Where to begin with the NFC South last season? Youth and inexperience caught up with the Buccaneers as the 'yungry' ones suffered a 4-12 season and coach Raheem Morris was fired. The Falcons mortgaged their entire future on rookie receiver Julio Jones who they saw as the missing piece, only to fall to the Giants in the playoffs with the offense putting up a big ole' zero. Carolina was once again a delightful place to live with Cam Newton lighting up the Atlantic Coast with his football prowess and smile on the way to breaking records and killing any pre-draft questions about his worthiness as a No.1 pick. And the Saints...well, the Saints have gone from being America's sweetheart to the Imperial Empire in a matter of months. Sadly the greatest single season by quarterback Drew Brees was overshadowed by overall dastardly-ness on the behalf of the coaching staff and general manager. Thankfully for us as fans this bodes for an intriguing upcoming season, with key questions being:
- With hard-nosed coach Greg Schiano and a who's who of free agency acquisitions, can the young Bucs go from worst to first?
- This time next year, will we be calling Matt Ryan 'elite'?
- Will the sophomore slump come viciously for Cam Newton and annoy all those who picked him so high in fantasy? (Myself included).
- How much of the Saints' success was really due to Sean Payton?
FRUITLESS SEASON PREDICTIONS: NFC SouthDivision Winners, Atlanta Falcons, 13-3 Record. Now, don't get me wrong. Tipping a team who is perennially over-hyped and who by all accounts seems to have severe allergies to playoff football may not seem the wisest decision. Internally, I think this is a make or break year for the Falcons. Only so long will a fan base put up with under achieving and the measly zero that the offense put up last playoffs remains a foul taste on the Falcon faithful's tastebuds. Knowing this, I think the Falcons will become what we for many years thought they would become; a shotgun formation, pass-heavy team that will unload the pigskin to the greatest tight end of all time, Tony Gonzalez, and the most dangerous receiving duo in the league, Roddy White and Julio Jones. Combine these targets with a handy slot receiver in Harry Douglas as well as bruising RB Michael Turner and you have a team that is not only able to put up numbers quickly, but also move the chains on third down and run down the clock more efficiently. Having an offense loaded with firepower allows the defense to play to its strengths, that being unleashing John Abraham and Ray Edwards off the edge and allowing the talented threesome at cornerback of Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes and newly-acquired Asante Samuel to play as ballhawks. Look for Samuel to have a rebound year - double digit interceptions aren't off of the cards. With an all-conquering offense and an opportunistic defense, the Falcons will sweep the NFC South in all but one game with the Carolina Panthers on route to a 13-3 record this season. Division Runners-Up, New Orleans Saints, 11-5 record. Following the tumultuous offseason they would prefer to forget, the Saints restore some respect by achieving double digit wins yet again en route to a wildcard position in the playoffs. This season Drew Brees will prove that he is the heart and soul of the New Orleans franchise as he carries the load while Sean Payton sits out his suspension for his role in the bounty-gate scandal. Unlike last year, defensive coordinators have had an offseason to plan for tight end Jimmy Graham who shredded opposition defenses for over 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Expect a lot of bracket coverage on Graham and the weight to fall on reliable but unspectacular receivers Lance Moore, Marques Colston and Devery Henderson. But I dont think 'reliable' will be enough to compete with Atlanta (and their ability to score in bunches), and in saying that the loss of Robert Meachem in free agency should not be understated in the slightest. Much of the fluidity of the offense relies on the second year production of running backs Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. Sproles was the go-to back last season due to the fragile nature of Ingram but this was more or less because of the number of screen passes being effectively an extension of the running game. With a less explosive offense, the running game will be critical to the Saints' success and look for a more balanced offense not dissimilar to the Saints' Super Bowl winning team of three years ago. But unlike that team, I don't predict an opportunistic defense safe for two or three interceptions per game, and as a result I'm not confident in the Saints' ability to not only gain a lead but also the ability to run down the clock with the lead. That being said, they reach an 11-5 record purely because they have a modestly-paid guy you may have heard of playing quarterback. Then, Carolina Panthers, 8-8 record. My fondness for Cam Newton is well documented. I love everything about him - his passing, his running, his swagger, his smile. What I don't love is his supporting cast in Carolina. That's not to say that I hate them, I just don't love them. Wide receiver Steve Smith is outstanding without a doubt, but what can we say about Brbandon LaFell, Seyi Ajirotutu, Louis Murphy and Armanti Edwards? Truth be told, not much. While I do like the two tight end set with Greg Olson and Jeremy Shockey, neither are bona fide studs at the position. The running back corps could well hold three star players but neither DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart or Mike Tolbert will see enough touches to show us how good they really are. Unlike last year, however, I think the Carolina defense will be just good enough to win the games that Cam Newton put them in a position to win. The addition of Luke Kuechly will give the Panthers a true defensive quarterback and allow Jon Beason to use his freakish athleticism more readily at an outside linebacker position. Pair them with James Anderson and a healthy (touch wood) Thomas Davis and the Panthers should have the most dominant linebacking corps in the NFC South (and possibly even the NFL). That is what the Panthers' season will boil down to in my opinion. While they won't make the huge leap that many are anticipating, rest assured it is coming. Just not this year. And finally, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-10. Much of what I said about the Panthers applies to the Buccaneers this season. They will get a little bit better in certain areas and as a result will be slightly better in their overall record. Before I get lambasted by those saying "but look at all their free agency pickups", I will say that I have indeed looked at them and to you I say:
- Remember when we thought the Redskins were NFC East shoo-ins when they picked up Albert Haynesworth?
- Remember when the Eagles didn't even make the playoffs after acquiring free agents Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Ronnie Brown and Vince Young?