No division in the NFL can match the NFC South when it comes to sheer, across-the-board quarterback firepower, and that was immediately evident in Week One of the new season.
Among its four starting field generals, the NFC South boasts the reigning NFL MVP (Carolina's Cam Newton); a two-time Offensive Player of the Year with more than 60,000 career passing yards (New Orleans' Drew Brees); and a three-time Pro Bowler with a string of five straight 4,000-yard campaigns (Atlanta's Matt Ryan). The fourth QB on that list is Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston, who has just one season under his belt but already owns a Pro Bowl berth and a 4,000-yard campaign. It was the arrival of Winston that rounded out the division's quartet of gunslingers, leaving no weaknesses on the schedule.
Even with Newton having to face the Denver Broncos' suffocating defense on the road in Week One, and thus coming out of Thursday's opener with pedestrian numbers, the NFC South had the best overall quarterback play over the opening weekend. The four division passers combined to throw for 1,232 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 110.7 passer rating. Those were the top totals for any of the eight division's groups of passers in yards, touchdowns and rating, and only the AFC East and NFC North threw fewer picks.
Here's a look at how each division's collection of quarterbacks fared in Week One, ranked by passer rating:
It was a particularly good opening week from the Buccaneers' standpoint, as they defeated division-rival Atlanta and were left as the only team in the division to get an season-opening win. Not only are the Bucs alone in first place (albeit with a long way to go), but Winston is tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes. The last time a Tampa Bay quarterback was leading or tied for the league lead in that category was way back in Week 12 of 2003, when Brad Johnson was under center. Winston ranks third in the NFL with a 122.6 passer rating after one week, but he's joined in the top six by Brees (first at 131.3) and Ryan (sixth at 112.6).
With the above numbers in mind, let's focus specifically on the passers as we take our weekly look around the division. This is your NFC South Roundup, QB Edition.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' Week 1 matchup with the Falcons.
After falling behind the visiting Buccaneers, 31-13, in the third quarter, the Falcons came storming back behind the usual crisp passing of Matt Ryan, who finished the game with 27 completions in 39 attempts for 334 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Falcons had trouble inside the 20, converting just one of four such drives into a touchdown. However, Ryan did not suffer a red zone turnover – a particular problem in 2015 – and in fact did not give the ball away at all during a mostly comfortable game for the veteran passer.
Ryan did not get an opportunity to target his star receiver, Julio Jones, until five minutes into the second quarter, which indicates some decent early work in coverage by the Buccaneers' defensive backs, including rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. Jones did eventually score on a 25-yard catch-and-run over the middle in the fourth quarter, but a final total of 66 yards on four catches was a pretty good outcome for the Buccaneers' defense, as Jones averaged about 50 more yards per game than that last year. However, until Ryan and Jones got in a groove together, the Falcons still moved the ball through the air by spreading it around, and in particular by getting it to the running backs in space.
"Obviously we know coming into games that people are going to have plans to adjust to Julio," said Ryan. "I thought some of our other guys did a great job of stepping up. When people are going to try to take him away, you have to have other guys step up and make plays. Ultimately, as we kept going we found ways to get [Julio] the ball; obviously, he made a great play on the shallow cross for a touchdown."
Jones' touchdown came on a no-huddle play, and Ryan has a history of operating well in a hurry-up attack. However, the Falcons did not go back to the no-huddle until their final desperation drive at the end, which led to some postgame questions about that decision. Head Coach Dan Quinn said the Falcons "didn't feel it was necessary at the time," and Ryan agrees.
The Falcons travel to Oakland for their Week Two contest, facing a Raiders squad that gave up 419 net passing yards in a win over New Orleans on Sunday.
Take a look back at last year's Buccaneers Nike Color Rush uniforms photo shoot featuring QB Jameis Winston and WR Mike Evans.
Newton may not have contributed as much as the others to the NFC South's passing totals in Week One – he's the only one who had to face the Broncos, of course – but he did score Carolina's second touchdown on a two-yard run to give his team a second-quarter lead. That marked the 44th rushing TD career, giving him the NFL's all-time record in that category among quarterbacks.* *
Note that Newton has just begun his sixth season while all the others on the list played at least 10 years in the NFL/AFL. The Panthers star has also already passed Young with his 32 games in which he has passed and run for a touchdown. The pass went to third-year wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who could become Newton's favorite target again after missing all of last year with a knee injury.
Benjamin caught six passes and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen hauled in seven, but no other player caught more than one pass from Newton in the opener, including wide receivers Corey Brown, Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn. Ginn was only targeted once, Brown twice, Funchess four times. The Panthers had something of an imbalance in their attack last year after the loss of Benjamin, and that might still be an issue for Newton.
"That's a little of bit of a concern," said Head Coach Ron Rivera. "You'd like him to spread those numbers out even more. ... When you've got guys like Devin and Philly [Brown] that are out there, you want to get them the ball, too, because they're dynamic players that can make things happen."
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Falcons.
And, of course, no review of Newton's opening week would be complete without touching on the most widespread discussion to come from the game: Did the Broncos get away with some unflagged hits to the quarterback's head, and should he have remained in the game after the last of them?
Rivera said he trusted the team and league medical personal to make the correct recommendation, but he wouldn't mind seeing some changes to the procedure.
"If there is an opportunity to go back to review things as far as big hits to the quarterback, hits to the helmet, I think that would be important," he said. "It's a very difficult thing that the referees have to do. They've got to be able to get all the angles, and if they don't have a good angle, they may not see what the folks viewing it on TV see or the people covering it see in slow motion. This is about player safety at the end of the day, so we've got to come to a better solution."
Rivera also said that Newton, while generally sore, will play in Week Two against San Francisco.
New Orleans Saints:
Pictures of the top 10 passing leaders from week 1.
Drew Brees had a typical Drew Brees day on Sunday…and has become too common for the Saints in the last three years, it wasn't enough.
Brees threw for 423 yards and four touchdowns, without a pick, on 28 completions in 42 attempts. Surprisingly, given the outsized numbers he has put up since coming to New Orleans in 2006, that's "only" the fourth time that Brees has had 400+ yards and four or more touchdowns in a single game.
Unfortunately for the Saints, the visiting Raiders had 486 yards of their own in a wild shootout that was won by a two-point conversion gamble in the game's final minute. Only Oakland gave up more yards in Week One. The Saints had 507 net yards of offense in the 35-34 loss, 98 of which came on the longest play from scrimmage in franchise history, a Brees-to-Brandin Cooks hookup down the left sideline in the third quarter. Brees said his speedy receiver looked like Olympian sprinter Usain Bolt as he flew past the Oakland defense.
Brees and the Saints got a little business out of the way in the days leading up to the opener, agreeing on a contract extension for the 37-year-old quarterback that will keep him in place at least through the 2017 season. Despite his age, Brees is a good bet to remain productive for at least the next two years, and Sunday's opener was stark evidence that there is "still plenty of gas left in the tank."
This much is nearly certain: Already third on the NFL's all-time touchdown pass list, Brees is about to pass Dan Marino for the same spot on the all-time passing yardage chart. Here are the top five in both: