Is the NFC South the most underrated division of the NFL? A different team has won the division title for three consecutive years.
The NFC South was very impressive in the regular season but both Atlanta and Carolina were owned by the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs. In other words, these teams are very competitive. They regularly won at home last season, and two teams qualified but lost in the playoffs.
While this division is difficult for me to predict its title holder in 2009, it’s safe to rule out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers cleaned house after a disappointing collapse and end to last season. Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen were fired. Veterans Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Warrick Dunn, Cato June, and Ike Hilliard were all released.
The Bucs new regime of GM Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris watched a young team battle all year, but will not deliver enough wins to qualify for the postseason. Tampa Bay averages 20.6 points per game and allows 26.3 points against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Tampa Bay not only has a new coach in Raheem Morris, they no longer have Monte Kiffin calling the shots for the defense, and they are trying to get over their late-season collapse of 2008. Either Byron Leftwich or rookie Josh Freeman will start at quarterback, but there are weapons around them in Antonio Bryant, as well as pickups Kellen Winslow and Derrick Ward.
The biggest changes will come on defense, where Kiffin was the coordinator for 12 years, and there is no Derrick Brooks for the first time in 13 years. This Tampa Bay squad will just be looking to find themselves in 2009, hopefully building a foundation for 2010 and beyond.
This leaves us the Atlanta Falcons, their rivals, the New Orleans Saints, and my favorite NFL team the Carolina Panthers. Each team has a lot of offensive explosion and potential but each squad has some issues on defense.
Each team offers enough talent, competent coaching, and the intangibles it takes for a franchise to win this division and/or to make the playoffs. Each team also has its drawbacks and potential issues holding a franchise back from being an elite NFL team.
The Carolina Panthers have compiled a 115-119 record in their 14 years of existence. I expect Carolina to hang around the .500 mark again in 2009. Carolina has the best defense in the NFC South (well, Bucs fans may disagree), but at times provide inconsistent performances.
Will the Carolina Panthers win this division in consecutive seasons? Although all eleven starters on offense are returning and the defense should improve with the new defensive coordinator, I just don’t see that happening.
Of course, as a Carolina Panthers fan, I pray and hope that I am very wrong. But the facts are that the Panthers average 22.2 points per game and allow 22.6 points against a schedule featuring seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
The Panthers won the division in 2008 largely due to an easy schedule. In 2009, Carolina has a brutal schedule featuring 13 teams that finish .500 or better in our projections.
Carolina’s essential question is which QB Jake Delhomme will show up at a game? The fiery, competitive player, playing under control or the QB who threw five (or was it six) interceptions in the playoff debacle against the Arizona Cardinals?
How healthy will an aging Delhomme be? While the Panthers return all eleven starters on offense, they lost quality depth on the offensive line.
Again, I hope my Panthers prove me wrong in 2009. They have a solid base with the backfield duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, while Steve Smith may be the best NFL wide receiver.
Carolina just gave Jake Delhomme a five-year contract extension and therefore, he will be under intense pressure to live up to it, especially after throwing five picks against Arizona in the playoffs. Out of the top three teams in the division, the Panthers had the best defense and received a boost with the return of Julius Peppers, who powered the team to ninth in the NFL in sacks.
The Atlanta Falcons, established in 1966, has not had two consecutive winning seasons in its 43-year franchise history. I expect that to finally change this year.
Coming off a surprising Wild Card berth, the Atlanta Falcons will come back to reality a little bit. Matt Ryan and Michael Turner will continue to impress but the defense has significant question marks.
However, they signed TE Tony Gonzalez, perhaps the best TE ever in league history. Yes, Atlanta made the biggest move in the NFC South as they snagged Tony Gonzalez from Kansas City, which gives Matt Ryan the NFL's best tight end over the last decade, if not all-time.
Ryan will also have the second-leading rusher in the league in Michael Turner to hand off to. However, like the Saints, the Falcons had trouble stopping their opponents as they were 24th in the league on defense, and they lost Keith Brooking and Lawyer Milloy as well.
The Falcons average 23.0 points per game and allow 23.3 points against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams. Atlanta will continue going in the right direction and may even return as a wild card playoff entry, but their rookies and second-year players need seasoning.
Established in 1967, the New Orleans Saints are one of six teams never to have played in a Super Bowl. I expect that fact to continue.
Generally, the Saints are regarded to have the worst defense in the division. But New Orleans is trying to address this via the draft and a few free agents.
The Saints should have a healthy assortment of weapons for Drew Brees, who led the league's best offense in 2008. Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, and Jeremy Shockey all spent time on the trainer's table last year, so New Orleans could score even more points.
Darren Sharper was brought in to shore up a secondary that was 23rd against the pass, but the problems came up front as the Saints managed only 28 sacks. The Saints average 25.9 points per game allow 23.5 points against a schedule featuring seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
A couple of years removed from the NFC title game, the New Orleans Saints will win the highly competitive and perhaps, underrated, NFC South. Drew Brees continues his dominance over the league's secondaries, leading the top offense in the NFL.
Despite having a slightly improved defense as its glaring weakness, New Orleans will outscore most of its opponents to win the NFC South but will not experience success in the postseason once again.
In summary, I see Tampa Bay at 6-10 or 7-9, Atlanta and Carolina will battle for 8-8 or 9-7, and New Orleans will squeak by with a 10-6 or 11-5 record to claim the division crown.
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