1. Falcons (11-5)
2. Panthers (10-6)
3. Saints (7-9)
4. Buccaneers (5-11)
The only real competition Falcons in the division (on paper of course) is the Panthers, and to a lesser extent, New Orleans. It just seems that the Panthers and the Falcons are on a higher tier than the Saints and the Buccaneers are. Atlanta's defense is relatively young, yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not going to perform well or possibly even flourish.
Barring injuries of course, and even if the Falcons defense takes a bit longer to mature than the team would have hoped, I still think Michael Turner, Jerrious Norwood, Matt Ryan and Roddy White would have been great enough by themselves to carry the team.
But then they went and got Tony Gonzalez? Although he may be approaching the twilight of his career, he's still going to draw some opposing defensive attention, and perhaps even cause us to see the Falcons offense of last year but in an even higher gear. Who were their tight ends last year? Justin Peelle? He might have been a capable blocker, but he wasn't much the focus of the opposing defenses game plans very often. And with good reason.
This is pretty much the same thing as last year, with the Falcons and Panthers running away with the season's race while the other two teams sulk deeper into the depths of despair and losing. You could practically flip-flop the Falcons and Panthers for that No. 1 spot that will probably take at LEAST eleven wins in order to be able to wear the crown.
I correctly predicted last August that DeAngelo Williams would break out during the upcoming season (much to the chagrin of some very loyal Jonathan Stewart owners) and although he did, they both ended up having great seasons.
So I'm absolutely NOT trying to suggest who WON the argument (I did, but I digress!). What I AM suggesting is that the pair are going to have another stellar year, and not JUST because DeAngelo is one year away from his contract year (which includes some pretty tasty incentive bonuses to work towards) and Stewart's toes finally function correctly.
If you didn't notice it last season, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have learned to feed off each other. They've both realized that they're too good to be replaced by the other and have accepted this fact while at the same time trying to competitively outdo each other every single game.
All they really need is for Delhomme to continue on and stay injury-free, and we've got is a Panthers team who's fully ready to take any and all comes for the NFC South title. Not to mention just THINKING about the Panthers vs. Falcons divisional race (at least from the outset of the season) already has me giggling like a little schoolgirl.
As for the other two teams, the Saints definitely have the talent and could explode at JUST the right time. If Reggie Bush's surgery went well, then they may be that dark horse candidate that everyone loves to pick come pre-season.
They're certainly an INTERESTING pick, that's for sure. By interesting, I don't mean that I'd bet money on them mind you. Just interesting, like "bet your buddy $20 they'll win at least eight games" interesting. I just got the shivers.
Last—and probably deservedly least—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers! I dunno, I just don't see them doing ANYTHING unless they somehow nab a veteran QB like Brett Favre or Michael Vick. Rookie Josh Freeman has some potential for sure, but he's no Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan. Although he does have a fairly strong offensive line to help with protection and join him on any credit card commercial deals he decides to film.
It's up in the air if he'll even be starting though, and I just don't see Byron Leftwich leading this team ANYWHERE but downtown-Charlie-Brown-into-the-ground.
This looks like it may be shaping up to be one of those classic, "Start the veteran until the season's practically gone and hopeless, then just throw in the rookie signal caller to learn the ropes, get roughed up for the rest of the season, and throw Peyton Manning early-in-his-career-type interception totals."
Then again, you never know. Freeman COULD be the next Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan—but I just don't think so.
Kellen Winslow Jr. should certainly help matters, though… if he doesn't break both his legs trying to jump in front of a taxi while trying to wave it down or something. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if I heard that story break on Sportscenter in a few minutes. Would you?