This could be Falcons’ window in NFC South

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said this week that his team must “evolve” and promised, “Things are going to change after six seasons.” It’s what you would expect him to say after his team goes from 15-1 and a Super Bowl to season-burying 1-5 start the next year.

Welcome to the “Hello, I must be going” world of the NFL. Success is fragile. At least five playoff teams from 2015 will not be in the postseason this year, including the two Super Bowl teams. The NFC South has epitomized the dramatic drop-offs. The division did not have a repeat winner from 2002 through 2012, until Carolina won three straight titles.

Now the Panthers, who looked secure for years, are again dealing with maturity issues with quarterback Cam Newton and it’s the Falcons who now suddenly appear set up for the future. The defense is young. Matt Ryan is an MVP candidate. There are no major contract issues. The front office has stabilized. Players are following coach Dan Quinn. The team’s biggest issue may be the head coaching candidacy of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

The Falcons have already clinched their first NFC South title since 2012. Then they went 4-12 the following season. But is this their window to take control of the South?

“When you play really well and you go into the next year, those often are tough ones,” Quinn said. “You really get everyone’s best shot. Lawyer Milloy told me that about his time in New England after the first Super Bowl. Every year is different, teams are different, the way the teams connect is different.

“I felt (it) in Seattle in 2014. It was a battle. When you’re on the way up, you don’t feel that.”

Quinn said a couple of players can tip locker room chemistry in either direction. He didn’t want to say too much about Carolina but said, “You’re constantly asking, ‘How do you get that connection?’ It’s one of the things we worked on so hard this year.

“I’m certainly not going to be so naïve next year and think, ‘Hey, why don’t we just pick up where we left off?’”

Carolina (6-9)

The Panthers were realistically out of the playoffs in November. Even after losing cornerback Josh Norman in free agency — a front office mistake in that the Panthers could’ve franchised him in the interest of another Super Bowl run — nobody could have foreseen such a team decline. Newton, the league’s MVP, and almost every player of significance was back.

But the offensive line has struggled with injuries and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin has had a disappointing year. Those problems are fixable. But what about Newton’s immaturity and decline as a leader? That has impacted locker room chemistry.

Rivera is under contract for two more years but it’s worth asking if he’s so frustrated by Newton that he will seek an exit. The Los Angeles job is open. Chicago and San Diego also are expected to fire their coaches and Rivera has a past connection to both: He played and was an assistant coach for the Bears, and he was a defensive coordinator for the Chargers. It’s a situation worth watching.

Tampa Bay (8-7)

The Buccaneers remain a team on the rise, but they are all but certain to miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith may get the Jacksonville coaching job, which would be a blow to an improving defense. Quarterback Jameis Winston still makes too many mistakes (17 interceptions, nine fumbles, 32 sacks), but Tampa Bay could be a few pieces away from contending.

Major lingering issue: Coach Dirk Koetter made a curious decision last week to de-activate veteran running back Doug Martin for a game. Martin was given a five-year, $35.75 million extension before the season with $15 million guaranteed. He was replaced by ex-Falcon Jacquizz Rodgers, who was inactive the week before. That kind of decision generally doesn’t go over well in the locker room, especially in the midst of a playoff race. Koetter may have some repair work to do with players.

New Orleans (6-8)

After going 37-11 over three seasons and winning a Super Bowl, the Saints will miss the playoffs for the third straight year and fourth in the last five. They got old and their best player remains quarterback Drew Brees, who turns 38 next month. Some think coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have made progress in rebuilding the roster after age and bloated salaries caught up with the Saints, but the real test will come only when they can’t rely on Brees anymore.

Which leads to the annual question: Will Payton stay? He signed a five-year extension before the season but rumors of a coach “trade” (perhaps to the Rams) have circulated and make a lot of sense for a team in need of assets. Regardless, the Saints don’t look like division contenders in the immediate future.