Over the next few weeks I will preview each NFL division from an Over/Under season win total perspective. All totals and odds to win division courtesy of Bowmans.com as current as the date the article is published. For additional division previews, please find links at the bottom of this article for previews of the NFC West and NFC East divisions.
New Orleans: 9
2008 saw another year go by where the Saint’s potent aerial attack, led by Drew Brees, went unrewarded. New Orleans owned the most productive offense in the league as they racked up 463 points for, mostly coming through the air from a near record-breaking year by Brees.
Their Achilles Heel, though, was again their play on the defensive side of the ball. All their offensive production was not enough to keep the ball out of their own end zone, as only six teams in the league managed to allow more than the 393 points the Saints' defense allowed. A defense which ranked 17th vs. the rush, 23rd vs. the pass, and 22nd in sacks proved to be New Orleans' undoing as they went along the 2008 year mostly alternating wins and losses on their way to an 8-8 finish.
New Orleans’ opponents finished ’08 with a combined 127-129 record, but 2009 is set up to have them face the league’s eighth-toughest schedule. In fact, the only teams they face this year with a sub-.500 record from last year are the Lions, Bills, and Rams.
Of the Saints' eight wins in 2008, only two of them came against teams with a winning record. Those were games vs. the Bucs and Falcons. However, New Orleans struggled within their division overall, going 2-4. They also struggled on the road, where their 2-6 record was a stark contrast to their 6-2 home mark.
Changes were made this offseason in an attempt to improve things on the defensive side of the ball. Gregg Williams was brought in as Defensive Coordinator. He’s a veteran who’ll be looking to get more out of this group of defenders than he got from his group in Jacksonville last year, as the Jags allowed the fifth-most points in the AFC.
On the D-Line, Paul Spicer and Anthony Hargrove have been signed to replace the released Hollis Thomas and Brian Young, and to provide depth and extra insurance in the almost certain suspensions of Will Smith and Charles Grant from the StarCaps incident.
The linebacking corps will also welcome the newly unretired Dan Morgan to the mix.
The secondary has the potential to see a slew of new starters, as the team cut S Kevin Kaesviharn and CB Mike McKenzie and lost SS Josh Bullocks in free agency. In are safeties Pierson Prioleau and Darren Sharper, along with CBs Jabari Greer and 14th overall draft selection Malcolm Jenkins, who was seen by many as the top CB prospect in this year’s draft.
Outside of signing ex-Patriot FB Heath Evans to replace Mike Karney and parting ways with Deuce McAllister and David Patten, the Saints' offense remains mostly intact. So far GM Mickey Loomis hasn’t made any additions to their 28th-ranked rushing attack.
However, word is he’s scouring the market to find a veteran bruising back. Obviously having Reggie Bush sidelined a good portion of the year contributed to the running game's troubles, but there is little doubt the team lacks a proven back that can run inside the tackles.
Success in 2009 will most likely again come down to how far Drew Brees’s arm can carry the team, as he is the unquestioned key cog in New Orleans. There’s no reason to think Brees won’t have another stellar season, especially with the return of Jeremy Shockey from injury.
However, will the improvements on defense be enough, and how will the likely suspensions of Smith and Grant hurt them? It’s hard to imagine Brees being able to put up as gaudy of numbers as he did in 2008, and with a seriously competitive schedule facing the Saints this year I predict improvement, but not much.
Prediction: I agree with the total of 9. A 9-7 season seems reasonable, so I would either wait to see if the number comes down and take the over, or consider the under.
Like the Saints, Atlanta also thrived off their offense last year. After going through a huge transition from the Michael Vick era, an offense led by rookie Matt Ryan and newly acquired RB Michael Turner ranked second in rushing and a respectable 14th in passing yards, behind an offensive line that was sixth in sacks allowed.
Finishing 2008 with an 11-5 record and making an unexpected trip to the playoffs was more success than even the most optimistic of Falcons fans could’ve expected. Atlanta was hot most of the year, playing against teams with a combined .458 win percent, but really finished the season strong, going 5-1 in their last six games before bowing out to the Cardinals in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
In 2009 the bar has been raised and anything short of a season similar to that of ’08 will most likely be deemed a failure. As potent as the offense was a year ago, Atlanta has added another weapon for Matt Ryan to utilize by prying away TE Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs for only a second round pick this offseason. The offense should continue to have time to get set behind the same set of O-Line starters as last year, if they can find a competent replacement at LT, where Todd Wiener retired.
Where the Falcons fell short last year was on defense, as they ranked near the bottom third of the league in both defending the rush and pass, and also failed to put much pressure on opposing QBs.
Several rookies were drafted on the defensive side of the ball, including first round pick DT Peria Jerry, who could help with the pass rush. However, outside of UFA MLB Mike Peterson, GM Thomas Dimitroff has so far not done much to improve this unit during the offseason.
In fact, the unit will actually have several holes to fill for 2009, as they were purged of several key players in free agency with the losses and decisions to not re-sign Lawyer Milloy, Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, Domonique Foxworth, Kindal Moorehead and Grady Jackson, to name a few. It’s highly unlikely the team has enough quality pieces left to replace all those players.
The Falcons have the talent on offense to stay competitive with most teams and have the potential to possibly be an eight- to nine-win team in 2009. However, they will face one of the most daunting schedules this season as they line up to play the league’s fourth toughest.
On top of that, there is a stretch of games from Weeks Five to Eleven which could be of major concern. Atlanta will have their bye week early, in Week Four, and following that they will make their lone trip out west to play at San Francisco. In Week Six they’ll return home to play Chicago, who will be coming off their bye week, followed by a game in Dallas, where the Cowboys will also be coming off a bye.
