Panthers, Falcons to Vie for Top Spot in NFC South

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Panthers, Falcons to Vie for Top Spot in NFC South
(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Since the NFL’s realignment prior to the 2002 season, the NFC South is the only division without a repeat champion.

Last year’s champs, the Carolina Panthers, have as much potential as any past winner to snap that streak. But 2008’s wild card from the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons, plan on making that task difficult for their rivals from the Old North State.

In the end, count on the Falcons to win the division. But a wild-card berth is still likely for the Panthers, who would become one of the divison’s first teams—along with the Falcon, of course—to make two consecutive playoff appearances.

Here’s how I see the NFC South shaking out in 2009.

 

1. Atlanta Falcons

2008 Record: 11-5 (3-3 in the NFC South), Second in the NFC South

Key losses: Keith Brooking, LB; Lawyer Milloy, DB

Key additions: Tony Gonzalez, TE; Peria Jerry, DT (rookie)

Key stretch: Weeks one through three. Atlanta could start anywhere from 3-0 to 0-3, hosting the Dolphins and Panthers and traveling to New England. In all likelihood, it will be somewhere in the middle, but a tough start could prove difficult to rebound from—especially if Carolina leaves the Georgia Dome with a road divisional win.

Overview: The Falcon’s lose two veteran defenders in Brooking and Milloy from a defense that was far from impressive in 2008—Atlanta finished 24th in overall defense (348.2 yards allowed per game) and 25th in rushing defense (127.9). Don’t expect a much better performance on that side of the ball in ’09.

But with Michael Turner and Matt Ryan returning, and Gonzalez adding a red-zone threat at tight end, don’t expect the D to have to do much in head coach Mike Smith's second season, anyway.

Turner helped lead the NFL’s second-most productive running game in 2008 (152.7 yards per game), and Ryan’s spectacular rookie campaign rivaled Joe Flacco’s in Baltimore.

Look for the Dirty Birds to make a real run at the team’s second Super Bowl appearance. And if they get there, don’t expect them to roll over.

Projected 2009 Record: 12-4 (4-2) (NFC South Champions)

 

2. Carolina Panthers

2008 Record: 12-4 (4-2), First in the NFC South

Key (potential) loss: Julius Peppers’ preseason

Key additions: Everette Brown, DE (rookie); Sherrod Martin, DB (rookie)

Key stretch: Weeks nine and 10. After a very challenging first seven games that include road match-ups with the Cowboys (Week Three) and the Cardinals (Week Eight), the Panthers play two straight divisional games, going to New Orleans and hosting Atlanta. If Carolina falls to both teams, the 2008 divisional champions could be facing a 1-3—possibly 0-4—NFC South record. But don’t expect that to happen.

Overview: With perhaps the most impressive running-back duo in the league in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, an experienced—if not inconsistent—quarterback in Jake Delhomme, one of the NFL’s most-feared pass rushers in Peppers, and that little wideout named Steve Smith, the Panthers won’t sneak up on anyone in 2009.

Expect the three-time NFC Championship Game participants to get their opponents’ best shot week in and week out.

Even if Julius Peppers’ holdout lasts into training camp—which owner Marty Hurney doesn’t believe will happen—Carolina’s defense should be improved from last year’s 331.2 yards allowed per game average (18th in the NFL). With the drafting of Brown, a sack threat that could draw some attention away from Peppers, and Martin, a big safety that should see lots of field time, the Panthers’ D could be one of the league’s best.

Projected 2009 Record: 9-7 (4-2) (Wild card berth)

 

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2008 Record: 9-7 (3-3), Third in the NFC South

Key loss: Jeff Garcia, QB; Derrick Brooks, LB; Cato June, LB

Key additions: Kellen Winslow, TE; Byron Leftwich, QB; Derrick Ward, RB

Key stretch: Weeks 11 through 13. If the Bucs plan on making any noise in the division, this is when they’re going to have to do it. Tampa Bay hosts New Orleans before traveling to Atlanta and Carolina in consecutive weeks. If the Bucs can somehow get two wins here, a .500 season or better is now out of reach.

Overview: These ain’t your daddy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Heck, these are hardly your Tampa Buccaneers.

The Bucs cleaned house on defense, cutting veteran linebackers Brooks and June, a duo that combined to start 30 games in 2008 with 140 tackles, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. And the remodeling wasn’t limited to the defense.

Say “Bye bye” to Garcia and Warrick Dunn and “Hello” to Leftwich and Ward.

With that old-guys-for-young-guys swap, the Bucs’ backfield is—if nothing else—younger. An aging Dunn managed 100 yards in just one game, a 115-yard performance against Carolina in week Six, and fell short of 50 yards in each of his last four games.

With Ward, the boys in Tampa get a back that saved his best performances for the end of last season, tallying 215 rushing yards in Week 16, propelling his Giants squad to a six-point win over the eventual NFC South Champions.

In Leftwich, all the Bucs really get yet another mediocre quarterback to compete for the starting job. If he can somehow fulfill the promise he showed in his days at Marshall, perhaps the Bucs’ new-look offense can make strides and threaten to compete in the NFC South.

But don't count on it.

Projected 2009 Record: 7-9 (3-3)

 

4. New Orleans Saints

2008 Record: 8-8 (2-4), Fourth in the NFC South

Key loss: Deuce McAllister, RB

Key additions: Darren Sharper, DB; Malcom Jenkins, DB (rookie)

Key stretch: Weeks one through three. The schedule doesn’t shape up well for New Orleans, who have road contests against non-division foes Washington (8-8 in 2008), Philadelphia (9-6-1), and Miami (11-5).

If the Saints can take momentum from a season-opening win against Detroit to Philadelphia and Buffalo—and somehow manage a 2-1 start—the season might not be a lost cause in New Orleans. If the Saints go winless (not impossible) through the first three weeks, no amount of the Reggie Bush show will be able to salvage the season.

Overview: In a good move, the Saints’ front office attacked its club’s need for help in the defensive backfield head-on in the offseason, signing Sharper away from Minnesota and drafting Jenkins out of Ohio State. The secondary, which gave up 339.5 yards per game last season, good for 23rd in the league, should be at least marginally better.

On the offensive side of the ball, the releasing of McAllister makes room for Pierre Thomas to become the every-down back, with Bush continuing to line up all over the field and get plenty of touches.

But unless Thomas and Bush—who needs to stay healthy—can produce big time and the defense improves drastically, Drew Brees’ passing offense (first in the league a year ago with 410.7 yards per game) won’t mean squat.

Projected 2009 Record: 4-12 (1-5)

So there it is. Your 2009 NFC South. It should be a fun ride, especially for those fans in the ATL.

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