NFC South: A Preview of the Division and Who Will Make the Playoffs

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NFC South: A Preview of the Division and Who Will Make the Playoffs
JACKSONVILLE, FL - AUGUST 19: Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons attempts a pass during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on August 19, 2011 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

From time to time, there are divisions that are traditionally know for weak teams and charity wins.  The NFC South had fallen into this category for some time, but currently is home to a reputable force in the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans (not far removed form a Super Bowl victory).

Times may be changing where this division is concerned, becoming more than a two team race with improvements and establishment from their other clubs as well.

Here is a look at what I like to call the sleeper division and a run down of the teams in 2011.

Carolina Panthers

After drafting one of the best prospects in the NFL Draft in Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers rewarded running back DeAngelo Williams handsomely to keep his talents in the backfield with this young quarterback at the helm.

The Carolina running game will once again be the main focus and approach to their 2011 campaign. Williams offers an exciting runner, but has also drawn concerns about staying healthy.  If he can put together a complete season, it won't be surprising to see another 1,000 yard season from him.  Complimenting Williams, Jonathan Stewart and fumble prone Mark Goodson will share the workload and offer a change of pace to opposing defenses.  The big question here is if Cam Newton is ready to be an NFL starter.  At this point, Carolina doesn't have much choice so it seems trial by fire is in order for the young star.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - AUGUST 19: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers makes a pass during a Preseason NFL game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on August 19, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

At the wide receiver positions, the team looks to aging superstar Steve Smith to continue to carry the load and a much needed contribution has to come from Legadu Naanee.  Other than these two, the Panthers are thin at this position.

Defensively, the Panthers are average at best and will have a tough time in the linebacker positions and in the secondary.  The defense needs to find different ways to compensate for the lack of ability and that will take several players stepping up and taking the lead.  Overall, this team is still rebuilding and is far off from competing but still has enough to steal some games.  Carolina finishes 4-12.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Can the Buccaneers repeat the surprising accomplishments that they had in 2010?  With a team that is composed of younger players, it seems a tall order in the NFL, but it isn't impossible.

Parting ways with Cadillac Williams paved the way for LeGarrette Blount to officially take the reigns for the running game.  Blount is a solid back that reminds me of a smaller version of Jerome Bettis.  The only thing he lacks from Bettis is the ability to bully through a crowded offensive line like Bettis could.  Blount lacks the finesse of other backs and runs on pure instinct and his talents but it will be enough to provide an adequate running game.  Don't look for big numbers here as the Bucs will be more of a run based team and defenses know this.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02: Quarterback Josh Freeman #5 celebrates with LeGarrette Blount #27 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after defeating the New Orleans Saints 23-13 at the Louisiana Superdome on January 2, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Josh Freeman has proven he has the arm and the brain to make the right throws, but if he gets injured, there is no quarterback that could replace him with the same ability, and therefore, it leaves the Bucs in a very dangerous situation as that may be a death knell to the season if it were to happen.

The receiving corps is carried by Mike Williams and receiver by committee.  There is no clear winner for the number two receiving position and this will be a major hurdle for the Bucs to overcome as defenses will focus on Williams and make the Bucs beat them in other ways.  Hopefully, someone will emerge and contribute but that remains to be seen.

Defensively, the Buccaneers are also problematic as there is only minor play making capabilities in the defensive scheme. It contributes to a long season as the defensive team will be on the field much more than anticipated.  Tampa Bay has a minor setback and should end up at 8-8.

New Orleans Saints

Who Dat?  With the Saints, you never know which team is going to show up.  The Saints are always a dangerous team every time they take the field and this year is no different.

HOUSTON - AUGUST 20: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Sainst looks to the bench during a pre-season football game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on August 20, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Parting ways with Reggie Bush may have been a blessing in disguise as the backfield will now consist of highly touted rookie Mark Ingram and equally exciting Pierre Thomas.  The vast improvement here brings a running back that has explosive ability anywhere he runs.  Bush's downfall was his delicacy and the fact that he couldn't be effective between the tackles and defenses would prepare for the outside runs knowing this.  Look for a solid one-two punch with this backfield which will bring much production to the offense.

Quarterback Drew Brees looks to Marquis Colston and Lance Moore to stretch the field and provide him options.  Could this finally be the year that Robert Meachem realizes his full potential?  If so, the Saints will have a receiving corps that can compete with some of the best in the league. 

The linebackers and secondary are in pretty good shape and should have no trouble executing plays and creating turnovers.  The only concern I have here is if the defensive line will be able to play well against the run on a key down.  Other than that, this team is primed for another run at the Super Bowl and should battle Atlanta for the division.  New Orleans finishes 11-5.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 12: Mark Ingram #28 of the New Orleans Saints scores a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers during their pre season game at Louisiana Superdome on August 12, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Atlanta Falcons

Who would have thought that the investment of Matt Ryan would have brought such a payoff to this team when he was drafted?  It has been one of the best additions to this team in a long time and I don't see Matt Ryan changing much at all.  Ryan should have another solid year and steer this ship to another division title easily with the weapons he has at his disposal.

Michael Turner will continue his production behind an above average offensive line and Jason Snelling should serve as a change of pace for defenses.  Snelling could see more action than last year as well as more goal line assignments and should be a major contributor to the offense as expected.

Roddy White leads the receiving corps that has welcomed rookie Julio Jones to the mix.  I do have some concern with Jones' role in the offense this year, as I don't think he will be a breakout type of player in his first year.  Other receivers like Eric Weems need to step up and contribute in this department to allow Jones the ability to be effective.  Look for an increased role from veteran Tony Gonzalez to compensate for double teams on White and to create another option down field.

Defensively, the Falcons have a respectable makeup on the defensive line with defensive end John Abraham and Ray Edwards being the bookends.  Overall, I don't show great concern for the secondary as they have provided good coverage for the team.  Atlanta isn't going to win 13 games this year, but I think they should end up squeaking out New Orleans at 12-4.

Although there is still a clear two team advantage in this division, it really is the "X" factor division, because anytime a contending team plays against one of these teams, anything can happen. 

Atlanta and New Orleans battle each other for the top spot in this division with Tampa Bay and Carolina waiting in the wings in the near future.

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