Resetting the NFC South: How things have changed

The non-call that devastated the Saints

On and off the field, the beginning of the 2019 calendar year has been a busy one around the NFC South.

The division’s on-field story wrapped up in dramatic fashion Sunday in the NFC Championship, when the Saints lost a home playoff game for the first time since 1992. The Rams knocked them off 26-23 in overtime to claim a spot in Super Bowl LIII opposite the Patriots.

Saints fans won’t soon get over a second consecutive season cut short by a crazy ending. The previous season ended in the divisional round on a Minnesota miracle, then this year’s team lost on a crucial non-call at the end of regulation and then a 57-yard bomb of a field goal in overtime. Despite all the heartbreak, 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees said he's going to make another run at it in 2019, so the division foes aren't done facing him yet.

Speaking of the other teams in the division, they didn’t just sit on their hands watching the Saints. Here’s a look at what has happened in Tampa Bay and Atlanta since the close of the regular season.

Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera

BUCCANEERS: Tampa Bay hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season – the second-longest current drought behind the Browns – so now the Buccaneers are looking to change that with their fifth head coach since Jon Gruden led them to the postseason.

Bruce Arians, who retired from coaching following the 2017 season with the Cardinals, is back. Arians has a history of success with quarterbacks but hasn’t previously tried to lead one as unpredictable as Jameis Winston, the presumed starter in 2019 whose 78 turnovers since he was a rookie in 2015 lead the league.

The Buccaneers went 5-11 this past season with Winston and journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick taking turns turning over the football. Byron Leftwich, a former Buccaneers quarterbacks who coached the QBs for Arians in Arizona in 2017, will now be Arians’ offensive coordinator (a role Leftwich held down the stretch for the Cardinals this past season). Recently fired Jets head coach Todd Bowles has come onboard as defensive coordinator.

It’s a strong staff inheriting a team with lots of talent, but that’s been the story for a while for a Tampa team that has watched their division foes earn a combined 17 playoff berths since its last. One more time, with feeling: Is this finally the year?

Quinn and Rivera chat

FALCONS: The last man who attempted to lead the Buccaneers back to the playoffs is now aiming to aid Atlanta’s efforts to return. Dirk Koetter has been hired by Dan Quinn as the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator, while Quinn in effect hired himself as the team’s new defensive coordinator.

Koetter replaces Steve Sarkisian, who spent two seasons in the role trying to recapture the magic of the Kyle Shanahan-led offense in 2016 that helped the Falcons reach the Super Bowl. Koetter is one of two former Buccaneers’ head coaches on the staff (Raheem Morris is entering his fifth season) and is one of two former head coaches added this offseason (former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey is now tight ends coach).

Quinn replaces Marquand Manuel and will reprise the role as principle defensive play-caller that he took over late in the regular season and throughout the playoffs in 2016. Given his expanded responsibilities, Quinn has hired an assistant to help with game management (Kyle Flood), The Falcons also have a new special teams coordinator (Ben Kotwica).

The Falcons, Saints and Panthers have all been to the playoffs four times since Ron Rivera (also assuming defensive play-calling next season) took over as Carolina’s head coach in 2011. Will someone forge ahead in that regard in 2019? Or will all three make the postseason like they did in 2017? Or, will they be pushed aside as the Buccaneers end their drought?

It’ll again be fun to find out.

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