the less heralded supporting cast at wide receiver. The defensive side of the ball lacked the pass rush it needed to be effective last year, and the signing of veteran end Dwight Freeney and the progression of linebacker Vic Beasley should make it less of a liability.
And if it doesn’t: Either Ryan or Shanahan will have to answer as to why this isn’t working as well as either of their resumes suggest it should. If the pass rush ranks at the bottom of the league, as it did in 2015, general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s seat will get warmer considering who he passed up to reach for safety Keanu Neal in the first round this spring.
New Orleans Saints (7-9, third place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Saints win at least 10 games and secure a wild-card spot behind a significantly improved defense. The window is closing on quarterback Drew Brees’ and perhaps coach Sean Payton’s time in New Orleans. Those two steadying forces should always keep a team at least in the playoff conversation, but the Saints are only going to stop being mediocre if the organization can show it has more of a pulse on defense.
Why it should happen: Brees is 37 and his arm isn’t what it was, but he showed in last year’s league-best 4,870-yard campaign that he can make the tactical adjustments to offset what he’s losing physically. Improved health in the backfield and secondary, along with a number of helpful if unspectacular additions — including wide receiver Michael Thomas, tight end Coby Fleener, defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Sheldon Rankins and linebacker James Laurinaitis — should make a thin roster more competitive. If better communication and a revamped front line can improve the league’s 31st-ranked defense, the Saints might end up winning more of the shootouts that have gone against them in recent years.
And if it doesn’t: Brees’ $100 million deal is up at the end of this season, and if the roster still feels as though it is filled with to mediocre talent, it’s possible New Orleans could finally go into true rebuild mode by looking to build around a younger, cheaper quarterback. Brees and Payton seem tied to the hip, and missing the playoffs for a third straight season could finally be reason to push them out.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10, fourth place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Buccaneers win at least nine games behind improved quarterback play. That would be a nice step for a team that finished in the basement last year, but it’s a realistic one for a young, ascending core. And taking a significant step of some kind is going to be crucial for coach Dirk Koetter after management prematurely canned coach Lovie Smith to hand the reins to the Bucs’ offensive coordinator.
Why it should happen: Koetter led the most productive offense, in terms of yards, that the Bucs have ever seen, and it came with a rookie quarterback in Jameis Winston and two rookies starting up front in Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. That kind of offense, led by the NFL’s second-leading rusher, Doug Martin, should keep the Bucs in every game. The defense underachieved under Smith, but veteran additions such as linebacker Akeem Ayers and cornerback Brent Grimes should aid the ailing pass defense. With a little better execution on both sides of the ball (the Bucs finished outside the top 20 in offensive and defensive scoring), wins should only follow the star power in Tampa Bay.
And if it doesn’t: The Bucs probably have a little more rebuilding to do, and getting better draft picks to replace some aging veterans that remain on the starting units wouldn’t be the worst result. But it would make 2017 a pivotal year for Koetter and Co.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.