NFL Power Rankings: Why the New Orleans Saints Run the NFC South

Joye Pruitt@joyethewarSenior Analyst IOctober 10, 2011

NFL Power Rankings: Why the New Orleans Saints Run the NFC South

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    Against the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints looked as if they were struggling against a franchise that has yet to even discover their prime.

    Although the Panthers are well-equipped with star rookie QB Cam Newton, a bevy of receiving options, an RB who has maintained his footing and a strangling defense, the Saints are far more advanced in every aspect. Drew Brees’ winning drive towards the end of the game stands strong as proof of his experience over Newton’s tantalizing arm strength.

    After dismantling Carolina’s defense, the New Orleans Saints have improved to 4-1. Their only loss came from the season’s opener against Green Bay. Even in that contest Drew Brees accumulated 400-plus yards. Looking around the rest of the division, it is hard to say that, early in the season, the Saints do not have things completely controlled.

Carolina Panthers Are Ambitious, but Not Ready Yet, 2011 Season Record: 1-4

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    As ambitious as the Panthers are presenting themselves to conference opponents, they are not within a mile of where they need to be to dominate the NFC South. Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams gave fans a burst of faith Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, but it takes a lot more than crowd cheers and electricity to beat out a team that is only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl win.

    Newton still has trouble with his shaky accuracy and must work on his decision-making, especially in the last moments of a game that can still be won. Newton has thrown at least one interception in four of five of his games this season—three against the defending Super Bowl champs, the Green Bay Packers.

    Even though his production in the end zone should not be overshadowed, there are times where his on-field leadership could be heightened even more than it already has. However, he deserves time to grow.

    As a rookie, Cam Newton has made strides it took Tom Brady years to overcome.

    Carolina’s defense this season took a huge hit after Jon Beason was injured and replaced by Dan Connor. Even though Connor may not have the large impact on the game that Beason did, in Sunday’s meeting against the Saints, he showed that he can play at a high level as well.

    Still, the Panthers secondary allowed pass plays to transpire early on without so much as getting in the passing lane, minimum anticipation or deflections. Latter defensive plays in the game get a supreme thumbs-up, but those types of stops need to be made throughout in order for the Panthers to beat a team on both sides of the ball.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Still Too Young to Dominate, 2011 Season Record: 3-2

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    Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a promising future if one has ever been seen. The power and field intelligence from young QB Josh Freeman is enough to make any fan convert.

    But, against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday afternoon, the Buccaneers were embarrassed to say the least. In a 48-3 blowout, Freeman threw two picks and only completed 17-of-33 passes, without a single TD. His pick-six was caught and returned by Carlos Rogers, and the frustration mounted in every avenue possible in the Bucs’ camp.

    Coach Morris allowed his frustration to boil over and received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, as did some of his men on the field. There were no words to explain exactly what was going on with Tampa Bay other than the obvious. The Buccaneers are slumping backwards into their growing pains.

    As a young squad, the franchise has yet to figure out how to keep their spirits in the game when their physical presence is apparently thwarted. When adolescents get angry, they kick, scream. They throw tantrums. Freeman may not have thrown a tantrum on the field, but the turmoil in his mind showed with every pick, every sack and every incomplete pass.

    Elite quarterbacks in this league understand how to play hard and smart even when past plays have not displayed such confidence and swagger.

    This young team is still learning.

Atlanta Falcons Have Forgotten Identity, 2011 Season Record: 2-3

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    The Atlanta Falcons, at least a season ago, were virtually unstoppable. That was until they met the Green Bay Packers and seemed to run into a brick wall on a majority of their drives.

    The Packers halted the Falcons, and the defeat was unlike anything Atlanta had faced all season. Sunday Night Football presented a rematch and a chance for redemption for the Falcons. It was a chance that the “first-half Falcons” seemed to take seriously.

    Then, somehow, the “Minnesota” syndrome overtook offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and he refused to use Mike Turner for much of the second half. Turner was only granted a single touch after Falcons’ first drive of third quarter and was used in the fourth quarter for a single drive.

    In the first half of the game, Turner was responsible for a touchdown and 41 yards of offense, negating any negative yardage. He was Atlanta’s workhorse. Somewhere at halftime, the Falcons forgot to replenish their identity and Matt Ryan became pass-happy.

    Atlanta’s defense also had a rough night as the contest came to a close. Sean Weatherspoon, after being so effective, began to miss tackles and fall on plays. The Falcons secondary gave up 369 yards of passing offense, and the front line was constantly outplayed by replacement tackle rookie Derek Sherrod.

    As Aaron Rodgers’ protection grew, so did Mike McCarthy’s confidence in their usual play-calling. Rodgers stopped paying much attention to the pass rush, got comfortable and got to work. Even with Jermichael Finley’s slippery fingers, the Green Bay Packers walked away with their record unscathed.

    The Falcons must stick with what makes them elite if they plan on taking over the NFC South.