Battle at the Top in the South (NFC South Preview)

The NFC South could be one of the toughest divisions this year as every team has a chance at winning, although some might need more stars to align than others. The Atlanta Falcons are coming off of their best season and hope to improve one more step from last year. This year they have been pegged by many as a Super Bowl favorite and hope to make this a reality. The 2009 champions will have something to say about that as the New Orleans Saints look to get over the Super Bowl Hangover and make it back this year. Again the Saints have also been pegged by many as a Super Bowl favorite this year. These two teams will be the ones to watch in the NFC South as they will be the two top teams but the other teams in the division may give them a little trouble. Tampa Bay is a team that has been building slowly but are looking to make the Super Bowl this year. Meanwhile the Carolina Panthers are looking to be the next team to go from worst to first with a draft class that could work out or not. The NFC South could be the next team to go to the Super Bowl in the NFC that has sent a new team to the Super Bowl every year in recent history. The bottom teams will need to have everything go right for them to compete with the Falcons and the Saints but they are not out of it by any stretch. It will be an interesting year but the biggest questions will be answered within the first few weeks as we see if either the Bucs or the Panthers can compete with other teams.

Atlanta Falcons

Last year the Atlanta Falcons had their best season in a long time as they won the NFC South and were the top seed in the NFC. They did this with one main philosophy and that was to take the ball away from the opposing team. They did this by eating up the clock on offence as they ran the ball and had a short pass game. The Falcons rarely stretched the field as they played for first downs until they got into the red zone. This left the opposition with little time on offence and the Falcons defence made sure they could not get too far into the red zone. Matt Ryan began to enter the conversation for the elite QBs in the league while Michael Turner and Jason Snelling ate up yardage and time for the offence. On defence new acquisition Dunta Robinson played well enough to help the Falcons limit the passing game of their opponents. The Falcons finished with a 13-3 record atop the NFC South and moved on as the #1 seed in the playoffs. This gave them the first round bye skipping the wild card playoffs and then taking on the Green Bay Packers. The week off did not help the Falcons as they were blown out by the eventual champions 48-21 ending their season. This year the Falcons will look to repeat their performance from last year and take it one step further by making the Super Bowl and taking it home.

This year the Falcons made their biggest move in the NFL Draft as they surprised everyone in taking WR Julio Jones. Jones is widely a favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award this year and will add a major weapon to Matt Ryan’s arsenal in 2011. Ryan will return to form and possibly better as he will now have the option of throwing to Julio Jones or his all-star WR Roddy White. This will add to an already balanced team that will have a two-headed running game with Jason Snelling and Michael Turner in the backfield. The strategy of offence may be similar to last year but with the ability of Julio Jones and Roddy White to both stretch the field or play short they may be able to mix it up a bit more. On defence the biggest move was the signing of former Vikings DE Ray Edwards as the Falcons try to get more pressure on the QB this year. The defence will need to step up a little bit as they were ranked 22nd overall last year and the combination of John Abraham and Ray Edwards on the ends will allow them to earn more sacks this year. With more sacks the 3rd down defence will improve and will be able to end offensive drives a little faster in order to get it back in the hands of their more than capable offence. The Falcons will be in a big battle this year as they try to repeat as division champions against the New Orleans Saints who are a favorite to make it to the Super Bowl this year. The Falcons are also favorites by many people and the Saints will need to battle the Falcons for the top spot.

New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints had their best season ever in 2009 when they helped a city to recover winning the Super Bowl. In 2010 the Saints became another team suffering from the Super Bowl hangover. The theory is that teams coming off of a Super Bowl win have a hard time getting back to their previous year success after such a high. In 2010 the Saints fed into this but only later as they began the season well. Utilizing their all-star QB the Saints attacked through the air with Drew Brees and his WR Marques Colston. They also utilized a couple of running backs including Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas. Eventually Bush had to take over as Thomas was injured but they did not slow down. On defence their struggles continued as they have regularly been scrutinized for having a defence that was just good enough. They did not have the takeaways that they did in their Super Bowl winning season. The Saints finished with an 11-5 record that was not enough to beat the Falcons for the division title. They still managed to make the playoffs as they earned the first Wild Card spot and moved on to face the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks shocked everyone when they beat the Saints in the wildcard playoffs ended the Saints’ season. This year the New Orleans Saints are widely favorite to win the division and even make it to the Super Bowl but they will need to out-offence the Atlanta Falcons to get the spot they want in the playoffs.

The Saints made some big moves to the running back position this year as Reggie bush left to sign with the Miami Dolphins. Replacing him will be former San Diego Chargers RB Darren Sproles who has the ability to fill the utility role that Reggie bush filled. Along with the Sproles signing the Saints also picked up a very big physical runner in Mark Ingram in the draft. Meanwhile Pierre Thomas will return to the starting role after an injury kept him out of most of the season last year. The three-headed running game will let each runner take enough breaks in the game to keep them fresh. It will also let the Saints use each runner to their strengths as Ingram will be used for the middle runs, Pierre Thomas will be used to do the majority of the running, and Darren Sproles will be the flexible runner who will be a part of the passing game. The running game will allow Drew Brees to open up the passing game as not much has changed but not much will need to change for the pass to be effective. The offence will be pretty balanced but will need some assistance from the defence that was not good enough to keep the Saints competitive in the playoffs. The defensive backs are the strength of this defence with Jabari Greer helping to lead the secondary. They will need help from their defensive front in order to pressure opposing QBs in order to force mistakes. They will try to do this with their new defensive tackle Shaun Moore. The Saints will hopefully be an improved team from their Super Bowl Hangover in 2010 and will give Atlanta a run for their money in the NFC South.

