The Saints have been a great team for years, but the addition of Emmanuel Sanders could be significant. Michael Thomas is a complete freak and he and Brees play with the football on a rope. The connection is strong and rarely missed. But it’s been a while since Brees had a respectable No. 2.
Looking at the Saints’ No. 2 WR and TE the last several years:
None of these duos would concern any defense. Jared Cook in 2019 was by far the best tight end of any of them, with his nine touchdowns and 10.9 YPA dwarfing the rest of the tight end seasons. That was only in year one with Brees and Payton. Cook has the potential to record another great year with how frequently the Saints mix groupings up. Couple him with Sanders, a player whose addition to the 49ers really helped propel the team to the heights they reached last year. I’ve long believed Sanders to be an underrated receiver. He should fit in perfectly. He will love the pairing of a great playcaller and designer with a great quarterback, and the ability to play opposite a stud like Thomas.
One important note on home field advantage without fans, and how it relates to the Saints:
Since 2014, while the Saints are 32-22 overall at home, they are just 22-30 ATS. There hasn’t been a single season where the Saints produced a winning ATS record at home over the course of a season, falling below .500 each year. And as home favorites, they are a dreadful 16-29 ATS (36% ATS). Only four teams have a worse record ATS as home favorites in that span (Bucs, 49ers, Dolphins, and Chargers).
Years ago, the narrative with the Saints was they would cover all the time at home but were terrible on the road. It went that their team was built to excel at home but not on grass, and that Brees would get too impacted by weather conditions including wind.
But that’s no longer the case. The Saints are by far the NFL’s best team on the road. They have covered 31 of 48 road games (66%) since 2014, best in the NFL. So the stigma of the Saints has flip-flopped, and if too much home-field edge is baked into the Saints’ spreads when playing at home this year, that new and less well-known stigma will persist.
The Saints have made the postseason in each of the last three years. Their ultimate losses each of those seasons came at the hands of two of the most intelligent defensive minds we have in the NFL: Wade Phillips and Mike Zimmer. Two of the losses were in overtime and one was the Minneapolis Miracle, which saw the Saints up one with 10 seconds left and lose on a walk-off, 61-yard touchdown. There is nothing to say this team needs anything more than to maintain, improve in a couple of areas and get a little bit of luck.
Editor's Note: Make the right call with EDGE+ BET! Get FREE access through Sept. 28 to our exclusive Edge Finder and all of our other tools to help you sharpen your betting skills. Click here to learn more!
The 2019 Bucs were better than you think. They held halftime leads in 10 games and won just six. They held leads entering the fourth quarter in nine games and won just five.
To show how rare that is: in the last 30 years, only seven other teams held leads entering the fourth quarter in at least nine games but won no more than five. Out of 955 teams, it happened just seven times (0.7%) previously. Out of 612 teams that led entering the fourth quarter in at least seven games, only 14 other teams lost at least 44% of their games.
The great news for the Buccaneers is these improbable losses are unlikely to be repeated, mostly because the reasons for the losses were primarily fourth-quarter turnovers by Jameis Winston.
They added Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy to go with what was already a very productive offense, albeit erratic with Winston at the helm. But they also were solid at defense last season. They went from 32nd in 2018 to fifth in defensive efficiency in 2019 against a tougher schedule while spending $20M less in cap space. That was in large part thanks to new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
The biggest question I have is how Tom Brady fits into the Bruce Arians offense. One of the biggest changes from the Patriots Offense to Arians’s system is the average target depth. The Bucs averaged 10.2 air yards per pass, first in the NFL. The Patriots were down at 7.7, 21st in 2019. Another big change is the lack of pre-snap motion. Last year in the first three quarters of games, the Patriots used pre-snap motion on 65% of pass attempts, the second most in the NFL. The Bucs didn’t use it on 63% of attempts. Their 37% usage rate was one of the lowest in the NFL (average was 40%).
Comparing what the Bucs offense faced last year to what they will face this year, the schedule gets much more difficult. Winston tossed 32 touchdowns and 30 interceptions against the NFL’s fourth-worst pass defenses. This year Brady will face the 16th-toughest pass defenses. That increase in difficulty of pass defenses faced is second-highest in the NFL. The Bucs also are playing five games with less rest than their opponent and only one with more rest. In four consecutive weeks (Weeks 6 through 9) the Bucs are at a rest disadvantage in every game. They play two straight teams with bye weeks to prepare for them and then the Giants who have three extra days of rest plus they must play on a short week against the Saints.
