NFC South: Atlanta Falcons Competition in the Hunt for a Division Title

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NFC South: Atlanta Falcons Competition in the Hunt for a Division Title

The 2008 season marked an impressive year for the Falcons, Panthers, Saints, and Bucs. Overshadowed by other traditional power divisions, the NFC South was arguably the best division in football. 

All four teams posted records at or above .500 as the NFC South won more games than any other division in the NFL. Each team had more points for than against during the season, a feat no other division can claim. 

The most impressive facet to the teams was their offenses. Their combined scoring ranked significantly higher than all other divisions. The NFC South dominated the traditional power divisions by scoring 1,629 points total. The highly regarded offenses of the NFC East only scored 1,470 points, AFC East 1,496, and the AFC South only 1,420 points.

Looking ahead to 2009, the Atlanta Falcons are focused on taking the division title. Which teams will be a potential threat to that goal, and what are the expectations of the other teams inside the NFC South?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs put up impressive numbers in 2008, winning their first six home games on their way to a 9-3 start. Their defense was the key to their early success as they ranked 10th in points allowed. Opponents struggled against them through the air giving the Bucs the fourth best passing defense in the NFL.

The biggest struggle for the Bucs last year was their ability to win down the stretch.  The team missed the playoffs after loosing their last four games of the season.  In that span they gave up over 30 points per game.

The biggest questions for Tampa Bay this year are on the offensive side of the ball. With a new coach and quarterback coming into the picture there are a lot of question marks.  Can the team find a starting QB? Will the defense be enough to help out the struggling offense?

Look for the Bucs to take a step back in 2009, as they rebuild under new head coach Raheem Morris.

New Orleans Saints

Although the Saints rounded out the bottom of the division last year, they posted insane numbers on offense. They lead the league in points per game, yards per game, and passing yards per game. So how did that prolific offense only amount to an 8-8 record?

Their 27th ranked defense held them back, as they gave up 24.6 points per game. Another interesting statistic about the Saints defense was that they were one of only four NFL teams to not score a defensive touchdown last year.

The team should improve on the defensive side of the ball in 2009, as they drafted defensive players with their first three picks. If the Saints are able to stop opponents, then they have potential to take the division for the third time since 2000.

Carolina Panthers

In 2008 the Panthers were the most complete team in the division, ranking seventh in total offense and 12th in defense. Their 12-4 record was driven by their undefeated home schedule, with all four losses coming on the road.

The key to the Panthers winning is the performance of Jake Delhomme. The quarterback threw for 15 touchdowns, but only had one touchdown in all four losses combined. He needs to play well in 2009 to give the Panthers a chance to win the division.

The defense also needs to step up for the Panthers to improve in the upcoming season. While they averaged 20.6 points per game allowed, the unit gave up 31.5 points per game in the four losses. 

More specifically, the Panthers need to slow down opponents through the air, as they leaked out over 210 passing yards per game. This could be their biggest weakness, as they have not made any significant moves towards improving their secondary in the offseason. 

Summary

We know that the three main contenders for the division will be good.  The offenses of Atlanta, Carolina, and New Orleans will put on a show with all three quarterbacks ranking in the top 15 in passing yards in 2009.

The biggest question mark for all three teams is whether or not their defenses will improve in the upcoming year. New Orleans and Carolina have not put their focus on making big changes, but Atlanta has shown their commitment to build their defense by drafting seven defensive players.  (For more on the Falcons Defense see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/170085-2009-atlanta-falcons-defensive-spotlight)

According to Espn.com, the May power rankings have the Panthers at 10, Falcons at 11, Saints at 16, and Bucs at 27. The division is wide open, but the Falcons and Panthers are the very early favorites. 

Falcons fans should be excited about the possibility of winning the NFC South. Their ownership has been the most active of any team in improving both sides of the ball through the draft and free agency. 

Even though the schedule will be tougher in 2009, the talent of the Falcons team will improve from the previous season. Their expectations of winning the division are realistic. Expect the Falcons to be in the hunt for the playoffs in December as head coach Mike Smith’s team is poised to take home the NFC title. 

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