Saints news. NFC South schedule preview: Breaking down the division’s 2024 opponents

The Saints news

NFL writers across the country had hoped we might get the 2024 schedule announcement this week, but alas, all we got was the news Tuesday night that the league will reportedly unveil the dates and times for all 272 regular-season games on May 15 at 8 p.m. ET.

Saints news. NFC South schedule preview: Breaking down the division’s 2024 opponents

Here’s the thing: All 32 teams already know all their opponents for the upcoming season, and they’ve known them since the 2023 regular-season ended. So all next week’s big deal will tell us is when each game is … which, of course, is still a major event on the NFL calendar.

But to help tide you over until the big reveal next week, let’s look at what’s ahead for the NFC South, which will try to shed its reputation as the league’s worst division. So here are a few talking points to understand about the soon-to-be-learned schedules ahead:

1. External expectations are still low

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There’s optimism that the NFC South will take a step forward in 2024, with the Bucs and Saints bringing much of their core back and the Falcons adding Kirk Cousins (and yes, rookie Michael Penix Jr.) at quarterback and the Panthers revamping their entire team after a 2-15 record.

The oddsmakers aren’t sold just yet. Add up the over-unders for team wins (we used BetMGM) and the NFC South is still projected to be the worst division in the NFL, going a combined 29-39. The division actually went 27-41 last year, so even that is somehow a step forward, but no other division is projected to have fewer than 32 wins, so the reputation is still there.

2. Here are the basics

NFL schedules follow a simple formula and rotation: Each division has its own six division games, and has all four teams play two entire divisions, one from their conference and one from the opposite, plus three games against teams that finished in the same position in the division standings the year before. The NFC South gets to play the NFC East and AFC West in 2024 — that’s catching a break, as the AFC West had the worst record in its conference (32-36), and the NFC East was second-worst in the NFC at 33-35.

The three games unique to each team have the NFC South facing their counterparts from three divisions — at home against the NFC West and AFC North, and on the road against the NFC North. That’s intended to work toward competitive balance, with last year’s best teams facing the best and the worst facing the worst. Here’s how those games shake out:

Bucs: Ravens, 49ers, at Lions
Saints: Browns, Rams, at Packers
Falcons: Steelers, Seahawks, at Vikings
Panthers: Bengals, Cardinals, at Bears

It’s a nasty draw for the Bucs, who get three of the four teams that won 12-plus games last season (they also play the fourth, in the Cowboys) and both teams from last year’s NFC Championship Game. It’s still a doozy for the Saints, facing three playoff teams, and it somehow should be easier for the Falcons, with the last-place Panthers drawing what should be some of the league’s most improved teams.

Add up the Vegas over-unders for expected wins in these three opponents, and the Bucs are at 33.5, the Saints at 26.5, the Falcons at 21.5 and the Panthers way up at 25.5.

3. The Falcons have it really easy

As third-place schedules go, the Falcons caught a nice break. Consider it this way: BetMGM has 13 teams projected to win fewer than eight games this season, and the Falcons play 13 of their 17 games against those lesser teams. That includes all six division games, plus the Broncos, Raiders, Commanders, Giants, Steelers, Vikings and Seahawks. The only four games they face against teams expected to finish .500 or better are against the Chiefs, Eagles, Cowboys and Chargers, and they get three of those four at home.

Of course, a bunch of games against teams with losing records might not be a recipe for success for the Falcons, who somehow went 5-4 against teams with winning records in 2023, but 2-6 against teams with losing records. Atlanta lost to the Panthers (2-15), Cardinals (4-13), Commanders (4-13) and Titans (6-11) last year, so they’ll need to reverse that trend to take advantage of a favorable schedule in 2023.

4. Can they beat elite NFL opponents?

After all four teams had losing records in 2022, the NFC South picked up ground last year by having the Bucs and Saints finish at 9-8 overall, but the division still struggled overall. It went 11-28 against teams that finished with winning records — again, Atlanta went 5-4, so the other three teams went a combined 7-24.

If you look at the division’s record against teams that won 10 games or more, the NFC South went just 2-12 last year, with both wins coming against the Texans and one of those coming somehow from the two-win Panthers. The Bucs went 0-5 in such games in the regular season, though they dominated the Eagles in the playoffs; the Saints went 0-3, though all three were one-score losses.

This year’s NFC South schedule has 18 games against teams that won 10 or more games in 2023 — four each against the Chiefs, Eagles and Cowboys, and any wins in those 12 will be seen as quality wins for the division. Of the other six, the Bucs have three (Ravens, 49ers, Lions), the Saints have two (Browns, Rams) and the Falcons have one in the Steelers.

In the past seven seasons, the NFL has had 56 division champs, and only four won fewer than 10 games — the NFC South in the last two seasons, and the NFC East champs in 2019 and 2020. If the South is to get out of that slump and produce a 10-win team in 2024, the division will need some team to beat elite opponents more consistently — or have the Falcons take care of business against lesser teams.

5. Beat the young quarterbacks

Whether Penix takes the field or not this season, the NFC South will likely see its share of rookie quarterbacks, with all four teams playing Washington (and Jayden Daniels) and Denver (and Bo Nix), plus Carolina facing Chicago (and Caleb Williams) and Atlanta facing Minnesota (and J.J. McCarthy). All four teams will also face the Raiders, who will have either Aiden O’Connell or Gardner Minshew starting from one of the league’s worst quarterback rooms.

That’s likely more games than a year ago, when Carolina and Atlanta were able to beat Houston’s C.J. Stroud and the Bucs took care of Tennessee’s Will Levis. The Bucs, Falcons and Saints went 5-1 against Carolina and rookie Bryce Young, who totaled just two passing touchdowns in those six games, but that total is likely to increase significantly in 2024. Will the Panthers’ division win total get a bump up as well?

The NFC South hasn’t produced a wild card in the past three years, since the Bucs won a Super Bowl as a wild card in 2020, and the AFC South is the only other division to go so long without sending a second team to the playoffs. That stands as the division’s only wild card in the last six years. Every other division in the league has had at least three in that span. Can the NFC South end that drought and send two teams to the postseason in 2024? We shall see.


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