2010 NFL Preview: NFC South

2009: New Orleans Saints, 13-3
2008: Carolina Panthers, 12-4
2007: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9-7
2006: New Orleans Saints, 10-6
2005: Carolina Panthers, 11-5
2004: Atlanta Falcons, 11-5
2003: Carolina Panthers, 11-5
2002: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 12-4

For all the talk about parity in the NFL these days, division winners usually hang around and repeat. But not the NFC South. They have been all over the place. Every team has won the division, including three in the last three years. Three of the four teams have made a Super Bowl, with the Falcons making an NFC Championship game. Of course, the first NFC South champ ended up winning the Super Bowl and so did the most recent. There were a few years where every team had a realistic shot at the division. There is more of a clear pecking order these days, with the Super Bowl champs on top and the lowly Bucs in the cellar.

1. New Orleans Saints (12-4). After years of teasing fans and the NFL, the Saints finally put it all together in 2009 and marched on through the Super Bowl, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after handling Peyton Manning and the Colts. The Saints offense was unstoppable for most of the season and all throughout the playoffs, and Gregg Williams gave the defense swagger. That side of the ball still wasn't great, but they were good enough to not be a liability. The defense is led by the very underrated cornerback duo of Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. The secondary has come a long way since the days of infamous Jason David. The front seven returns pretty much intact, with the exception of Alex Brown replacing Charles Grant. But no one wants to read about the Saints defense. It's all about the offense, which scored 32 points per game. Superstar Drew Brees orchestrates a very potent passing attack. He has numerous weapons on the outside as well as out of the back field. How can you cover Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush? 32 ppg says you can't. Reggie Bush is what he is by now. A weapon out of the backfield and a runner that can make the occasional highlight play. But Pierre Thomas has emerged as a very dangerous weapon. Opponents cannot simply count on stopping the pass as Thomas averaged over 5 yards per carry last year. While I am not picking the Saints to win the Super Bowl again or even return, you can't count out another monster regular season and be surprised if they repeat. No one was able to stop them, from the first week through the Super Bowl.

2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6). I think the Falcons have what it takes to make the Super Bowl. On offense. They were only the middle of the pack last year statistically, but you can thank injuries for that. Michael Turner and Matt Ryan both missed extended time. If they can stay healthy few teams can match the firepower that Atlanta boasts all across the field. Roddy White has quietly turned into one of the very best receivers in the league. Helping him out is veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, who continues to turn out 80+ reception seasons. Turner had an amazing 2008 season, and when he played in 2009 he was just as spectacular, approaching 5 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns. The key for Atlanta is defense. They had trouble getting to the passer, and that had a trickle down effect all throughout the defense. They added Sean Weatherspoon through the draft and Dunta Robinson through free agency. Also, count on a healthy Peria Jerry to help out. If young players Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury can continue to improve, the defense should be much better. And that could be enough for the Falcons to be the fourth NFC South team to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in 10 years.

3. Carolina Panthers (6-10). Few teams have more holes littered throughout their roster then the Panthers, but I'll start with what works. The running game is beastly, as no NFL team has the 1-2 punch Carolina has. They were the first team in NFL history to have two 1100 yard rushers. This is not a thunder and lightning situation. Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are complete running backs, and are both within the league's best 12 or so runners. It also helps that they have a fantastic offensive line blocking for them. Jeff Otah and Jordan Gross are great bookends, and the interior is solid as well. When the Panthers have the lead, they will be very tough to beat. Now the bad. The Panthers seriously lack talent all throughout the defense. Gone are Julius Peppers and a few other starters. Replacing them are unproven youngsters. It will be a lot to ask for so many young players to come together at once. The linebacking group would have been in good shape, but Thomas Davis suffered yet another serious injury, meaning defensive captain Jon Beason will have to rely on youngsters to flank him. Back to the offensive side, Matt Moore will be asked to be the game manager. Which is just fine when the tanks are allowed to roll, but can he put the team on his back and lead them from behind? Steve Smith is turning into the "other" Steve Smith instead of the New York Giants version. But that is not his fault. He is still close to elite, he just doesn't have the QB and the protection from other receivers and tight ends. He is the only starting quality pass catcher on the team. It was only two years ago that this was a 12 win team before Jake Delhomme's epic meltdown, but that seems like a long time ago. This is a team in cost cutting mode that has too many holes to fight for the division this year.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12). Yikes. Jon Gruden was the bandaid that held this ship together. In 2009 the wheels fell off. First, I want to laugh at GM whoever it is (don't want to give him the satisfaction of looking his name up) for giving Michael Clayton a contract extension. Why again? He predictably did not do a thing for them and still has more guaranteed money coming. I wish I could be a GM, is it really that hard? Anyways, there really isn't much good to say about this team, but I will try. Josh Freeman was decent, even though I don't think he will be ready for 2 or 3 years. He threw twice as many TD's as INT's but received some good experience and could be decent for them in the future. Cadillac Williams a nice surprise. He helped ease the pain of another horrible signing in Derrick Ward. Kellen Winslow is an elite tight end on a horrible team, but he managed to put up his numbers. On defense, the Bucs are led by a solid secondary with up and coming players Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is one of the most under appreciated players in the NFL. The bad far outweighs the good, however. Bad free agent contracts, age and horrible drafts have left the cupboard bare in Tampa. Three rookies are expected to start (Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Mike Williams) and undrafted rookies will even be counted on for roles. The Bucs need to continue to get rid of that dead weight and hit some home runs come draft time. It will be a very long rebuilding process in Tampa Bay.

Jonathan Carrano

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1 comment:

Free NFL Preview said...

The Panthers topped the defense in the preseason and if they can carry it into the regular season, who knows how far they would go?