Looking at the 2009 NFL season it looks to be a dogfight in the NFC South. For years the NFC South has been one of the toughest divisions in football; just about every year a different team wins the division crown.
Let's take a look at the numbers from last year, upcoming schedules of the teams, and offseason moves, and see if we can shed some light on who will win the NFC South in 2009. We'll start by analysing each team, starting with the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are coming off an 8-8 campaign in which they lost a lot of close games. The Saints had the largest margin of victory in the NFC South at 15.63 pts/gm.
They also had the smallest margin of defeat at 6.88 pts/gm. The Saints were a scoring machine, averaging 28.9 pts/gm (1st in league), 410.7 yds/gm (also first), 311.1 passing yds/gm (first), and 99.6 yds rushing (28th) per game.
The Saints have already improved their defense, and if they can improve their running game will be hard to beat. They have the easiest schedule of the NFC South teams (eighth hardest schedule in the league) and barring injuries could contend for the south crown.
Here are some drawbacks to the Saints- last season they lost the turnover battle in six games and lost all of them. This tells the story of their woes on defense which by the numbers was as follows: gave up 24.6 pts/gm (26th), 339.5 yds/gm (23rd), 221.7 pass yds/gm (23rd), and 117.8 yds rushing/gm (17th).
With the addition of Darren Sharper at safety and Gregg Williams as new defensive coordinator the Saints pass defense should improve. Corner Tracy Porter returning healthy should also help bolster the secondary.
Will the pass rush improve though? The Saints only had 28 sacks last season and wasn't able to consistently pressure the quarterback. The Saints committed 26 turnovers while their opponents turned the ball over 22 times.
The team only has four draft picks: One in first round, two in the fourth round, and one in the seventh. They won't be able to improve much from the draft...probably netting one starter.
If the Saints defense improves a little and the run game gets better this team should be able to win a lot of those close games they lost last year. The bad thing is that the schedule this year is much tougher than last years. I think the Saints will come in second in the NFC South behind Atlanta.
Next let's look at Carolina. Carolina is coming off a great season where they went 12-4. They lost the turnover battle four times and lost two of those games. They turned the ball over 19 times versus 25 takeaways.
The team didn't turn the ball over much and netted quite a few turnovers which definitely helped their cause. It was definitely a year that the ball bounced Carolina's way but will that happen in '09?
The Panthers had a breakout year running the ball which made their offense pretty potent: 25.9 pts/gm (seventh), 349.7 yds/gm (10th), 197.4 pass yds/gm (19th), and 152.3 rush yds/gm (third). The Panthers had a down year passing the ball but were bailed out by having a wonderful rushing game.
Carolina had an average margin of victory of 11 pts/gm and an average margin of loss was 14.25 pts/gm (worst in the NFC South). The Panthers defense was middle of the road: 20.6 pts/gm (12th), 331.2 yds/gm (18th), 211.7 pass yds/gm (16th), and 119.5 rush yds/gm (20th).
The Panthers had 37 sacks (best in the South), and won a number of close games (about five) by coming from behind. If they would have lost those games instead of winning them they would have been 7-9 instead of 12-4. The drubbing they received from Arizona at home in the playoffs showed that Carolina was an overachiever last year.
The bad...Carolina has barely had a pulse in free agency and has not been able to make any moves due to franchising Julius Peppers (which caused tremendous salary cap woes). The team may be able to trade Peppers but if not may be in trouble. The team has five draft picks at the moment, with no first round pick.
They have one pick in each round two through six. The good and bad news is this team will remain for the most part the same (minus Ken Lucas) as last year unless Peppers is traded. The team may be able to gain some starter help and depth in the draft but pretty much the roster won't change much.
The Panthers have the second hardest schedule this upcoming season and John Fox may not see his first back to back winning seasons as a Panthers coach.
One of the huge factors of how the Panthers will do this season is how well Jake Delhomme returns from a subpar season in '08. Look for this team to finish third in the NFC South race (could change due to the Peppers saga and if they can deal him).
The team also had a lot of turnover in the coaching staff so how that effects them is yet to be seen.
