Its hard to determine which teams will come out on top in the NFC South, as its never the same team two years in a row. Even Super Bowl champion New Orleans didn’t even make the playoffs the past couple of years. Although the teams in the division seem more cut and dry than in the past, the general rule when following this division is to expect the unexpected.
Atlanta Falcons [Last season: 9-7, 2nd]
The Falcons regressed a bit in 2009, despite having acquired Tight End Tony Gonzalez to bolster their passing game. Its tough to say what their problem was last year. All seven of their losses came to teams with at least 8 wins, and five of those losses to teams with at least 10 wins. So, one could argue the Falcons were victims to a tough schedule, and if that’s the case then their 2010 schedule – which includes games against Cleveland and St. Louis – will make the path back to the playoffs easier. Nothing is guarenteed, of course, the Falcons themselves still need to show up and prove they are championship calibur.
Matt Ryan also regressed in 2009. The Falcons QB threw more Interceptions and coughed up more fumbles in 2009 despite playing in two fewer games. Though Ryan still had what many consider a good season, he must exceed in 2010 if the Falcons are to reach the playoffs. Roddy White and Michael Jenkins are great complements at wide receiver alongside the aforementioned Gonzalez, while Michael Turner, who had the biggest regression in 2009, tries to regain his 2008 form this season.
The Falcons were rather average defensively in 2009, and they’ve tried to use the draft to improve it, drafting Sean Weatherspoon out of Missouri with their first pick to improve their weak linebacking corps. With Tampa Bay in rebuild mode and Carolina in flux, Atlanta can compete for the division against New Orleans if their defense can solidify and shut offenses down.
Carolina Panthers [Last season: 8-8, 3rd]
The Jake Delhomme era, one that was once filled with prosperity but finished with Interceptions everywhere, has ended. Matt Moore, who showed some promise last year, will take his place for now, but waiting for his turn is 2nd round draft pick Jimmy Clausen out of Notre Dame. Its very possible that Moore will have a strong season and Clausen might not see action until next year or even later, but should Moore struggle, Clausen will get his shot.
Carolina’s Steve Smith remains the Panthers’ best option at receiver, while Dwayne Jarrett is finally looking to establish himself in his 4th year in the NFL. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart continue to share Carolina’s rushing carries and they do it well, both rushing for at least 1100 yards last season. This rushing attack will be Carolina’s main mode of offense, so there shouldn’t be much pressure on Moore to do well (or Claussen should Moore really struggle).
Carolina had one of the better pass defenses in the NFL last season and with Chris Gamble and Jon Beason still out there, opposing QBs will need to be careful as to where they throw their passes. However, the loss of Julius Peppers can not be ignored. The loss will not only negatively impact what was already a poor rush defense, but the pass defense will be affected as well as Carolina will not be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks so easily.
Carolina is a team that will try and compete for a playoff spot, given their QB play is better than what Delhomme gave them last season, while at the same time prepare Jimmy Clausen perhaps not for this year or even next year, but for their long term future.
New Orleans Saints [Last season: 13-3, 1st; won SB]
The defending Super Bowl Champions won games in two ways: blowing people out on offense and getting timely turnovers on defense. The former was what got them to the best record in the NFC while the latter was very timely indeed in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl with two interceptions that ended game-winning and game-tying drives for Minnesota and Indianapolis, respectively.
However, the Saints are an inconsitent team on a yearly basis. While they did go 13-3 last season en route to their first title in team history, they were 8-8, 7-9, and 10-6 the previous three seasons. Not bad records by any means, but during the years in which Drew Brees has been the Saints quarterback, scoring points has not been an issue, only the prevention of points. The same is true for this season.
The catalyst for New Orleans’ opportunistic defense is Darren Sharper, who tied his career high with 9 interceptions in his first year with the Saints. Jonathan Vilma has also been a strong contributor at linebacker. However, both are tending to injuries and if either of them miss any time the Saints could suffer a severe blow defensively. The loss of Scott Fujita may be huge for this team. Offensively, the Saints have nothing to worry about. Drew Brees will get his yards and touchdowns, the WR tandem of Colston, Henderson and Meachem will help him with that, and the running game led by Pierre Thomas, with Reggie Bush helping out, will still be strong.
The only thing more difficult than winning a Super Bowl is defending it. Getting into shootouts or relying on a key interception just might not do it anymore. The Saints are still strong contenders to win the division or at least make the playoffs, but unless that defense is able to hold together, winning the NFC again may just be asking a bit too much.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers [Last season: 3-13, 4th]
Tampa Bay hadn’t had a season so bad since the days of their creamsicle uniforms, though oddly enough they got their first win last year in those same uniforms. That win was also the first of Josh Freeman’s, in his first career start no less. The Buccaneers are going ahead with Freeman as their starting quarterback. With Antonio Bryant gone, there isn’t much left for Freeman at receiver, though they hope the newly drafted Mike Williams out of Syracuse can give Freeman the weapon he needs to succeed.
In a division dominated by rushing, Tampa is left behind. Cadillac Williams was healthy in 2009 for the first time in a couple of years but he failed to break 1000 yards. Tampa Bay only scored 5 rushing touchdowns last season, faring better than only St. Louis. What’s worse, Tampa Bay also had the league’s worst rushing defense, though having to face Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans twice with their running games didn’t help matters any. Gerald McCoy has been brought in to remedy this problem but he can’t do it alone on that line.
This will be another difficult year for second-year head coach Raheem Morris. He just hasn’t had much to work with and in a division full of talented teams Tampa just has no room to mess around. It might not be that bold to suggest that Tampa Bay may end up with the #1 pick in the next draft, but in this division Tampa will certainly have trouble winning games.
Division Prediction: its hard to go against the Saints, however the Falcons will give them a run for their money. Both teams will reach the playoffs, with Carolina just a couple of games back. As mentioned, Tampa Bay will likely be playing for the #1 overall pick next year.
1. New Orleans
4. Tampa Bay