For those of you that don’t count down the days until the start of the football season, it is officially 40 days until the first Sunday of the NFL season, and 37 days until the opening game when the Vikings will be visiting the Saints on September 9. My plan is to write one (of eight) division preview every five or six days between now and then. I’m going to hold off as long as possible on writing the NFC North preview because of the never-ending Brett Favre saga. I realize there are reports that he’s told the team he won’t be playing this year, but I don’t think they’re going to give up that easily. Until we’re within a week or so of that first game I’m taking all of the reports with a grain of salt because I don’t want to write an entire division preview assuming one way or the other and risk it being the wrong assumption. And you should never assume – just ask Michael Clarke Duncan.
For each division preview I will preview each team in the division and then at the end I will predict who will win the division and how the other three teams will end up behind them.
So while I’ll be waiting to write the division preview that will contain the Vikings, I am doing the exact opposite for the division containing the other team in that opening game. The New Orleans Saints are indeed in the NFC South, and if you couldn’t guess it by the title, this post is going to be (you guessed it) a division preview of the NFC South. This way not only do I get to write about the team that will be hosting the first game of the season, but also the defending Super Bowl Champions (those five words caused me physical pain), the team with the -gasp- Madden Curse this year, and the team that caused the most controversy when I put up my Early 2010 NFL Predictions post back in April. I think it’ll be good to get that explanation out of the way early. So let’s get to it:
Teams: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First off, we’ve all heard the little kernel of info that since the NFL’s divisional realignments -switching from six to eight divisions- there has been no team to repeat as division champs in the NFC South. I just looked that up for curiosities sake and found that not only hasn’t there been a repeating champion in this division, there has only been one team that managed to post a record better than .500 in the season following the year took the division crown. That one team was the Bucs, who went 9-7 in 2007 after winning the division in 2006. Knowing this made it extremely hard to write this post and make the predictions at the end.
These teams will be facing the AFC North and NFC West this year.
Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons will be looking for Matt Ryan to bounce back from somewhat of a Sophomore Slump. They travel to Pittsburgh in Week 1 to face the Steelers, who will be looking to recover from a disappointing 2009 season as well. I think this opening game will set the tone for both teams this year, fortunately for the Falcons I think they’ll be able to win this game, which will provide a great boost to start their season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team sweep the NFC West. They get the Niners and Cardinals at home, leaving them to visit St. Louis and Seattle – that long journey to Seattle would be my main concern for them. As for the remaining three teams in the AFC North, I see them falling to the Bengals and Ravens, but beating the Browns in Cleveland. Within the division, I’d guess they’ll go 4-2, splitting wins with the Saints and Panthers while taking both games against the Bucs. The two remaining games on their schedule are at Philly and hosting the Packers. Both of these games should provide very good match ups and if they win one of them that has them sitting pretty at 11-5 by the end of the season, which is the same record they finished with during Ryan’s rookie campaign.
Matt Ryan should be able to improve and be just fine after that slight sophomore slump and with the addition of Sean Weatherspoon (who I’d like to point out is already listed as the starter on their depth chart) their defense should have a boost as well. They made a few questionable picks in the draft (Corey Peters) so that made me doubt them a little bit but the Falcons should be just fine. Tony Gonzalez isn’t the tight end he used to be but he’s still very productive and Michael Turner has shown he can handle being a feature back. I also anticipate some healthy competition among their safeties. Look for William Moore and Matt Giordano to push last year’s starters (Thomas DeCoud and Erik Coleman) for their jobs.
Carolina Panthers – The Panthers are the team I was referencing above when I said they caused the most controversy when I put up my predictions back in April. I had them reaching the playoffs which most people aren’t anticipating. Because I feel the need to defend my stance on this, the part about the Panthers is going to be a little longer and more thorough. That’s just fair warning.
The Panthers started out horribly last year, going 4-7 through their first 11 games, with two of their wins coming against the Redskins and Bucs and one of their losses being at the hands of the Bills (at home nonetheless) but their other six losses were to good teams. After that they pulled Jake Delhomme as the starter and opting to go with Matt Moore instead and they finished the season on a 4-1 run to end with a .500 record. On top of that two of those wins came against the Vikings and Saints, when both teams were still fighting for the first overall seed in the NFC. The one loss was in New England in December, and one of the other two wins was in New York in December and I don’t care how good your team is, playing in the Northeast in December is gonna be rough.
