Bold Predictions for the NFC South
The NFC South is the most capricious, unpredictable and delightfully frivolous division in the NFL.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the division in 2007. The Carolina Panthers took home the crown in 2008. The New Orleans Saints captured the title in 2009. The Atlanta Falcons went 13-3 in 2010 to win it. Last year, the Saints were back on top.
It's a division that features three promising young quarterbacks, one wily veteran and a ton of receiving talent.
Who'll be the champion of the most entertaining, offense-happy division in football this year? Who'll be the best player?
Here, I give my bold predictions for the always fun NFC South.
Doug Martin leads division in yards from scrimmage
LeGarrette Blount is in place as the team's punishing runner, but the Buccaneers didn't trade back into the first round to get Martin for no reason.
They envision him as a multi-purpose back who can be a fixture in their running game and provide a quality checkdown and screen option for quarterback Josh Freeman. Blount and Martin will split carries, but don't be surprised if Martin's the feature back by the halfway point of the season.
Even with Vincent Jackson out wide, Greg Schiano will feature the run prominently to make play-action more effective and to dictate the tempo.
Michael Turner had 1,340 rushing yards in 2011. While I don't expect him to totally slow down in 2012, he's certainly nearing the twilight of his career, and the Falcons will look to throw more often this year.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are a fine tandem, but remember, they share carries with Cam Newton.
The Saints' runners, especially Pierre Thomas, are versatile and involved in the passing game, but none of them will receive enough carries to eclipse Martin in the yards-from-scrimmage department.
Ryan has thrown more touchdowns in each of his four professional seasons. In 2008, he tossed 16. Last year, his passing touchdown total was 29.
Roddy White is an already established target out wide, and I'm expecting Julio Jones to totally break out in 2012. He's too fast and physical, and the experience he gained last season will make him nearly unstoppable as a "secondary" option. Actually, don't be surprised if he puts up better numbers than White.
Nothing against Brees—he's still one of the game's best gun-slingers—but I envision a slight regression in terms of touchdowns. It'll be hard for him to recreate the magic of his historic 2011 season, and the loss of Robert Meachem will be felt.
I'll say Ryan throws 36 touchdowns to Brees' 34.
The Carolina Panthers finish second, make the playoffs
The Panthers defense still has a way to go, but their offense has unreal potential. Cam Newton should have another great run through the air and on the ground.
Do you think the Carolina Panthers can make the playoffs in 2012
Scoring touchdowns in the red zone should be no problem. He has an underrated group of pass-catchers out wide, and Joe Adams will be a fine yards-after-the-catch option. Add in their talented running back duo, and you'll understand why they should have one of the better and well-rounded offenses in the NFC.
Remember, they were competitive in many of their games last season, but lost a few late-game leads. They'll learn from those and get to 10 wins this year.
The Atlanta Falcons win the division
Atlanta and Carolina will duel it out late in the season, but experience and a slightly better defense will lead to the Falcons taking the division for the second time in three years.
As stated above, Jones will be the key component of it all.
The former Alabama Crimson Tide star will have a Pro Bowl-caliber season. He and Roddy White will formulate one of the most difficult receiving tandems to cover in football.
Can't forget about Tony Gonzalez, either.
They've shown they can beat the Saints at home and on the road, and they are more talented than the Panthers and Buccaneers, although both those teams are on the rise. Their defense isn't fantastic, but it's good enough to keep them in games. A solid 11-win season will lead to a division crown for the Falcons in 2012.
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