The Falcons Defense changed during their Week 9 bye when Head coach Dan Quinn effectively fired himself from calling plays on defense and promoted two other coaches to split duties. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, and former wide receivers coach Raheem Morris would share playcalling duties for the defense moving forward. Ulbrich was responsible for playcalling duties on first and second down and Morris would call plays on third down and in the red zone.
It worked like a charm and the Falcons passing defense dominated. Same team. Same players. Different coaches.
Atlanta’s third down conversion rate dropped from 53% to 38%, moving from 32nd to first. Atlanta’s red zone conversion rate dropped from 66% to 38%, moving from 32nd to fifth with the best improvement in the NFL. The 2020 defense will look different from a personnel perspective. Gone are Vic Beasley Jr., Desmond Trufant, Adrian Clayborn, and De’Vondre Campbell. In are Dante Fowler Jr. and two rookies, A.J. Terrell and Marlon Davidson.
But the question is, will the defense be as good as it was in the second half of 2019? I’m concerned for the Falcons. The improvement on third downs greatly overshadowed their performance on early downs, and early down performance is more correlated to a true measure of a defense’s overall efficiency and is more repeatable. On early downs over the second half of the season, Atlanta ranked 29th. Zero improvement from the early part of the season.
If Atlanta’s defense somehow takes what they did on third down and overlays that into early downs, they might be able to take some of the pressure off their offense. But absent that, the 2020 Falcons are going to be very much like the 2015-2019 Falcons who needed to rely on their offense to win most games.
The Falcons Offense was the fifth-healthiest in 2019 and finished league-average in almost every key metric. They landed 15th in overall efficiency and 12th in EDSR. They return all five starters along the offensive line. That may not be the best thing, as Matt Ryan was pressured fifth-most of any quarterback last year.
It gets no easier in 2020, as they are projected to face the NFL’s toughest schedule. And it’s potentially even worse than it looks. The “weakest” team on their schedule is the rebuilding Panthers. But there is a very real chance the only other three teams forecast to post losing records (Broncos, Lions, and Raiders) are definitely better than they were in 2019. Every single other opponent is projected to win at least eight games. Their two primetime games are both on the road and they also play a road Thursday night game.
Rather than dig into the 2019 Panthers, with a totally new staff and new quarterback, it’s more relevant to discuss what we’ll see in 2020. The team will now be led by Teddy Bridgewater and the offense directed by offensive coordinator Joe Brady of LSU fame. Bridgewater has the most insane ATS mark for a quarterback in history. He has led his teams to a 31-9 ATS (78%) record in games where he has attempted at least one pass. His teams are 25-15 straight up (63%) during that span since 2014. He had to fill in for Drew Brees with the Saints last year and went 6-0 SU and ATS as a starter.
If you want to look to give some of that credit to Sean Payton, as some might, I’ll point you back to 2015, his last full season in Minnesota, where the team went 11-6 SU and 14-3 (82%) ATS. This was a team coordinated by Norv Turner. They were projected to win just 8 games in 2015 and clearly hit that over.
On every team Bridgewater played and started games, they hit the over on their win total. A perfect 4-0 in seasons his teams exceeded their projected win totals. He is nowhere near as flashy as Cam Newton, but he has been a proven winner, although considerably overlooked.
The rebuild offensively goes beyond just the quarterback and offensive coordinator. The Panthers return only three of five starters on the offensive line from 2019. The Panthers have their primary wide receivers back and added Robby Anderson to the mix.
The defense is being overhauled completely. It was the sixth-most expensive defense in 2019 and is now the fifth-least expensive in 2020. All seven draft picks are defensive players and they added multiple defensive players in a very active free agency period.
After facing the second-toughest schedule in 2019, the Panthers’ bad luck continues by facing the sixth-toughest schedule in 2020. With the Saints, Bucs, and Falcons in the division, it will be tough sledding, but their non-division schedule does them no favors either. They also don’t have the benefit of an early bye week. Early bye weeks tend to help first-year coaches make adjustments, but the Panthers 2020 bye is the last one possible: Week 13.
The Panthers have one of the worst situations of all teams with a brand new coaching staff. The head coach is working to impart his philosophy and culture. The defensive coordinator Phil Snow will take on a young, inexperienced defense. The offensive coordinator is installing a brand new system, and they have a new quarterback with zero chemistry with his receivers. It won’t be easy given this difficult and abbreviated offseason. But the Panthers are hoping their rebuild gets them on the right track sooner rather than later.
Atlanta Falcons under 8 wins -135
Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win more games than New England Patriots -143