NFC South 2011 Predictions : Atlanta Falcons Build off of 2010 Successes
Each team in the NFC South has reached the Super Bowl once each, but the Saints 2009 victory and Buccaneers 2002 triumph are the only wins any has had yet. The newest team in the division, the Carolina Panthers, has the best winning percentage in the NFC South at .465.
While winning consistently has not been a part of any of these franchises, there has been a change with some the last few seasons. The Saints and Falcons both are considered to possess one of the best offenses in the league, while the rebuilding Buccaneers have some of the most exciting young players in the NFL.
The end of 2011 could see this division holding reign for the title of most interesting story in the league. There could be three teams with similar records where the division crown is decided after the Buccaneers head into Atlanta in the final week of the regular season.
1. Atlanta Falcons
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Atlanta was great in 2010, winning 13 games. They won their division for the fifth time in franchise history, reaching the playoffs for the 10th time since they joined the NFL in 1966.
Most of their players are back, especially on an offense that produced six Pro Bowlers. The only changes will be made at right guard and wide receiver.
The new wide receiver is 2011 first-round pick Julio Jones, a big, sturdy, athletic receiver known for the spectacular catch. He will bookend Roddy White, who has led the team in receptions the last four seasons.
Factor in future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales, and it is easy to see quarterback Matt Ryan has some pretty fantastic weapons to play with. Ryan also is blessed to have a set of Pro Bowl running backs lining up behind him.
The defense got an upgrade by signing free agent defensive end Ray Edwards to bookend Pro Bowler John Abraham. The rest of the unit returns intact after ranking fifth in points allowed in 2010. The offense ranked fifth in points scored, showing the tremendous balance that led to their 13 victories. Atlanta also ranked 16th in yards gained and allowed.
The Falcons schedule this year will be tough, facing six teams that made the playoffs last year. But they have more than enough talent to be successful, especially if the pass defense improves upon last years number. If they get to their bye week healthy and with a decent record, the second half of their schedule could propel them back into the postseason.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lee Roy Selmon 1954-2011
Watching the Bucs 2011 preseason, it was fun to see the exuberance of a young team led by a young head coach. This team is growing up quickly during a massive rebuilding session, but they are playing well as it goes on.
After a difficult 2009 that resulted in three victories, Tampa Bay won 10 last year. Four of their 2010 losses came by seven points or less. This came with a team that averaged just 26 years old.
Quarterback Josh Freeman was spectacular last year, tossing just six interceptions the whole season. Though the Bucs passing attack ranked ranked 17th in passing, Freeman played the 2010 season like a wily veteran instead of a second-year pro.
The running attack ranked eighth in yards gained, though they did lose their primary reserve to free agency. LeGarrette Blount came out of nowhere last year to run for 1,007 yards in 13 games and seven starts. Tampa Bay is hoping for a similar season in 2011.
Raheem Morris is one year younger than future Hall of Fame cornerback Ronde Barber. Besides manning the head coaching duties, Morris is also the Buccaneers defensive coordinator.
He hired former NFL great Keith Millard to coach his up and coming defensive line. Tampa Bay's exciting trio of defensive tackles got more help when Morris used his first two picks of the 2011 draft on a pair of defensive ends with big upsides. The Buccaneers third pick gave them their starting middle linebacker.
Barber is the leader of a defense that will have possibly seven starters under the age of 25. Morris is molding a defense that could one day be on the same level of some of the past great Buc defenses.
They will play 2011 honoring true greatness by paying tribute to "The Original Buccaneer." The late Lee Roy Selmon is the only Buc in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the first to have his number retired by the team.
This team is young, but very exciting. They made a lot of progress last year, taking many by surprise. As they continue to grow, Tampa Bay will show this season they have more than enough talent to win their division now.
3. New Orleans Saints
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The Saints found out in 2010 why history makes it so very hard to defend a championship title. Injuries swept through the roster, yet their dinged up quarterback stood tall and got them back into the playoffs.
New Orleans finished 11th in scoring in 2010 after leading the NFL the previous two seasons. Changes were then made along the offensive line, where they lost their starting center to free agency and cut their longest-tenured player in right tackle Jon Stinchcomb.
After the running backs corp was hit hard by injuries last year, the Saints got aggressive by signing free agent Darren Sproles, a diminutive pass catching specialist, and using their second 2011 first round pick on Mark Ingram.
With Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory returning, New Orleans has a group of running backs they expect to be an improvement over their 28th ranked rushing attack of 2010. Yet the offense will go through quarterback Drew Brees, their Super Bowl XLIV MVP.
While the Saints pass defense played well last year, their run defense was erratic at best. They signed three free agent defensive linemen, and drafted another in the first round. This unit has not looked good in preseason, and it could be hurt further by starting defensive end Will Smith incurring a two game suspension for ingesting a banned substance.
If the Saints do not improve on stopping opponents from running the ball, it may not matter how many points their explosive offense puts up. Their revamped offensive line will also be put to the test trying to protect Brees while running the ball more effectively.
Yet New Orleans is very capable of surpassing the 510 points they scored in 2009 as they won the first NFL title in franchise history. If they do not hold up on the trenches, their season may end prematurely like it did last year.
4. Carolina Panthers
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Carolina is in the throes of rebuilding, though they have kept some basic foundations the organization has followed since their 1995 inception. Ron Rivera is the fourth head coach in team history, and all Panthers head coaches were former defensive coordinators.
The Panthers are hoping history repeats itself under Rivera. After going 1-15 in 2001, they hired John Fox as a head coach and reached the Super Bowl in his second year with the team. Fox was let go after the team went 2-14 last season, ushering in Rivera.
Rivera showed the team he is on a mission recently by cutting 2009 second round pick Everette Brown, a player once thought to have great potential. The team will have two rookies starting at defensive tackle, as Carolina will carry just eight defensive linemen with six having one or less years of NFL experience.
Cam Newton is the first pick of the 2011 draft. He will start right away and try to learn the game on the fly because the team has no alternatives in reserve better.
Newton has shown accuracy issues in preseason, but he is a behemoth of a man for this position. His athleticism should cover up a few mistakes as he progresses.
The tight end is typically the best friend of a young quarterback. Carolina went out and signed two productive veterans for their rookie franchise quarterback. Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen are both solid players that Newton will be very comfortable leaning on at times.
Besides wide receiver Steve Smith, Carolina knew they had to upgrade this unit in the offseason. They added two receivers fresh off the high-powered San Diego Chargers offense, a team Rivera spent the previous three seasons with, and second-year pro Armanti Edwards is a former college quarterback who showed flashes of being ready to contribute during preseason this year.
The offensive line has worked together a few years, so the Panthers are hoping their three-headed halfback can be better than last seasons injury plagued output. DeAngelo Williams was recently given a huge contract, so he is being counted on heavily. Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson are his more than capable reserves, and both should get many carries themselves in 2011.
The back seven of the Panthers defense is their strength. Led by Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason, the back of the defense did a solid job versus the pass last year. Carolina was dead last in scoring offense in 2010, as well as 26th in points allowed.
The offense should be expected to have a few hiccups this year with a rookie at the helm, so it will be the burden of the defense to keep the Panthers close in contests. If the star players stay healthy this year, which they were not in 2010, this team should show signs of progression as the rebuilding process begins.
Baby steps are needed here, because of a head coaching change in the middle of a rebuilding job, but Carolina feels they have the right young man at quarterback to lead the way.