Cunningham: Falcons are unworthy favorites to win NFC South

Kirk Cousins moves odds in their favor, but I’m skeptical.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins puts the ball in the air against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 14, 2023, in Philadelphia. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins puts the ball in the air against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 14, 2023, in Philadelphia. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images/TNS)

The Falcons were installed as favorites to win the NFC South before they even had a new quarterback. They are getting even shorter odds after agreeing to a contract with Kirk Cousins. I’m not accustomed to questioning the wisdom of (betting) crowds, but in this case, I’m not seeing how the Falcons are the clear favorites to win the South.

Last week, bookmakers were giving the Falcons an average of about 1½-1 odds to win the South in 2024. The defending champion Bucs (2-1/3-1) were next, followed by the Saints (2½-1) and Panthers (8-1). The Falcons’ odds to win the division dropped to about even after they agreed to a deal with Cousins on Monday. Tampa Bay’s odds increased to 3-1 even though quarterback Baker Mayfield re-signed with the team.

If Cousins regains his form a year after Achilles surgery, the Falcons will have the best quarterback in the division. That’s obviously important. It’s also the case that the Falcons have a big gap to make up. They finished two games behind the Bucs and Saints in 2023 (the Panthers were awful then and will be again).

It seems bettors and oddsmakers are among those who believe the Falcons just needed a good quarterback. They got one, but is Cousins really so much better than Mayfield and Saints QB Derek Carr that the Falcons will leapfrog both teams? The bettors and oddsmakers seem to think so, but I’m skeptical.

I also had doubts that the 2023 Falcons would be better. I turned out to be right about that. If I’m wrong this time, it will be because Cousins rediscovers his Pro Bowl form a year after suffering a torn Achilles. If Cousins is only pretty good, then the Falcons still won’t win the South.

The division is weak, but it’s not as if the Bucs and Saints are losing a lot of player talent after both finished 9-8 in 2023. The Bucs retained Mayfield after his comeback season and kept their best playmakers, Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans and All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr. The Saints won’t be losing any key players in free agency after star linebacker Demario Davis reworked his contract to provide salary-cap relief.

The Saints had the No. 9 scoring offense in 2023 and the Bucs were 20th. The Falcons ranked 26th in scoring. The Bucs and Saints ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, in scoring defense in 2023. The Falcons were 18th.

Adding Cousins will help the Falcons gain ground on the Bucs and Saints. Both of those teams still look better on paper now. The Falcons could end up with a better roster by the start of the season. They have more resources to make additions.

According to Spotrac, the Falcons will have roughly $12 million in salary-cap space remaining once they sign Cousins. The Bucs will have about $20 million left over after re-signing Mayfield. The Saints are, as always, tight against the cap.

The Falcons also have more draft capital than Tampa Bay and New Orleans. They own the No. 8 overall selection and three other picks within the first 80. The Bucs have four picks within the top 92, but the top one is No. 26. The Saints have only two picks higher than 149th (Nos. 14 and 45).

It’s possible the Falcons will follow the Cousins signing by getting more things right than wrong with their remaining cap dollars and draft picks. The reality is the draft can be a crapshoot and free-agent signings tend to be hit or miss. Maybe a new coaching staff will put the Falcons over the top, but coach Raheem Morris and his coordinators have plenty to prove.

Morris has co-signed the notion that the Falcons would have been winners in 2023 with better quarterback play. They’ll have it now. Cousins is a good quarterback. He’s never been an elite QB. The Falcons are paying him like one because he was the best available.

The commitment for Cousins essentially is $100 million for two years. That’s a higher average salary than Patrick Mahomes, the two-time league MVP and three-time Super Bowl champion. Cousins is 1-3 in the playoffs (he did throw the winning touchdown pass to beat the Saints in a 2019 wild-card game). Mayfield is 2-2 in the postseason.

Adding Cousins prompted oddsmakers to make the Falcons a substantial favorite to win the South. Convert the odds into implied probabilities, and the betting markets believe the Falcons have a 40% chance to win the division, the Bucs have a 30% chance and the Saints have a 29% chance. The Panthers have a 1% chance, according to the odds, and that seems high.

Cousins isn’t enough for me to put the Falcons ahead of the Bucs and Saints. The oddsmakers set the over/under for the Falcons at 8.5 wins last season. I took the under, and they won eight games. I think I’ll end up being right about them again.