With a tradition of worst to first the NFC South is one of the more difficult divisions to predict. In fact, the Carolina Panthers were the first team in NFC South history to finish fourth the year prior (2010) and not finish above .500 the following year (6-10 in 2011). This year is no different especially since Roger Goodell is trying his hardest to decimate the New Orleans Saints roster…and more power to him. With that luxury, the NFC South is currently sitting at a crossroads with two young but potentially talented teams in Tampa Bay and Carolina, the New Orleans Saints possibly entering the end of their run and the Atlanta Falcons who seem to win every game but the big one.
But with all tha aside, here is how I see the NFC South shaking out in 2012:
4. New Orleans Saints: 5-11
That's right. The New Orleans Saints will not only fail to win the division, they will finish dead last in the NFC South next year. How can the Saints lose less than 8 games with Drew Brees at the helm? Simple. The 2002-2005 Drew Brees was generally a top QB in the league but never considered "elite". Now, with his coach exiled, the pre-Sean Payton Drew Brees will resurface. For the record, Drew Brees is not going to have a 15-30 td/interception ratio or throw for 2,500 yards but he certainly won't throw for 5,000+ yards with a 46-14 td/int ratio. Brees will still be a top qb in the league but will be more like The Byrds than The Beatles. A thought that has swirled in my head since early March is worth asking: are the Saints going to be next years Indianapolis Colts? My guess would be probably not as severe but I will contend that Sean Payton, Jonathan Vilma and Gregg Williams to New Orleans are just as important as Peyton Manning was to Indy. Sean Payton is a magnificent play caller who always puts his team in the right situation. So one must wonder: who is going to making the call on 3rd and 7 next year? The New Orleans fans should start counting down the days until Anthony Davis rolls up in a Hornets jersey because that will be the only exciting sports event this November.
3. Carolina Panthers: 7-9
Carolina is a lot like Tampa Bay where they have a lot of talent in certain spots plus they have what appears to be a franchise quarterback (though young) in Cam Newton. I have them at 7-9 but it will be a promising 7-9. Their schedule is doable for the first half but unfortunately for this young team the tough part comes at the end with 4 of the last 6 on the road. That is tough for any NFL team especially one that is trying to find their identity. They have a solid defense that could use some help on the back end but their d line and linebackers are exceptional. Not to mention the addition of LB Luke Keuchly, an outstanding inside linebacker to partner up with Jon Beason and James Anderson will strike fear into most offenses. The defense will not be the reason they lose 9 games next season, instead, that blame will fall on the shoulder of the offense. Cam Newton showed more than enough promise last season but after a season of film the defenses will make adjustments leaving Cam a step behind (which is natural for second year players and the reasoning behind the term "sophomore slump"). Their rushing attack is pretty strong with a two-headed monster in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams which could help marginalize Cam's mistakes and put them in the .500 or better range. Though next year they will come up short, this will be the team to watch for 2013. They have a lot going for them but they are still a year away.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-6
Tampa Bay finished dead last in 2011 making them the odds on favorite in 2012 (according to history). The Bucs certainly seem to be the trendy pick to rebound and have a surprising year. The biggest question for Tampa is whether or not Greg Schiano is the answer for their franchise. They have a lot of pieces in place but without a good head coach you're lucky to finish 8-8. If Schiano turns out to be the coach Tampa Bay hopes he will be, then the Bucs could be in playoff contention. The addition of Vincent Jackson makes their offense even more explosive. With Jackson and Mike Williams outside the hashes and LaGarrette Blount pounding the rock, they could put some points on the board. Their defense is strong upfront with Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Adrian Clayborn but the back seven is nothing to write home about. Ronde Barber is a Hall of Famer but is well past his prime. Their first draft pick Mark Barron will more than likely be a superstar in the league but not during his rookie year and those are really the only two players worth mentioning. The Bucs schedule is probably the most winnable amongst the NFC South teams so that is why they should pull off a double digit winning season, that is, if Schiano can hold his end of the bargain.
1. Atlanta Falcons: 11-5
The Falcons seem to be the team in this division with the least amount of questions to answer. They had a busy offseason changing both coordinators and trading for Asante Samuel but compared to the rest of the division the core of this team has remained constant for the past four seasons. The schedule at first seemed brutal but once dates and locations were released the Falcons got some breaks: catching Peyton Manning early in the season (week 2), bye week before Philadelphia, New York Giants at home, and the implosion of the New Orleans Saints (whom the Falcons should sweep) yet another winning season and playoff appearance by the Birds. Jullio Jones and Roddy White are arguably the best 1-2 combo in the league and the defense should improve with a decorated defensive coordinator like Mike Nolan. The biggest question for the Falcons is if they can finally apply some pressure to the opposing quarterback. The Falcons averaged a little more than a sack a game, if they can bump that up to two or even three sacks a game, this defense could be one of the best in the NFC.
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