2014 NFL Preview: NFC South

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The NFC South has been a division of two teams for the last few years and those two teams have not let loose of the grip. The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints have quickly created one of the best divisional rivalries in the NFL and it has been the focus of the NFC South for the better part of four years. In the four years from 2009-2012 no other team won except for Atlanta and New Orleans while the runner-up in three of those four years was either the Saints or the Falcons. That rivalry has made the division one of the more watched divisions in the NFL with the winner of the division moving on to be favourites in the playoffs. The 2013 season rocked that tradition though as a new champion stepped up while one of the powers unexpectedly fell. The Atlanta Falcons could not continue the rivalry with the Saints in 2013 as they fell off. It was not an expected fall either as they hadn’t lost anyone big enough to make people think that they had a tough year ahead of them. Still they fell to second last in the season and the usual battle for top spot in the division with the Saints was over before it started. In their place came the Carolina Panthers who rose to take their spot at the top of the division. That spot had been taken by the Panthers years before as the 2013 team got a familiar feeling as they rocketed to the top of the standings behind a great defence. Right behind them was the New Orleans Saints who remained near the top of the division. The rivalry between the Saints and the Falcons continues to be one of the best in the league and in 2014 both teams are hoping to make it worth something again. It has been the matchup that has determined many of the division championships and yet they may not be the favourites in this division with the emergence of the Panthers. That emergence is in large part due to an essential part to competing in the NFC South that the Saints and Falcons figured out long ago. That is ensuring you have a good quarterback under centre that can lead your offence. It was also due to a stifling defence that could compete against the other good quarterbacks, another aspect that the Falcons and Saints have had in the past. The NFC South is home to one of the best groups of quarterbacks in the NFL Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and now Cam Newton are simply nightmares to prepare for as they are some of the more dynamic passers in the game. That is what a team needs to deal with when they play in the NFC South as they will face at least two of these quarterbacks twice a year. If that team is not prepared to face these passers they will not make it in the division and the Panthers learned that quickly and have figured it out. Now the Panthers go into the new season as the champions as they hope to bring an end to the Falcons-Saints domination for another year while Atlanta and New Orleans try to get back to the top.

 

Atlanta Falcons

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The Atlanta Falcons would just as soon forget what happened in 2013 as the perennial favourite fell far below expectations. Finishing with only four wins is not how this regime of Falcons does things and according to their owner it was all about their toughness. During the season owner Arthur Blank publicly stated that he didn’t think the Falcons were tough enough to compete. A call-out like that from the owner has to hurt a team and their confidence in what they are doing. For the Falcons they are hoping that it will inspire a new attitude in the new year. The Falcons have always depended on their offence to carry the load with a solid defence behind them. This year the offence is relatively unchanged from a team that a year ago should have been one of the best. Matt Ryan is one of the steadiest quarterbacks in the game as his nickname Matty Ice expresses exactly what makes him good. He has some major weapons in the passing game as well with Julio Jones and Roddy White forming one of the best receiver tandems in the game. Meanwhile in the backfield Steven Jackson, when healthy, is almost guaranteed to provide more than needed at running back. Still the offence had major issues on the line last year as they gave Ryan no time to pass and put the ball into the hands of his playmakers. The defensive line did not fare much better ranking 29th in the league in sacks as they were unable to give their defensive backfield time. The defence ranked 27th in total yards allowed last year as the defensive performance was simply not good enough to keep up and the Falcons fell hard. The defence will need to improve and during the offseason the Falcons looked to bring in a number of role players to shore up their D. The Falcons were embarrassed by their 2013 performance and as they enter the 2014 season it is all about redemption as they hope to get back to where they think they belong, the top of the division.

