ATLANTA (AP) — In only two seasons in the NFC South, Tom Brady has cast a shadow that stretches from Charlotte to Atlanta to New Orleans.
In those two years, Brady's dramatic impact with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has forced other teams in the division to scramble. It's no easy task trying to keep up with the quarterback regarded by many as the best in NFL history.
Brady won his record seventh Super Bowl in his 2020 debut season with the Buccaneers. He added a division title — Tampa Bay's first since 2007 — last season.
Brady is 45, but he has looked sharp since rejoining the Bucs following what coach Todd Bowles described as a planned, 11-day break from training camp for personal reasons. He completed 6 of 8 passes for 44 yards and led the Buccaneers to a field goal on his first and only drive in the team's final preseason game on Saturday night.
Teammates expect another big year from the future Hall of Famer.
“He hasn’t lost a step,” running back Leonard Fournette said. “He is who he is.”
Make no mistake, Brady was the difference-maker last season. He led the NFL in completions, attempts, passing yards and touchdowns. The Bucs set a franchise record with 13 regular-season wins.
The NFC South once was the place to find stability at quarterback with Drew Brees in New Orleans, Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Cam Newton in Carolina.
Now, the division's quarterback depth charts are packed with castoffs looking for fresh starts. It is no coincidence the NFC South had two teams — Atlanta and Carolina — risk negative publicity by demonstrating interest in trades for Deshaun Watson before Watson finally landed in Cleveland.
Instead, the Falcons signed veteran Marcus Mariota, who last started a regular-season game in 2019, to a two-year deal after trading Ryan to Indianapolis. Atlanta also drafted Desmond Ridder from Cincinnati in the third round and made plans for former backup Feleipe Franks to spend most of his time at tight end, completing their depth chart makeover.
Meanwhile, Carolina acquired Baker Mayfield from Cleveland after drafting Matt Corral from Mississippi in the third round. Corral tore the Lisfranc ligament in his left foot in a preseason game and will miss the season. Mayfield has been selected as the Panthers' starter, beating out incumbent Sam Darnold, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the team's final preseason game.
The Saints are hoping for good health from Jameis Winston, who is returning from a knee injury for his second season as the starter. New Orleans also added offseason help by signing veteran Andy Dalton.
PRO BOWL GOAT
Brady has 15 Pro Bowl selections in his career. That tops every NFC South team’s career Pro Bowl history at the position.
The Saints have had 14 Pro Bowl selections from their quarterbacks, including 12 from Brees. The Falcons have had 12, the Panthers six and the Bucs five —including one by Brady.
REASON FOR CONCERN
The Bucs likely will open the season with at least two inexperienced starters on the offensive line. There is reason to worry about how well the revamped unit will be able to protect Brady, who threw the ball more than any other quarterback in the league last season.
Veteran right guard Shaq Mason was acquired from New England to fill an opening created by losing Alex Cappa in free agency. Young players must step in at center and left guard, where Ryan Jenson and Aaron Stinnie were lost to knee injuries.
Winston showed an improved ability to protect the ball in 2021.
In Winston's seven starts before a season-ending left knee injury against Tampa Bay, the Saints went 5-2. Winston passed for 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions. In his final season as a starter in Tampa Bay in 2019, he passed for 33 TDs with a league-high 30 interceptions.
“I want my touchdown-to-interception ratio where it needs to be, but I want my winning ratio to be where it needs to be,” Winston said. “I’m just grateful to have that chance to go out there, throw some touchdowns, win some football games and keep y’all smiling.”
Forced to use four quarterbacks, the Saints finished 9-8 and missed the playoffs, ending their run of four consecutive division titles.
In the Saints' final preseason game, Winston made his return from last season's injury and was 4-for-4 passing for 59 yards in a drive that ended with a touchdown.
RIDDER TO THE RESCUE
Mariota is expected to open the season as the starter, but don't be surprised if Ridder is given an opportunity to play off the bench and eventually start. The rookie impressed early with his poise and maturity. He also has demonstrated good arm strength and has been pushed hard by second-year coach Arthur Smith — a sure sign of high expectations.
Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Alabama's Bryce Young head what is expected to be a talented class of quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL draft. The Falcons need to find out if Ridder can be their future starter or if they must consider investing a first-round pick on a new leader next year.
NEW YEAR, NEW STARTING QB
Mayfield is Carolina's fourth different opening day starter in as many years. His challenge is to give the Panthers their first playoff season since 2017. The Panthers are coming off back-to-back five-win seasons, including a last-place finish in 2021.
The Panthers are 22-43 since 2018.
Mayfield was 29-30 in four years as the Browns starter. He was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Buccaneers, Saints, Panthers, Falcons
AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall, Brett Martel and Steve Reed contributed to this report.
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