Brady’s Bucs poised to end Saints’ 4-year run atop NFC South

Aug 29, 2021, 10:25 PM | Updated: Aug 30, 2021, 10:33 am

ATLANTA (AP) — Mike Evans endured four last-place finishes in the NFC South in his first six seasons with Tampa Bay before last season’s breakthrough Super Bowl championship earned the Buccaneers long-awaited respect.

The former doormats of the division are now envied by every other NFL team.

“I’ve been waiting for this for seven years now,” said Evans, a first-round pick in 2014. “That’s what we want. When we went to Pittsburgh my rookie year, we wanted to be the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now everybody wants to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s what you want, and we look forward to the challenge.”

Tom Brady and the Buccaneers aren’t the defending division champions. New Orleans won its fourth consecutive division title at 12-4, one game ahead of Tampa Bay, which made the playoffs as a wild card.

The retirement of Saints quarterback Drew Brees only makes Tampa Bay a stronger favorite in the division.

First-year Falcons coach Arthur Smith, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, says the Saints’ four-year run atop the division deserves respect.

“I know Drew Brees is retired, but they’ve won a lot of football games and sustained success, so we’ve got all the respect in the world for New Orleans,” Smith said.

FRESH START

Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians has reminded his players they can’t lean on last year’s run of eight consecutive wins to the championship. Arians relayed a simple message on the first day of training camp in July.

“Don’t assume anything. We’re starting from scratch. That was last year’s team,” Arians said.

Brady, 44 and who had offseason knee surgery, is doing his part to make sure complacency isn’t an issue. Even though the Bucs return all 22 starters, Brady reiterated the difficulty of the challenge ahead.

It’s difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but Brady knows the path. No team has repeated since Brady led the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots to consecutive titles.

“We have to be able to create our own future, and that’s really about attitude, effort, and preparation,” Brady said. “Nothing about last year is going to carry over into this year. … It’s an entirely new challenge.”

QB RESET

Brees’ retirement and Carolina’s acquisition of Sam Darnold from the Jets created quarterback turnover in half of the division’s teams. Brady returns for his second season in Tampa Bay while Matt Ryan, 36, enters his 14th season in Atlanta.

With Brees launching a new career as a broadcaster, Ryan says the division won’t be the same.

“It’s a little different,” Ryan said. “Obviously playing against Drew every year for my entire career was a challenge. He’s a great player.”

Jameis Winston has been named the successor to Brees.

BELIEVE IN PAYTON

Saints coach Sean Payton must show he can win without Brees. GM Mickey Loomis says that point has been proven.

New Orleans was 8-1 without Brees the last two seasons, including 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater when Brees was out with a thumb injury in 2019. The Saints were 3-1 with Taysom Hill at quarterback while Brees was out with injured ribs last season.

Hill is expected to have a role behind Winston this season. Loomis said Payton will find a way to keep the Saints winning.

“Sean and his staff will adjust accordingly,” Loomis said. “I think they’ve been fantastic doing that over the years.”

SPOTLIGHT ON DARNOLD

With a healthy Christian McCaffrey at running back, the Panthers have renewed cause for optimism.

Carolina’s playoff hopes rest firmly on the right arm of Darnold, who has replaced Bridgewater. Darnold is looking for a fresh start in Carolina after going 13-25 in three seasons as Jets starter. Panthers second-year coach Matt Rhule has gone out of his way to avoid putting pressure on Darnold, emphasizing repeatedly that his role in the offense will be to avoid mistakes.

“I think Sam’s doing really well,” Rhule said. “He’s evolving, he’s growing, and getting good reps, and a lot of different looks, and for the most part protecting the football.”

Darnold has more weapons to work with than in New York with 1,000-yard receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson returning along with promising rookie Terrace Marshall Jr.

Darnold’s best asset is McCaffrey, who is healthy after missing 13 games last season due to multiple injuries. McCaffrey, who caught 106 passes in 2018 and 116 in 2019, figures to be the primary check-down target for Darnold and will handle the bulk of the running game.

LEARNING TO FLY

With wide receiver Julio Jones traded to Tennessee and a new leadership team of Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot making decisions, Atlanta’s 2016 Super Bowl season is a fading memory.

A total rebuild likely would have meant the team would have used the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft to select a quarterback. Instead, tight end Kyle Pitts was the choice and Ryan returns for at least one or two more seasons.

Ryan has a capable lead receiver in Calvin Ridley. The big offseason addition was running back Mike Davis, who filled in for McCaffrey in Carolina last season.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Buccaneers, Saints, Panthers, Falcons

___

AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall, Brett Martel and Steve Reed contributed to this report.

___

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - Minnesota Wild's Matt Dumba takes a knee during the national anthem flanked by Edmonton Oile...
Associated Press

‘It’s not right’: Players want more from NHL against racism

For too long, Matt Dumba felt he was on his own dealing with racial taunts directed at him as a youngster growing up in Saskatchewan. It was no different for Dumba as an adult, one of just a handful of minority players in the National Hockey League. Even in a circle of his fellow players, […]
1 day ago
Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell looks on in the first half of an NCAA college football game agains...
Associated Press

After surge in first-half firings, can seasons be salvaged?

The move was shocking for its timing and memorable for its location. Lane Kiffin was fired by Southern California on Sept. 29, 2013, just five games into the season, on the airport tarmac after the team plane returned home from Arizona State. While not unprecedented, such an early coaching change was rare and a harbinger […]
1 day ago
FILE - Cherelle Griner, wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, speaks during a news conference in Chica...
Associated Press

Brittney Griner at ‘weakest moment’ in Russia, her wife says

WASHINGTON (AP) — WNBA star Brittney Griner is at her “absolute weakest moment in life right now” as she faces a hearing in Russia later this month for her appeal of a nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, Griner’s wife said in an interview aired Thursday. Cherelle Griner told CBS “This Morning” that her wife, […]
1 day ago
Manchester City's Kyle Walker, left, challenges for the ball with Manchester United's Tyrell Malaci...
Associated Press

Kyle Walker in doubt for World Cup after groin surgery

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — England defender Kyle Walker is in doubt for this year’s World Cup after undergoing groin surgery this week. The Manchester City player sustained the injury in the win 6-3 over Manchester United on Sunday. He was taken off the field in the 41st minute. “As players we have to appreciate injuries […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

France ski world blasts Asian Winter Games in Saudi Arabia

PARIS (AP) — The French ski federation, mayors from mountain resorts and ski instructors lashed out Thursday at the decision to award the 2029 Asian Winter Games to Saudi Arabia, saying the decision goes against “what is desirable for the planet.” In a joint statement also signed by the union of ski area operators, they […]
1 day ago
New York Mets manager Buck Showalter watches the game action against the Pittsburgh Pirates during ...
Associated Press

Buck’s back: Showalter gets another October shot with Mets

NEW YORK (AP) — The last time Buck Showalter managed a playoff game, he ended up on the hot seat after an agonizing loss for Baltimore. Six years later, a shot at redemption begins Friday with the New York Mets. The popular Showalter takes his fourth franchise to the postseason this weekend when the Mets […]
1 day ago
Brady’s Bucs poised to end Saints’ 4-year run atop NFC South