How unpredictable is the NFC South?
Well, for starters, no team has won the division in back-to-back years since it was created in 2002.
In fact, from 2003 to 2007, the team that finished last the previous season won the division the following year.
Had Carolina not beat the Saints by a last-second field goal in the final week of last year’s regular season, the upstart Falcons would have won the NFC South and continued the last-to-first streak, despite starting the season dead last in ESPN’s power rankings.
Either way, the division was surprisingly strong last season. Without a designated doormat, the NFC South was one of two divisions in the league in which all of its teams finished at or above .500.
Had the Bucs not lost four straight to end the year, the NFC South might have been the only division in the league with three 10-win teams.
In the end, the Panthers (12-4) and Falcons (11-5) rose to the top of the division with potent running games, while the Bucs (9-7) and Saints (8-8) underachieved to finish in the cellar.
Though, at .500, the Saints would have been in a three-way tie for first in the AFC West.
This season, the Panthers return 21 starters, the Falcons and Saints hope to rebuild their defenses in time to be playoff contenders, and the Bucs have a new coaching staff essentially building from the ground up.
As the division improves around them and the schedule becomes less forgiving, the Buccaneers can probably plan on sitting out this year’s postseason.
I wouldn’t go as far as the Denver Nuggets—see Denver’s postseason scheduling conflict with the WWE—and open up booking dates for Raymond James Stadium through January, but it’s a pretty safe bet.
The Bucs finished 3-3 in the division last year, face pressing questions on both sides of the ball, and lose more ground than anyone else in the foursome.
It is the NFC South, however, and ultimately, your guess is as good as mine.
But undoubtedly, this year’s race for the division title will come down to defense.
Three of the four teams in the NFC South have brought in new defensive coordinators this offseason, and the Falcons—entering Brian VanGorder’s second season—are also overhauling their defense.
Needless to say, game preparation will take on a new meaning this season between division foes.
While not everyone’s high on defending division champion Carolina, the Panthers return all but one starter from last season’s strong showing, including the explosive backfield tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
An aging Jake Delhomme, who threw six interceptions in the team’s playoff loss to Arizona, is a potential weakness, but the veteran quarterback can still rely on stud receiver Steve Smith to make plays down the field.
Carolina’s defense, now led by first-year coordinator Ron Meeks, could also be better. Meeks coached formerly under Tony Dungy and will introduce the Panthers to his variation of the “Tampa Two” this season.
All things considered, Carolina should once again be a top team in one of the league’s toughest divisions.
The Falcons will also rebuild their defense this season after releasing a host of veterans and spending seven of their eight draft picks on rookie defenders.
The team also acquired former Jaguar and veteran linebacker Mike Peterson.
Offensively, the Falcons add Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez to last year’s breakout receiving corps, and return the league’s second-ranked running game.
If a young defense can step up to the plate and second-year quarterback Matt Ryan can avoid a sophomore slump, the Falcons could build off last season’s success and do more than simply make the playoffs.
But perhaps the team with the most upside in the NFC South this season is New Orleans.
Behind quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints had the highest scoring offense in the NFL last season—they just couldn’t play defense.
That’s where veteran defensive coordinator Gregg Williams comes in. Known for his aggressive 4-3 scheme, Williams likes to put pressure on the quarterback and is expected to get more production out of the Saints defensively with a few key additions.
The Saints upgraded their secondary by adding safety Darren Sharper, former Patriot Randall Gay, and first-round draft pick Malcolm Jenkins.
The team also brought in veteran linebacker Dan Morgan, and hope he can stay healthy long enough to be a factor this season.
If Williams can get the defense to take a turn for the better and stay healthy, and the league’s best passing game can mix in the run more effectively, New Orleans could also become a force in the division.
Then there’s the Bucs, who could certainly be competitive in the NFC South, but a lot of things would have to come together quickly.
For Tampa Bay, the 2009 season will depend on how quickly the team can adjust to the new coaching staff, pick up new schemes, and put the right pieces together.
If nothing else, the team’s new coordinators should make the Bucs harder to prepare for this season.
The addition of Derrick Ward and Kellen Winslow, and the return of deep threat Antonio Bryant and a healthy Cadillac Williams are all upsides for the offense, but will Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich, or Josh Freeman prove to be a reliable starter under center?
Will new leaders and impact players emerge on defense to replace a presence like Derrick Brooks? Is the Bucs’ mix of newcomers and returning starters a good fit for Jim Bates’ run contain system?
Can the Buccaneers survive a schedule that includes the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Panthers, and Patriots—all in the first seven weeks?
My guess is all these questions will be answered soon enough, but not before Tampa Bay endures some sharp growing pains in 2009.
In the end, the potential strength of the NFC South and the Bucs’ laundry list of questions present too big a barrier for Raheem Morris and company to make a run at the playoffs and pull a turnaround as impressive as Atlanta’s last season.
If Morris plays his cards right, the Bucs should start to click in the latter half of the season, and the team could be poised to turn the corner in 2010.
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