The Saints don’t face Carolina this season until Oct. 30 and Dec. 7, but New Orleans tight end Benjamin Watson kicked off the verbal sparring Wednesday evening.
Appearing as a guest on NFL Network’s Total Access, Watson said there was one team in the Saints division that he wasn’t fretting about: the Panthers, winners of the NFC South in 2013.
It wasn’t that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton saw his four best wideouts depart Carolina this offseason in free agency, among them all-time leading receiver Steve Smith.
Rather, it’s the fact that not one team has been able to win consecutive NFC South titles since the division was created as a result of the NFL’s realignment in 2002.
“I will say this about our division: One team I’m not worried about is the Carolina Panthers,” said Watson, who had 19 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns last regular season. “’Cause the numbers say they won’t win it.
“There’s never been a repeat winner of the NFC South — never been a repeat winner. So we’re not worried about the Carolina Panthers. There’s only two teams: Atlanta and Tampa Bay,” the remaining two members of the division who both posted 4-12 records and were swept by the Saints in 2013.
Observers’ initial reaction may be to classify Watson’s remarks as bulletin board material for the Panthers. But it sounded more like good-humored wishful thinking by Watson, who smiled, joked and laughed throughout his spot on the show.
Carolina’s defense, which surrendered the NFL’s second-fewest yards in 2013, mostly returns intact. Newton is still calling the signals on offense. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly is back to do the same on the other side of the ball. And both players were big reasons Carolina was able to split meetings with the Saints and clinch the NFC South last season.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay hired a new coach for this season in Lovie Smith, whom the Saints are 1-3 against under coach Sean Payton. And after the only previous time Atlanta missed the playoffs under coach Mike Smith (2009), he led them to three straight postseason appearances.
Nonetheless, the belief Watson has in his team is understandable. After gaining the fourth-most yards on offense, giving up the fourth-fewest yards on defense and reaching the playoffs for the third time in four tries since winning Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints have added talent on both sides of the ball.
That includes three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd; cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler; and rookie first-round draft selection Brandin Cooks, named the best wide receiver in college football last season.
“There’s tremendous optimism in New Orleans — I think the team has a lot of confidence in the guys that are there,” right tackle Zach Strief said in a separate interview Thursday with SiriusXM NFL Radio. “You really look at the roster top to bottom, (and) you struggle to find holes.”
“It literally ... hurts my feelings to get him hit. It really does bother me. ... It makes me nauseous. It drives me nuts.” — Strief to SiriusXM NFL Radio, on when Saints quarterback Drew Brees is knocked down by opponents.
Brees was sacked a career-high 37 times last regular season.