Today we shift to warmer climates to take a look at the NFC South. This division was second best in the NFC last year, and while the last-to-first trend didn't continue, we were still shown how close these four teams are.
We start with the defending South champs, the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have the ingredients to go deep in the playoffs; a legitimate defense, a beastly running game, a big-play receiver, and some solid guys behind him.
The Panthers saw the emergence of perhaps the league's best two-headed rushing tandem in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Williams rushed for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Stewart complemented him with 836 yards and 10 TDs.
Stewart will only get better, Williams will keep on doing his thing and the Panthers have the potential to lead the NFL in rushing offense, a category which they were third in last year.
However, as impressive as their running game is, they're going to need much better play from Delhomme if they want to make a Super Bowl run. Delhomme had decent numbers in the regular season, throwing for 3,288 yards with a rating of 84.7.
However he had a mediocre touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 15 TD's and 12 picks. While his numbers aren't terrible, he's going to have to be much more consistent.
I'm sure I don't have to remind anyone of Jake's five-INT performance against the Cards in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Despite Delhomme's shortcomings though, Carolina has a very impressive team. I give them an 11-5 record and a repeat NFC South title.
Atlanta looks to be an up and coming team on the precipice of joining the NFL's elite. But I say not so fast. Matt Ryan played outstandingly in his rookie year, but he looked shaky and inconsistent at times, especially towards the end of the season. In the final four games of the regular season, he threw three touchdowns and five interceptions.
Should we look for Ryan to have a case of the sophomore blues? Well I wouldn't say that, but don't be expecting stellar numbers and superb play from him either.
More than the emergence of Matt Ryan, I believe Atlanta's ability to run the ball tells the story for this team. Michael Turner's performance speaks for itself. Turner rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, leading the way for the NFL's second best rushing attack.
I think Atlanta could slip to 7-9, but they could just as easily finish with 10 wins, which is my prediction for them. Michael Turner and solid play from the defense carry them to another wild card birth.
Next we look at the NFC South's third place team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs will be searching for answers after their debacle of a collapse from last year. This team, which was tied for first place after defeating New Orleans in Week 13, lost their final four games of the regular season to miss the playoffs.
That defense which has been one of the best in the NFL for the past almost a decade looked tired and full of holes at the end of the year. They gave up over 30 points in three of those final four games, including a 31-21 loss to lowly Oakland in the season finale, where they gave up 192 rushing yards, 177 of those belonging to Michael Bush.
And with the departure of Monte Kiffin and Jon Gruden, next year's outlook doesn't look so good for Tampa Bay. The offense has a lot of questions as well. Cadillac Williams was out for half the year, and played subpar ball after he returned in Week 12. Warrick Dunn filled in with a decent performance, but his play was far from spectacular.
Add to that the question of Jeff Garcia's health, and the outlook for Tampa Bay is somewhat bleak. Still though, if Jeff Garcia can stay healthy and the defense can rebound, which they are capable of doing and which I expect they will do, they could win nine games. I give them seven to nine wins next year, just out of the playoffs.
The Saints are a team that could easily rebound and win 10+ games, but with their shoddy defense and at times inconsistent offense, they're going to have trouble doing this. Drew Brees single-handedly carried the load for this team last year, throwing for 5,069 yards and 34 touchdowns, garnering a quarterback rating of 96.2.
This was despite injuries and inconsistent play from his receiving corps. Add on to that the sporadic injuries of Reggie Bush, and the fact that Deuce McAllister never got fully back into rhythm, and Brees' performance is all the more impressive.
Perhaps even more of an issue are the Saints' issues on the defensive side of the ball. They finished 23rd and 26th in total defense and scoring defense, respectively, and game up a ton of points in the fourth quarter.
The only reason the Saints were able to win games this year was because they could score more than the opposition, but even despite stellar play from Brees, that still could not make up for the bad play of the defense.
I give the Saints anywhere from six to 10 wins next year, but for a pinpoint prediction, I say they finish with a 7-9 record.