Now let's take a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers is a hard team to figure out...at times last season they looked superb and other times they looked horrible. They choked down the stretch against opponents they should have beaten, and at 9-7 ended up missing the playoffs (despite having the easiest schedule of the NFC South teams).
They won two games in overtime and were 2-2 in games where they lost the turnover battle. Their average margin of victory was 10.11 pts/gm, and their margin of loss was 7.57 pts/gm.
The Bucs turned the ball over 26 times but managed a whopping 30 takeaways. Their offense was middle of the road: 22.6 pts/gm (19th), 341 yds/gm (14th), 226.2 pass yds/gm (11th), and 114.8 rush yds/gm (15th).
The team once again relied on their stout defense which gave up 20.2 pts/gm (10th), 306.1 yds/gm (ninth), 187.3 pass yds/gm (fourth), and 118.8 yds/gm rushing (19th). Tampa's defense was susceptible to the run and they also didn't pressure opposing quarterbacks much with only 29 sacks.
The bad...the Bucs lost some of their coaching staff and gm. The moves they have made this offseason have not been impressive and they have lost much more than they have gained.
They still need help at RB, QB, WR, and a number of holes to fill on defense. The good news is the team has tons of cap room to sign players with and has eight draft picks (One first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and three seventh-round picks).
More bad however...the team has the fifth hardest schedule in the league and with a rookie head coach and loss of Monte Kiffin at defensive coordinator their future is unsettled. The team looks to be in major rebuilding mode and may take a couple of years to get back into contention.
There are a ton of question marks about this team so it is really hard to speculate exactly what they will accomplish this season (the upcoming draft may help t shed some light). Look for this team to finish at the bottom of the NFC South race.
Lastly we'll take a look at the Atlanta Falcons. The team went 11-5 last season and probably snuck up on a few people which won't happen this year. One thing when analysing the numbers of the Atlanta team is they lost the turnover battle nine times and won five of those contests (5-4).
The team is very young and made a lot of mistakes but is very resilient. Give these guys another year of growth and some added pieces here and there and this team may become something special for years to come.
More positives from the numbers includes the Falcons turning the ball over 21 times and only getting 16 takeaways. This shows that the team won games even though they turned the ball over and made mistakes.
This was mostly due to the Falcons consistent offense and their ability to get leads early in games. The Falcons offensive rankings last season were: 24.4 pts/gm (10th), 361.2 yds/gm (sixth), 208.5 (14th), and 152.7 rush yds/gm (second). Atlanta was able to run and pass consistently but did have trouble scoring touchdowns at times.
The defense was the Achilles Heel of the team last season: 20.3 pts/gm (11th), 348.2 yds/gm (24th), 220.4 (21st), and 127.9 (25th). The only thing defensively the Falcons did was limit the points their opponents scored. The turnover on the defensive side of the ball is big this offseason.
Atlanta lost five starters from defense including: Brooking, Milloy, Foxworth, Jackson, and Boley. The team has been very quiet in free agency with the only noise being made with the acquisition of LB Mike Peterson.
The bad...Atlanta has the fourth toughest schedule in the league. They have many holes to fill on defense and need a tight end on offense. The Falcons have not been active in free agency because of the uncertainty of the Michael Vick situation and keeping some money back to extend Roddy White's contract.
There isn't a whole lot of bad here though so let's look at the good.
Some things to look at going forward are the coaching staff is set, the offense is unchanged, and the draft should improve the defense. If the Falcons defense can get better and they land a receiving threat at tight end then look out!
The team was competitive in every game last year and didn't lose a game by more than fifteen points. Even though the defense wasn't great they didn't give up thirty points in any regular season game last year.
After the team dropped two early division games to Carolina and Tampa by 15 points each, the team only lost three more games (two of them by four points each).
This is a young team that is on the rise and should only get better (barring injuries, second year woes, and having another good draft).
The coaching staff should also get better and the team is getting a number of players back from injury. The team needs to get more consistent protecting the ball and improve defensively which should allow them to force more turnovers.
If these things happen then the Falcons should be the team to beat in the tough NFC South.