2010 NFC South Predictions: Can the New Orleans Saints Repeat as Champs?
In its eight years of existence, the NFC South has never had a repeat winner. Carolina, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans have each won the division multiple times, but no team has won it in consecutive years.
In fact, the team that finished in last place one season has finished in first the next season five times. The Saints finished 8-8 and in last place in 2008 only to go 13-3 and easily win the division in 2009.
The NFC South's schedule looks easier this year than it did last year. While the change from the AFC East to the AFC North appears to be a wash, trading the NFC East for the NFC West appears to be a positive.
The Buccaneers finished 3-13 last year. Can they become the sixth team to make the leap from worst to first?
4) Carolina Panthers
Offensive Outlook: The strength of the Panthers' offense is in their running game. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart share the load, but both have rushed for over 1,100 yards in the same season. Carolina is going to need them to be just as effective because Matt Moore is in his first year as a starter, and there is no proven receiver on the roster outside of Steve Smith.
Defensive Outlook: The Panthers lost Julius Peppers to the Chicago Bears and Thomas Davis to injury. Jon Beason moved to Davis's spot at weakside linebacker and should thrive there. Chris Gamble returns as the team's top cornerback. Rookie Greg Hardy has thrived in the preseason in rushing the quarterback.
Analysis: Carolina is going to have to rely on its running game and defense, hallmarks of coach John Fox's teams, to get through the season. Speaking of Fox, this is likely his last season in Carolina since he is in his last year of his contract and ownership doesn't believe in paying coaches top dollar.
This team won't win any shootouts and can't afford to get too far behind in any game.
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Offensive Outlook: Josh Freeman is now in his second year as the starter. Despite his youth he is one of the more experienced players on the offense, especially in the passing game. Rookie receiver Mike Williams has been the star of the preseason, and fellow rookie Arrelious Benn will see significant playing time. Running back Cadillac Williams will be counted on for his veteran leadership and rushing ability to help Freeman carry the team.
Defensive Outlook: The Bucs are returning to their famous "Tampa 2" scheme. They will lean heavily on rookie defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price to penetrate the line and keep blockers off the linebackers. If the line can do their job, then Barrett Ruud and Geno Hayes are both going to have big seasons.
Analysis: Coach Raheem Morris appears to have this team heading in the right direction, but they need one more season of experience before they make a serious run at the playoffs. The talent level on the Bucs is rising, but the team still very young.
2) Atlanta Falcons
Offensive Outlook: QB Matt Ryan needs RB Michael Turner to return to his 2008 form when he played in all 16 games and produced 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns. Turner missed five games last year and struggled to get consistency until a visit to New Orleans produced 151 yards. Roddy White is also vital to Ryan's success. The team's leading receiver has produced three straight seasons of 80+ catches and over 1,100 yards.
Defensive Outlook: The Falcons were in the middle of the pack in most defensive categories but were near the bottom in both passes defensed and sacks and were dead last in getting off the field on third down. To remedy those problems, they brought in cornerback Daunta Robinson and used their first two draft picks to improve the front seven.
Analysis: Atlanta went just 3-5 on the road last year, but a relatively easy 2010 road schedule should help them improve that record. The Falcons have enough talent to challenge New Orleans for the division but need to at least split their season series with them to have a chance. Last year, the Saints swept them and at one time held a six-game lead over the Falcons.
Prediction: 11-5, wild card berth
1) New Orleans Saints
Offensive Outlook: New Orleans has led the league in total offense in three of the past four years, and there's no reason they won't make it four out of five. Drew Brees proved to be the most accurate quarterback in the league last year and has the most explosive set of weapons at his disposal. The Saints are so hard to defend because Brees gets rid of the ball so quickly, and everyone is a threat to touch the ball on any play.
Defensive Outlook: The defense gives up a lot of yards, but they make up for that by forcing a lot of turnovers. The Saints were second in forced turnovers and led the league in defensive touchdowns last year. Gregg Williams creates havoc with his exotic blitz packages.
Analysis: The Saints have heard all offseason how difficult it is to repeat as champions and how much of a fluke their season was last year. They will be out to prove all the naysayers wrong once again. Dealing with last year's success will probably be the most challenging part of this season for New Orleans. As the champions, they will get every team's absolute best shot each and every week.