All four NFC South teams are in action this weekend, with two involved in putative marquee match-ups for the weekend. Through two weeks three teams are tied for the division lead with one win a piece (Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Atlanta), while the New Orleans Saints wallow in an 0-2 start and the excitement of watching a shameless self-promoter, some-time nutritionist, and noted stat-padder Drew Brees rise through the record books with his eyes set on individual glory. Here are the matchups ahead, with brief commentary on the keys to each game:
Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
The Minnesota Vikings are riding high off a 17-14 victory over the Green Bay Packers, once the division bully, last Sunday Night in the regular season opener for US Bank Stadium. They face a tall task this weekend however, as they travel to Carolina to take on the reigning NFC Champion Panthers. The Panthers had a slow start to the season as they were downed for the second straight game by the Denver Broncos, but bounced back for a convincing, if up-and-down performance, in beating the San Fransisco 49ers at home.
While the Panthers offense looked good as the team racked up 46 points in week 2, concerns over defensive performance must be creeping in. San Fransisco scored 27 points of their own, and the Broncos, led by a rookie quarterback, scored 21. While giving up 24 points a game over such a small sample is not normally a large concern, the Panthers’ defense will hope for better going forward, especially against yet another middling-to-weak offensive team. The Vikings are without Adrian Peterson following a knee injury, and while Sam Bradford and Stefon Diggs had significant success against the Packers, the Panthers should have a better game plan in place to stop the offense, especially with tape on Bradford. If they can do so, they should be able to win this ballgame at home despite a very hot start for the Vikings’ defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams
The Buccaneer’s season got off to an exciting start as they bested division rival Atlanta Falcons on the road, and thanks to a very strong performance by second-year quarterback Jamies Winston. That excitement was quickly stifled by the Arizona Cardinals, however, a strong team looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss to open the season. The Bucs were thoroughly whipped as the Cardinals put up 40 points and Winston threw 4 interceptions.
The offense will look to bounce back against a Rams defense coming off a strong performance of its own, stifling Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams have a talented defensive line anchored by Aaron Donald, and have (somewhat amazingly for a non-division opponent) beaten the Bucs four years in a row. It seems Jeff Fisher can step out of mediocrity and into excellence, at least in certain circumstances. The Bucs are lacking Doug Martin, a talented running back coming off a very good season, who will miss multiple games with a hamstring injury. It will therefore be that much harder for Winston to recover from the disappointment of a week ago.
On the other hand, Mike Evans had a big game against the Rams a season ago (9 receptions for 157 yards), and the Rams do not have a cornerback reasonably capable of shutting him down. Furthermore, the Rams offense has stumbled out of the block, scoring no points in week 1, and just nine in their victory over the Seahawks. Standout running back Todd Gurley has just 98 yards through two games, and is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. He receives little aid from the passing game led by retread Case Keenum. The Bucs will be disappointed if they let the Rams roll, and have an excellent chance to pick up a win at home.
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
The Saints can’t play defense (rank: 30) because they have no money to pay for one. Even when they are the beneficiary of one of the odd games in which Eli Manning is incapable of leading the Giants to the end zone (despite 368 yards and no interceptions), they still cannot win because even though they paid for an offense, that offense apparently gladly plays down to exactly the level needed to lose a close game. The visiting Falcons, meanwhile, have been extremely productive on offense, and Matt Ryan (53-73, 730 yards, 10.0 yards per attempt, 5 touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 121.4) has been excellent to start the year.
All of which would seem to be great news for the Falcons, except for one thing: they have only two wins in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, though the Falcons were able to get a win on the road in week 2 against the Raiders (a team New Orleans failed to best), the Raiders did produce 28 points and 454 yards. Add a poor defensive performance against Winston and the Bucs, and the Falcons’ defense ranks a solid 28th in the league. If ever a game existed for Brees to continue his more-and-more meaningless march up statistical charts, this would be it.
Thus, one can expect a barn-burner in New Orleans. Although the same was true a week ago when the Saints and Giants put on a stinker, the Falcons and Raiders held up their end of the bargain and produced big numbers. If you face Falcons and Saints players in fantasy this weekend, good luck.