Atlanta 10-6 (2nd seed; second round)
Carolina 10-6 (6th seed; first round)
New Orleans 9-7
The NFC South is the division where I’m picking perhaps my biggest longshot to make the playoffs: the Carolina Panthers. I’m a big believer in Cam Newton, and he’ll have to be magnificent to take this team to the next level , given the shortcomings the Panthers still have.
He’ll have a prime chance to do so, however, given the turmoil facing the New Orleans Saints and the fact that the Tampa Bay Bucs have fallen right off the map.
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While a lot of attention gets focused on the Saints and Cam Newton, the Atlanta Falcons remain the clear favorite to win the South. On offense, the Falcons are balanced and explosive. Matt Ryan is a very good, albeit not top tier quarterback.
The receiving tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White is extremely high caliber. They also have that Gonzalez guy who can play a little tight end. Michael Turner is a strong feature back, but the Falcons lack depth at the position, and Turner is getting a lot of miles on his tread.
On defense, the Falcons made a big move to pick up Asante Samuel. Samuel is undeniably talented, but he’s a gambling corner who doesn’t necessarily fit every defensive scheme. The Falcons also lost middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and didn’t replace him – Lofa Tatupu didn’t play in 2011 and is a big question mark.
The Falcons are clearly good enough to win their division, but are they good enough to knock off the Packers, or to dispatch potential second round opponents like the Eagles, Giants or Bears? I don’t think so.
Last season, the Carolina Panthers lost a lot of close games because no matter how many plays Newton and the offense would make, the defense couldn’t stop anyone.
That’s part of the story, but not all of it. Newton threw 17 interceptions as a rookie, and it’s reasonable to believe he can bring that number down.
Despite the picks, the Panthers were +1 in turnover differential because they held on to the ball in the running game remarkably well. Steve Smith continues to be a playmaker for Newton, although the Panthers had better find an heir apparent soon, given his age.
The two-headed running game Carolina features is now a three-headed running game, since Newton gains so many yards on the ground. And the defense? Yeah, it’s still gonna be pretty bad. Luke Kuechly, if he’s as good as advertised, will help, but the Panthers still have holes in the secondary and not enough pass rushers.
The defense is a work in progress, but it may be a little better than last year, and that just might be enough.
In a normal year, I’d rate the Saints ahead of the Falcons if, for no other reason, than they have Drew Brees, who is arguably the best QB in football. In a normal year. This ain’t no normal year.
The Saints were rocked by bounty-gate in the offseason, and will have an interim-interim coach to start the year before the interim coach takes over once his suspension is over.
To make matters worse, the Saints, already reeling from bad publicity, decided the offseason would be a good time to get into a pissing contest with Drew Brees over his contract. Smooth move. So how can you handicap this team?
Brees will play, and you have to assume he’ll be his usual brilliant self. New Orleans’ fine collection of skill players, highlighted by TE Jimmy Graham, WR Marcus Colston and all-purpose back Darren Sproles, are all still in the fold. The Saints’ offense, at least, should play just fine.
The Saints’ defense suffered some losses, both suspension related and otherwise, but they’ve brought in Curtis Lofton from the Falcons and Broderick Bunkley from the Broncos, both of whom are strong acquisitions. The secondary really isn’t very good, so the Saints have to hope they can generate a pass rush.
On paper, this team has the talent to win this division, but given the impact of coaching in the NFL, it is just hard to imagine that a team with this much turmoil is going to be able to consistently perform at a high level. I just don’t see it, and it will cost the Saints a playoff berth in 2012.
Drew Brees is a bona fide folk hero in New Orleans, so how the hell did the Saints let their negotiations with him turn so nasty?!
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will probably just be bad in 2012, but they have the potential to be one of the very worst teams in the NFL. Josh Freeman is a talented but erratic quarterback. Rookie Doug Martin is a question mark in the backfield. Vincent Jackson is a high profile addition at WR, but he had a much better quarterback in San Diego in Philip Rivers and he wasn’t happy there.
How much fun is losing in Tampa going to be?
On defense things get worse. The Bucs had a dreadful 2011 on this side of the ball, and 2012 doesn’t figure to be a lot better.
There is some potential that the d-line will play well, especially if former #2 overall pick Gerald McCoy can stay off the injured list. The linebacking corps, brutal in 2011, may be aided by mid-round draft additions, but don’t hold your breath. The secondary is flat out awful. The Bucs are still a work in progress, and they won’t win too many this season.
Games to Watch:
Week 1 – Carolina @Tampa Bay: I don’t know if the Panthers are really going to win 10 games this season, but I do know it will be fun watching Cam Newton play defenses as bad as Tampa’s. The Panthers should break 500 yards this game.
Week 8 – Atlanta @Philadelphia: If the Falcons are going to true contenders, they need to be able to beat playoff caliber teams away from home. The Eagles are a good team, but not a dominating one. If the Falcons can’t win here, how can they win in New York or Green Bay?
Week 12 – New Orleans @San Francisco: I’m guessing that the Saints will be fighting for their playoff lives at this point of the season, and this is a revenge game from last year’s divisional playoff. I think the Saints fall short for the season, but I bet they bring their A game to this one.
Week 14 – Atlanta @Carolina: This is a game that should have major playoff implications, and the Panthers need to be able to beat the Falcons when they’re away from their dome if they want to be serious contenders.
Quarterbacks on the hot seat: AFC South preview Next Post:
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