NFC South-New Orleans Saints
If the NFC East is the best division in football, then the NFC South is next in line. Three teams finished with a winning record last season and even the bottom place finisher ended the year with an 8-8 mark. The Carolina Panthers won the division last year and finished as the second seed in the NFC. A high-powered running game and strong defense propelled the Panthers to a 12-4 record but a blown lead on Monday night against the New York Giants costed them a shot at first place.
But homefield throughout the postseason wouldn’t have mattered for Carolina anyway. Jake Delhomme’s six-turnovers against the Arizona Cardinals would’ve been enough to get the team beaten by a prep school. The good news and bad news is that Delhomme returns for another season at starter. But after his performance in the biggest game of the year for Carolina, it’s hard…no, make that impossible for anybody to pick Carolina with confidence.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started 2008 out hot but ended the year on a sour note. After losing four straight games, the Bucs made sweeping changes in the offseason, losing popular coaches Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin and 08’s starting QB Jeff Garcia. The Bucs are capable of contending but will need a total team effort to contend in a tough division.
The real race will come down between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. The Saints may have the division’s most explosive offense but the Falcons may have the most balanced. The blend of power and speed by Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood makes the Falcons dangerous to crowd the box against. Receiving options Roddy White and newly acquired Tony Gonzalez would start for any team in North America and with impressive trigger man Matt Ryan calling the shots, Atlanta’s offense is a nightmare to gameplan for.
Although the Saints’ offense isn’t as balanced as the Falcons, it’s probably 2-3 notches more dangerous. Signal caller Drew Brees is capable of shredding any secondary and makes a defense cover from the line of scrimmage to the back end zone. His receiving options are plentiful and even though the multitalented Reggie Bush gets criticized for his skills as a true running back, he’s probably the best pass catching back in the game and deadly once he gets in open space.
It’s going to come down to the defensive side of the ball for both clubs. For all the explosiveness on offense, both teams are the exact opposite on defense. I guess the opposite of explosive would be a dud. So let’s say the Falcons and Saints are duds on defense. New Orleans finished 23rd on defense and Atlanta finished right behind them at 24th last year.
Both clubs used the draft to inject talent into their listless units but the Saints came out of the summer with the biggest catches. In addition to landing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, New Orleans also nabbed the top cornerback prospect in the draft in Malcolm Jenkins along with free agent adds Darren Sharper, Randall Gay and Jabari Greer.
New Orleans defensive acquisitions won’t turn them into a top five unit, but it’ll be enough to earn them the divisional crown this year.
AFC South-Indianapolis Colts
The AFC South was ruled by the Tennessee Titans for the majority of the season until the Indianapolis Colts got it together. The Colts have been the class of the division for so long that everybody always thinks next year is the year they’ll fall off but Indy keeps chugging along. It was just a short while ago that the Jacksonville Jaguars appeared to have a stranglehold over the division but things have since gone south for last year’s bottom feeder. The Houston Texans are a team that can never seem to get over the hump although they get better and better each year.
The Titans will be hard pressed to match last year’s dominant season. I happen to be a firm believer in it being “your year” for teams. I think there have been teams over the past few seasons that exemplified that sentiment but a slip up along the way changed the course of history. The ’94 Steelers, ’07 Patriots, ’07 Cowboys, ’96 Broncos and ’98 Vikings, etc, all missed their chance for greatness. The Titans had everything lined up for them last year but a 10 point, turnover-laced performance bounced them from the playoffs in the opening round.
Tennessee might very well be good again this season but in a year when the Chargers and Colts suffered numerous injuries and Tom Brady blew his knee out, the Titans may have missed their bus to glory.
The Colts started off slow but ended the year on a 9-0 winning streak before losing in the first round to what’s become their annual thorn in the San Diego Chargers. Indianapolis will head into the season healthy and should be able to flex their muscle once again. Peyton Manning is a walking Hall of Famer and you just know the offense is going to produce. The defense may take a step back with the loss of Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy but plenty of talent remains on a fast and flying unit.
The ironic thing is several people considered last year a down year for Indianapolis, yet they still reeled off 9 straight wins and finished only a game away from tops in the division even after seeing Tennessee start off 10-0. The Titans won’t be so fortunate to grab a big lead this year, Manning and company will return to their rightful spot as Kings of the South in ’09.