Like the Falcons, this team also should sweep the NFC West with the possible one exception of the tough, cross country trip against the Seahawks. I can also see them finishing 4-2 in the division (as they did last year) by splitting with the Saints and Falcons and sweeping the Bucs. I only see them going 1-3 against the AFC North though because they have to play in Pittsburgh in late December which is tough, but they’ll beat the Browns no matter when and where they play – as a side note, that game will be the Colt McCoy vs Jimmy Clausen showdown. The other two games are their opening game in New York against the Giants and a Week 5 game against the Bears at home. They’ll beat the Bears I would think. The Giants game is a little tougher to call. This is a match up between two teams that had phenomenal 2008 seasons (both went 12-4) then dreadfully disappointing 2009 seasons (both went 8-8) and are looking to return to that 08 form. I think the Panthers pull off the victory though and also finish 11-5.
Last season the Panthers had an extremely difficult schedule and most of their early season struggles can be chalked up to the fact that Delhomme threw 18 interceptions and only eight touchdowns. Getting Jimmy Clausen in the second round had to be like a dream for this front office and coaching staff. Clausen is an AMAZING fit. They’re a run first team, with DeAngelo Williams (most underrated back in the league) and Jonathan Stewart so it’s not as though Clausen is expected to come in and put this team on his shoulders. He’s simply going to be expected to not throw 18 interceptions in 11 games. I anticipate Clausen coming in with a chip on his shoulder to prove all the teams wrong the passed on him with the first 47 picks. He gets to throw the ball to Steve Smith (a stud) and has a host of rookie receivers (the Panthers drafted three – count ’em three – receivers this year) to develop with. Also John Fox is severely under-appreciated as one of the better head coaches in the league.
I’ve already written three paragraphs on this team and have yet to mention their defense, which I would say is the strength of the team. This defense had 31 sacks, 22 interceptions and 23 forced fumbles last year. This is a defense that knows how to make things happen. In case you missed the part about them beating the Vikings and Saints at the end of last year, I’ll reiterate: they beat the Vikings and Saints at the end of last year, and not only that they held them to 10 and 7 points respectively. We’re talking about the top two scoring offenses in the league last year and the two teams that made it to the NFC Championship. Yes, they lost Julius Peppers but that really doesn’t concern me. I’ve always considered him a bit overrated. They picked up Aaron Francisco (Francisco – that’s fun to say!) in free agency and I think he should be able to help out their secondary. They also got Eric Norwood, Greg Hardy and Jordon Pugh in the draft, who are all defensive players from the two best conferences in college football and they should all also be able to come in and compete for starting spots right away.
New Orleans Saints – Ah yes, the team that won the division last year, is the defending Super Bowl Champions (still hurts) and has shouldered the burden of the Madden Curse. If Drew Brees falls victim to the Madden Curse in any way at all, this team is in trouble. The defense is advantageous, but not consistent or good enough to carry the team, and because of how good this team was last year people forget that in 07 and 08 this team went 7-9 and 8-8. So no offense to Chase Daniel and the other potential backups for Brees, but if he goes down with and injury or a sickness or has some major slump or whatever other potential issues the Madden Curse could produce, I just don’t see this team being near as dangerous.
They’ll still sweep the NFC West, though their cross country trip to worry about is against the Niners in Week 2. They should also be able to handle the Browns and Steelers with relative ease when they come to the Superdome. However they also have away games in Baltimore and Cincinnati and both are in December, and those will both be two extremely tough games for a “dome team” and they should consider themselves fortunate if they win either, especially if Terrell Owens fits in well with the Bengals. I see them going 4-2 in the division (as they did last year) splitting with the Panthers and Falcons and sweeping the Bucs. Unfortunately, their final two games are their home opener against the Vikings and a trip to Dallas in Week 12 to face the Cowboys, who look like their primed to make a Super Bowl run of their own. I see them beating the Vikings (with or without Favre) and falling to the ‘Boys. That leaves them with 11-5 just like the Falcons and Panthers.
