Will the NFC South Rise Again?

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Will the NFC South Rise Again?
(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The NFC South was a beast in 2009.

There were no easy outs in this division as no team finished with a losing record. This year should be no different.

The cream of the crop last year was the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers finished with a 12-4 record and return 21 out of 22 starters from that powerful team.

A key to the Cats’ 2009 season involves the status of DE Julius Peppers. Peppers has publically stated that he wants out of Charlotte, but no viable trade partner has been found.

The Peppers' predicament has handcuffed the Panthers this off-season. His $16 million annual salary has taken a huge portion of Carolina’s salary cap space, causing them to lose valuable back-ups (especially on the offensive line) and preventing them from being a player in the free agent market.

Questions abound. If Peppers returns, will he be a productive player or will he be a year-long distraction? If the Panthers are able to deal Peppers, can they get equal value in return? The clock is ticking and the alarm is about to sound on this troubling situation.

The Cats’ offense should be solid again with the two-headed rushing attack of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The “Double Trouble” combo terrorized opponents last season, combining for over 2,300 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns.

Carolina has all-world WR Steve Smith back again. Need I say more? Smith is a threat to take it the distance any time he touches the ball. Despite missing two games to a team-mandated suspension after decking teammate Ken Lucas, Smith still tallied a career-best 1,421 receiving yards.

The homecoming of WR Muhsin Muhammad, one of the league’s best blocking receivers, gave Carolina a much-needed additional threat to take some of the heat off of Smith. Muhammad had a solid year, snagging 65 receptions for 921 yards and five touchdowns.

The wildcard in the passing attack is the inconsistency of quarterback Jake Delhomme. As Jake goes, so go the Panthers. When he’s good, the Cats are Super Bowl contenders. When he’s bad, they struggle royally.

Atlanta was perhaps the NFL’s biggest surprise last year. Buoyed by rookie QB sensation Matt Ryan, the Falcons soared to new heights. Atlanta pushed the Panthers for the division title all year, finally finishing second with a remarkable 11-5 mark.

Ryan should be even more dangerous in 2009. Not only will he have a year of experience under his belt, he will have another big target with the acquisition of future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez.

The terrific receiving trio of Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, and Gonzalez coupled with dynamic running back Michael Turner will cause opposing defensive coordinators a ton of headaches.

If the Falcons defense led by John Abraham holds up their end of the bargain, Atlanta may unseat the Panthers as South champs.

The New Orleans Saints are a dangerous team as well. Any team led by Drew Brees is one with which to be reckoned. Brees had a monster year in 2009, surpassing 5,000 yards passing and almost breaking the long-standing single-season yardage mark help by Dan Marino.

Brees has a dangerous arsenal of weapons, led by WR’s Marques Colston and Lance Moore and TE Jeremy Shockey. The elusive Reggie Bush provides a game-breaking receiver from out of the backfield for Brees as well.   

The Saints offense will be as good as any, but they will have to get defensive if they hope to contend for the NFC South title this year. New Orleans finished in the bottom third of the league’s defensive standings and must improve for the Saints to come marching home to the playoffs again.

The biggest question mark of the South entering 2009 will be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are certainly a team in transition, undergoing a radical change during the off-season.

The changes started at the top, with fiery coach Jon Gruden being released and well-respected defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin leaving to join his son at the University of Tennessee. The Bucs also underwent major changes in player personnel with the release of veterans Derrick Brooks and Jeff Garcia.

The Bucs seem the most likely candidate in this division to go south.

The NFC South will again be one of the league’s best from top to bottom, but with the tough match-ups in 2009 against the NFC East, the South will struggle to rise again to the same heights it did in 2008.

My gut says that the Panthers will be the class of the South again, with the Falcons not far behind. If the Saints can solidify their defense, they could leapfrog to the top of the division. The Bucs may endure a long season.

Regardless, it should be another interesting and exciting year in the NFC South.

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