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Carolina Panthers

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The 2013 season was one of the best that the Panthers have ever seen and it was not expected to go that way. The Panthers were a team in a rebuild mode and they were expected to be good but no 12 wins good. With a late season surge they moved their way up to the top of the division but lost in the Divisional Playoffs. The Panthers come into 2014 looking to build on that great year and prove that it was not a fluke. Last year Carolina depended on one of the best defences in the league behind defensive player of the year Luke Kuechly. Only two years into his career and Kuechly is already considered one of the best linebackers in the league as he leads a strong defence into a new season. Along with Star Lotulelei and Chase Blackburn the Panthers have a very good front seven that provides their defensive backfield with time to make plays. The Panthers offence struggled for years to find someone who could lead them into the new age and now they have finally found that players. Cam Newton was one of the hottest prospects in 2011 and after a bad yea the Panthers got the chance to get him. They picked him with the first overall pick in the draft and he has shown that he is worthy of the top pick moniker. Newton has proven to be a dynamic player who makes plays through the air and on the ground. He will once again lead the offence and is the key piece to the offence but this year may not be able to do as much through the air. The top three receivers form 2013 are all gone for 2014 with Jerricho Cotchery being brought in as the only big name replacement. The Panthers will need to find out how their other receivers can fill the holes. The Panthers are going to have to rely on their defence more than usual as the offence figures things out but that is fine with one of the best defences in the league.

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New Orleans Saints

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The New Orleans Saints were one of the more dominant teams in the league a few years ago and they did it in a unique way. The old adage is that defence wins championships but the Saints never paid attention to that. Instead they became one of the most prolific offences in the league and had a good enough defence to give the offence opportunities to put the game out of hand early. That strategy worked for a while and even gave the Saints a Super Bowl but lately they have continued to fall short. Last year they still focused on offence but that was only good enough to earn a wild card spot and eventually lose in the divisional playoffs. They were still one of the better teams in the league but it was not enough for another Super Bowl. The offseason for the Saints was all about patching issues made from players leaving. As always the defence is not expected to be lights out but with losses of key members of their defence it seemed as they wouldn’t be good enough. The Saints reacted quickly in adding players like Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey. The patches were almost better than just patches and the Saints do not seem to be hurting for their departures. The defence remains solid, although it is not one of the best in the league it will do enough to give Drew Brees and the offence time to work. Brees once again leads an offence that looks to be able to put up some of the biggest point totals in the league. His weapons remain the same from last year as Marquese Colston returns out wide and the tight end who is used almost as a wide receiver Jimmy Graham returns. Brees makes these two good players even better and he will do the same for the rest of the offence as they march to what could be another good year. The Saints suffered losses this year but they do not seem like losses that will really hurt as they continue to be a force.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were nothing short of a mess last year with in-fighting and poor performances highlighting the season. Greg Schiano was proven to be a coach that just simply couldn’t get pro players to play for him. Mismanaging his quarterbacks and releasing Jason Campbell midseason was a perfect expression of this while the reports that came out about the locker room were the next. It was not wonder why the Bucs finished with only 4 wins on the season as the entire organization was just not stable enough to produce a winning team. That has all changed in 2014 as the Bucs have a new look from players, coaches, and even to their uniforms. Lovie Smith takes over as the head coach and the experienced NFL head man is sure to bring some stability to the Bucs that they desperately need. This year Josh McCown enters the season as a starting quarterback and will be given every chance to succeed as it is clear that he is in no danger of losing the job. With Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, and Doug Martin alongside McCown there is talent on the team to be improved without the distractions of the off-field issues. The defence is a good one in 2013 and shouldn’t fall off much in the new year with Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy leading up front along with Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, and new addition Alterran Verner leading form the back. The defence should not be a worry for the Bucs and new coordinator Leslie Frazier will look to make it the anchor of the team. The Bucs are out of the mess that was created last year and it was a mess that truly set them back. They could have made a push with the talent on their team but the off-field distractions held them back. Without those distractions the Bucs are looking to surprise everyone this year and compete for the division title but they may not have enough to compete.

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Prediction:
The NFC South saw a big fall from being one of the toughest divisions in the league last year but a new season means a much better battle. Last year the Buccaneers had to come through a lot of adversity and ended in last place and although they are improved form a year ago it is not enough. Every other team has gotten better in this division and Tampa is just not good enough to compete for the top spot. The Carolina Panthers were the division champions last year in a big surprise to most. This year the surprise will be how far they fall after letting playmakers walk in the offseason and harming their chances of repeating as champions. The rivalry will return to the South as the Falcons and Saints fight for the division once again with the resurgence of both teams. The Falcons will be back this year after a strange 2013 and they will challenge the Saints but come up just short. The Saints on the other hand are an improved team even after losing a number of players. The upgrades they made will put them on top to win another division and challenge in the playoffs.

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