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers have tasted the success of winning after the NFC South in 2003 and moving on to the NFC Championship. The Panthers went into the Super Bowl where they met the emerging New England Patriots. In a close game the Panther lost the game and since then have been a very up and down team. The Panthers have made the playoffs numerous times but have also missed numerous times but they could never make it back to the Super Bowl. In 2010 the Carolina Panthers were the worst team in the NFL, as they went through some major changes on their team. The biggest one was releasing their long time QB Jake Delhomme leaving their 2nd round pick Jimmy Clausen to lead the team at QB. With a rookie QB and a bad offensive line the Panthers could not work the offence properly. The defence was not much better after the loss of their defensive cornerstone Julius Peppers after he signed with the Chicago Bears. Their season started off exactly how many thought as they went 0-4 in their first four games before their bye week. They seemed to have turned it around after their bye beating San Francisco in week 7 but it was not to be as that win was one of two they would get all season. They were far away from the playoffs and needed to find something to improve their record as they began to look into the 2011 draft to begin rebuilding. In 2011 the Panthers hope that their draftees will pay out and get them above 2 wins.

The 2011 Draft gave the Panthers the #1 pick as they had free reign to pick whoever they wanted to begin a rebuilding phase. The pick ended up being the polarizing QB from the National Champion Auburn Tigers, Cam Newton. Newton had troubles in his college career being found guilty of stealing a computer when he was a member of the Florida Gators and then being accused of illegal practices at Auburn. He was cleared by the NCAA of any wrongdoing at Auburn and moved on to the NFL Draft. With this Newton entered the Draft and the questions about his mindset as he was compared to JaMarcus Russell, a talented QB that never met expectations due to his lack of drive. The Panthers are banking on the talent of Newton to help improve their offence and he will have some good weapons in returning wide receiver Steve Smith and new addition Greg Olsen, TE. The biggest question will be if the line can hold up to give Newton the time to use his big arm. On defence the team has not changed much as they made sure to sign a number of veterans to keep their defence in tact. They will also be coached by a new head coach for the first time in years as Ron Rivera will take over. Rivera was previously the defensive coordinator at the San Diego Chargers, the best defence in the NFL in 2010. The changes will have an impact but they are at the beginning of their rebuilding period and Newton is still a question mark at QB. The Panthers will improve on last season but will not be able to match the other teams in the South.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began a rebuilding period in 2009 when they drafted a young QB who was a bit of a question mark when he was drafted. In 2010 Josh Freeman answered the critics as he emerged as one of the best young QBs in the NFL. The Bucs have been one of the bottom teams for a while but with the addition of Josh Freeman they made the biggest turnaround in the NFL. In 2009 Tampa Bay went 3-13 as the young team were forced to make adjustments on the fly. In 2010 the adjustments seemed to have been made as the Bucs raced out to a 10-6 record and finishing in third behind the Saints and Falcons. A large part of this turnaround was not only Josh Freeman but also the energy of their young coach Raheem Morris. Morris came out talking as he claimed his team was the best in the NFC. Although they did not back this up the confidence Morris showed in his team gave them some needed confidence. They also had some help from their 2010 first round pick Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle.  In 2010 the biggest issue for the Bucs was their division as they lost to the Atlanta Falcons twice and the Saints once. This hurt them in the division but the improvements they made have given them hope for the 2011 season. The Bucs will need to overcome two very good divisional opponents in order to win the division but they will still be gunning for that top spot.

This year the Bucs seemed to be happy with their offence as they made their biggest changes on defence. The Bucs’ 2011 draft class was top loaded with defensive specialists meant to improve their ability to get to the QB. With Gerald McCoy already in the centre of the defensive line the Bucs added two more rushing lineman. Their first round pick was Adrian Clayborn a defensive end from Iowa 51 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks in the NCAA last year. They also drafted Da’Quan Bowers and Mason Foster in rounds 2 and three. Clayborn and Foster are expected to start in 2011 and Bowers could make an appearance later in the year. These three rookies will be looked to provide the Bucs defence with some pressure along with Gerald McCoy. On offence not much has changed but it was not needed as Josh Freeman found his favorite receiver in Mike Williams, who had a breakout season in 2010. To provide some relief to the passing game the Bucs also have LaGarette Blount who ran for over 1,000 yards last year. The offence is in place to be a force this year but the big question will be if their defence can make anyone uncomfortable enough to shut them down. The biggest obstacle could be their division however as the Falcons and the Saints are back and improved. These two teams will give the Bucs the biggest problems and they may not get any better than last year.

Prediction:

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)

2. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

4. Carolina Panthers (3-13)

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