Atlanta Falcons Need to Keep an Eye on Division Foes in 2009

Jeff DickinsonCorrespondent IMay 25, 2009

There’s an old adage in sports that talks about taking care of your own business so good things will happen. It says that if you worry about what your competition is doing, then it can cause you to lose focus on the task at hand.


You’ll have to forgive the Atlanta Falcons, though, if they have trouble not keeping one eye on their competition in the NFC South Division in 2009. After all, despite all of Atlanta’s success last year in making the playoffs and posting 11 wins, the Falcons didn’t even win their division.


Last season, the Carolina Panthers held off the Falcons by posting a 12-4 record. And right on Atlanta’s heels in the NFC South were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 9-7 and the New Orleans Saints at 8-8. The Bucs weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until they lost their last game of the season.


The Falcons look to break out of their franchise rut of never having posted consecutive winning seasons by making the playoffs again this year. With the addition of All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez and a solid draft, Atlanta is poised for success.


But if the Falcons are going to change history, they are going to have to take care of things within their division. Here is a look at Atlanta’s competition in the NFC South and the outlook for 2009:


Carolina Panthers

The Panthers battled injuries to key players, but they still managed to have a successful season. The key to Carolina’s success lies at the heart of its coach, John Fox.


In his six years at the helm of the Panthers, Fox has managed to average almost 10 wins per season. Things should be no different in 2009, as Carolina boasts one of the best running backs in the league in DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards and 18 TDs) and one of the best receivers in Steve Smith (78 receptions for 1,421 yards).


Quarterback Jake Delhomme battled injuries last season and only threw 15 touchdowns and had 12 interceptions, but he should be healthy this season. The biggest key for Carolina is going to be whether All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers remains with the team for all of 2009.


Peppers has requested a trade and wants out of Carolina. Without him, the Panthers will have 14.5 fewer sacks and will lack defensive intensity. 


The Panthers are a little older and the uncertainty of Peppers makes them ripe for dethroning in the NFC South by the young and hungry Falcons. Look for age to catch up with Carolina in 2009 in the form of an 8-8 record.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If not for a late-season implosion, the Bucs would have won the NFC South or at least taken home a Wild Card berth. Tampa Bay lost its last four games to finish 9-7, which cost head coach Jon Gruden his job.


Not only did the Bucs lose Gruden, but they also lost their starting quarterback Jeff Garcia (to free agency). Add to that the fact that Tampa Bay’s top running back (Cadillac Williams) is coming off knee surgery and only played in six games last season.


Replacing your quarterback and having to adjust to a rookie coach in Raheem Morris isn’t the recipe for offensive success for an NFL team. Monte Kiffin, the team’s long-time defensive coordinator, also left to coach with his son at the University of Tennessee.


In other words, the Bucs are probably facing a learning curve season in 2009. The cupboard in Tampa Bay may be a little bare for a season or two before the playoffs are a reality.


New Orleans Saints

The Saints had the most potent quarterback in the NFL last season, but he didn’t have a lot of weapons with which to work. Drew Brees led the league with 5,069 passing yards and he tossed 34 TDs, but he didn’t have a lot of help from the rest of the offense.


That’s one of the biggest reasons that New Orleans finished a dismal 8-8. The Saints lost their best receiver, Marques Colston, in the second game and their starting tailback, Deuce McCallister, only carried the ball 107 times.


Pierre Thomas filled in for McCallister, but he only gained 625 yards. Former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush was limited to 10 games last season and only had two rushing TDs.


The Saints were first in the NFL in passing yards per game and 28th in rushing yards. Another problem for the Saints was the fact that they usually had no problem scoring, but they also couldn’t keep their opponents out of the end zone.


New Orleans must do better defensively than 23rdin the league if they’re going to make the playoffs in 2009. Here’s betting that the Saints improve enough to take home a Wild Card spot behind the Falcons in the NFC South.