The good news is that they didn’t lose too many players from their Super Bowl team and they had a GREAT draft. There is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t have another great year. Really if this team doesn’t win the division again this year it’s going to be because they have a tougher schedule than the Falcons or Panthers, because it’s apparently impossible to win the division in back-to-back years, or because of the Madden Curse, or some combination of the three. Scott Fujita and Charles Grant are the only two major contributors that they lost from last year’s team, and they released Grant so that was by choice. It’s extremely rare for a Super Bowl winning team to lose so few players the following off season. The Saints dodged that bullet, which will help a ton. They also lost starting left tackle, Jammal Bushrod, but I always thought he was a weakness of theirs anyhow. He’ll likely be replaced by the rookie, Charles Brown, and while it’s always a concern to have a rookie starting on the 0-line, I don’t think it will be a downgrade.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Oh goodness. This team just isn’t good. Vegas currently has them up against 100-to-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, and honestly I think that’s generous. There is absolutely no chance that they’ll win more than five games, and not a single one of those five would I even pencil in as a ‘W’ yet. They’re going to get swept in the division. There’s no way they beat the Ravens, Bengals or Steelers. And there chances are nil when traveling to San Francisco and Arizona. They get both the Browns and Rams at home, and the game against the Browns will be Colts McCoy’s first NFL start and the Rams are also going to be starting their own rookie quarterback in Sam Bradford, but that’s in Week 7. They might also be able to steal a win in Week 16 when they host the Seahawks because it’s hard to travel East, and Seattle to Tampa is about as far as any NFL team will ever have to travel. They also have a shot to beat the Lions when they come to Tampa but I feel like the Lions improved more this offseason than the Bucs. The final game that is a maybe-hopeful-possible win is against the Redskins, but I really don’t see that one happening, especially because it’s in Washington in December. I think they’ll be lucky to win three of those five, so I’ll predict them to finish at 2-14.
The bad news is about their off season is that they lost Antonio Bryant, who was their leading receiver. The even worse news is that they didn’t have a single other receiver with even 400 yards. The good news is that the Bucs actually had a good draft for once. They added Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two pick which should be a stud duo at DT for years to come. They also grabbed Arrelious Benn who should help fill the hole that Antonio Bryant left, unfortunately they still have Josh Freeman throwing the football. That’s okay, Benn is used to catching balls from bad quarterbacks. I don’t think a good draft is enough to climb off the division floor but they are taking steps in the right direction which is a good start, and with how up and down this division is you never know what could happen. Well, except for in this case when you know the Bucs aren’t going to win it.
At the end of the day I think this will be one of -if not the- most competitive division in football. I certainly didn’t plan on coming up with a forecast that included three of the teams ending up with the same record. I was simply making the predictions as I wrote the preview for each team and that’s how it played out. When I put up my prediction back in April I had the Saints repeating as champs followed by the Panthers, then the Falcons and the Bucs (not surprising) finishing last. However with the way I just predicted it and who I had each team beating the Panthers would finish third according to the NFL’s official tiebreaking procedures, and who actually got the division crown between the Saints and Falcons would be determined based on which team had a better strength of victory rating. I have them beating all the same teams except for one. I have the Saints beating the Vikings and I have the Falcons winning one of the two against the Packers and Eagles. This is where things get directly impacted by Brett Favre’s decision.
If Favre does return I think the Vikings will have a better record than both the Packers and Eagles. If Favre doesn’t return the Packers and/or Eagles could easily have a better record than the Vikings. It’s unlikely that in reality this will come down to a tiebreaker anyhow, especially because I could see any of the three teams winning one or two games more or less than 11. I could also see the two teams that don’t come out on top grabbing the two wild card spots anyhow, but because this is how I predicted it and with the most recent reports indicating that Favre is retiring (for real this time) I’m going to have it shake out like this:
1. Atlanta Falcons
2. New Orleans Saints
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Let me know what you think in the comments. Next up will be the NFC West, so you have that to look forward to.