In Week Eight Atlanta plays a Monday nighter at division rival New Orleans, only to return home in Week Ten to again play a rested Redskins team coming off their bye week. The fun doesn’t stop there, as Weeks Eleven and Twelve see the Falcons play the NFC’s top two teams from last year on the road, where Atlanta was only 4-4, compared to their impressive 7-1 mark at home.
So if you’re counting, that seven weeks will see Atlanta make one trip out west, play four teams off a bye week, play one Monday night contest in a division rival’s stadium, play five-of-seven games on the road, play only one team with a sub-.500 record from ’08, and face star QBs including Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, and Drew Brees. Their games before and after this stretch aren’t much easier, but these games in particular stand out as being truly troublesome.
For a team that has now fully washed its hands of Michael Vick and can put that past behind them, I wish them nothing but success in building upon what they started in 2008. When you think they had eleven wins last year and see the over/under set at 8.5, my first inclination would be to bet the over. However with what should be a very suspect defense and a potentially overwhelming schedule I think the Falcons will struggle.
Prediction: Under 8.5 wins
The Panthers' superb season from a year ago has rewarded them in unkind fashion. While their ’08 opponents played slightly under the .500 mark at a .488 winning percentage, 2009 will see Carolina tackle (at least based on last year’s results) the second-toughest schedule in the NFL. Their 2009 opponents posted a .592 winning percentage and 151-104-1 record last season.
The Panthers played their way to the top of the NFC Standings behind their strong rushing attack, third-ranked, and an undefeated mark on their home field, going 8-0.
Unfortunately this hard work didn’t equate to much playoff success, as despite having a first round bye and home field advantage, they were thoroughly outplayed and embarrassed in losing to Arizona behind an epically bad performance from QB Jake Delhomme and his six turnovers.
It would appear 21 of the last year’s 22 starters will be returning to this year’s roster. This is both a positive and possibly a negative. While returning the better part of a 12-4 roster can never be seen as a bad thing, the Panthers certainly have places they need to improve.
While their run game was one of the league’s best behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the passing game only ranked 19th in the league. WRs Mark Jones and D.J. Hackett were lost either through free agency or by being released, and while they may not have been huge contributors, no one has been brought in to replace them or battle for playing time.
The offensive line has also lost some depth with Geoff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale leaving via free agency and the team parting ways with Jeremy Bridges.
On the defensive side, new coordinator Ron Meeks will inherit a unit which ranked 20th vs. the run and 16th vs. the pass. The secondary was strong in ’08, however loses CB Ken Lucas as a cost-cutting casualty. Re-signing their own players was key for the Panthers this offseason. But it also handcuffed them from making any major improvement to the front seven. If Julius Peppers gets his wish to leave Carolina before or during the season, or if he holds out for any extended period of time, that would seriously impede any progress this unit could make.
While Carolina faces a tough schedule this year, it by no means looks unbearable. There are also no extended road trips, few short weeks or any major stretches of concerning games.
QB Jake Delhomme will surely be out to prove that his playoff blunder was just a brief blip on an otherwise solid career, and not a sign of a QB starting to show his age, as he turns 34 this year.
For a team which has failed to add many new pieces outside of the draft and has lost a few decent depth players this offseason, having their bye week early in Week Four could cause the team to wear down as the season progresses. A couple lengthy injuries on either side of the ball would be very costly to this team and I think they will take a step back in 2009. However they still have most of the same pieces from last year’s team in place for 2009.
Prediction: Over 8.5 wins
Tampa Bay: 6.5
The Buccaneers held their own in an ultra-competitive NFC South division which saw no team finish worse than 8-8 in 2008. Unfortunately, after rolling along to a 9-3 record entering Week 13, they proceeded to drop all of their final four games, including a home season finale to the Raiders, which left them out of the playoffs and with an identical 9-7 record from the 2007 season.
In 2009, instead of being a team on the cusp of taking the next step and making the playoffs, Tampa will be a team undertaking a complete culture change. Last year’s starting QB, Jeff Garcia, was not retained in free agency and will now be fighting for playing time behind JaMarcus Russell in Oakland. Someone from Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich or rookie Josh Freeman will have to emerge as a competent starter to take his place.
The coaching staff has gone through a complete overhaul, as the Bucs will have a new coach, offensive and defensive coordinators, and even a new GM. Raheem Morris moves up from secondary coach to become the new head coach, former Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski will run the offense, and Jim Bates will be running things on the defense and implementing a new style of defense, much different from the long-used Tampa-2 of Monte Kiffin.
While some potential stars were brought in with RB Derrick Ward and TE Kellen Winslow, the Bucs lost CB Phillip Buchanon and DT Jovan Haye to free agency and cut LB Derrick Brooks, RB Warrick Dunn, WR Ike Hilliard, LB Cato June and WR Joey Galloway.
Ward and Ernest Graham should provide a solid rushing attack, but once again the team should not expect the services of Cadillac Williams, who after coming back from a torn right PCL went down again near the end of last season with a torn left PCL. LG Arron Sears also may not be ready for the start of the season, as he is still battling some concussion symptoms.
Like everyone in their division this year, the Bucs are also lined up to face a tough schedule. (All four NFC South teams rank in the top eight in difficulty of schedule).
Tampa Bay will face the fifth-toughest road to the playoffs and actually will only play three teams who had a below .500 record last year: the Bills, Packers, and Seahawks. Two of these teams, Buffalo and Seattle, have made improvements either through free agency and/or players returning from injury.
This team has added some potential star power and still has enough pieces to be a competitive squad. However with a completely new coaching staff and philosophy, the departure of many key veterans, their tough schedule and division, at least a three-win drop-off from ’08 seems quite possible.
Prediction: Under 6.5 wins
Best bet to win division: Carolina Panthers at +240