Atlanta Falcons Need to Win NFC South For Playoff Spot

Jason ButtContributor IMay 16, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 03:   The Atlanta Falcons huddle around quarterback Matt Ryan #2 in the NFC Wild Card Game against the Arizona Cardinals on January 3, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Falcons 30-24.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Falcons fans: Before you get too excited about the great shot Atlanta has at winning the NFC South, take a cue from David Bowie.

It ain't easy.

The NFC South is stacked, featuring four teams that could contend for the conference championship. Each team in the conference possesses strengths that will guide them  throughout the season.

But the NFC South also has a tough non-division schedule this season, facing the NFC East (possibly the best division in the NFL this year) and the AFC East. For the Falcons, winning against divisional opponents will be more important than last year in order to make the playoffs.

Below is a breakdown of the NFC South and how Atlanta measures up to them this season.

Carolina Panthers (2008 record—12-4):

Defense will once again be the focal point for Carolina, and that's no shocker. But to play at the level they have in recent years, the Panthers will be hoping they resign defensive end Julius Peppers.

Peppers, who received Carolina's franchise tag, has stated he would like to play in a 3-4 scheme and possibly convert to outside linebacker.

After defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac (a 4-3 guy) took the same position at Green Bay, the Panthers hired former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. While Meeks favors a 4-3, his defenses produced big sack numbers for defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Peppers did not report to mini-camp as he said. But you can bet John Fox and Carolina will be holding their breath that Peppers decides to sign in the end.

On offense, the Panthers pose a balanced attack, starting with the two-headed monster that is their running game.

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart look to continue the success both had last season as a tandem. But even while Williams racked up 101 yards in the second meeting between Atlanta and Carolina, the passing game lit up the Falcons.

In Game 1, a 24-9 Carolina win, Muhsin Muhammad caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, with Steve Smith adding 96 additional yards and another touchdown.

Game 2 saw a different outcome with the Falcons winning 45-28, but Smith still came up big with 168 yards receiving.

Both teams are balanced, well equipped on offense and will be hard to stop. The key for Atlanta is to stop Carolina's running game and make Jake Delhomme throw the ball. If the Falcons front, led by John Abraham, can get pressure on Delhomme, he'll become erratic—but that's a hard task to do.

Realistically, the Falcons should hope they split with the Panthers. In Charlotte, the Panthers will be tough to stop. And with Atlanta's young defensive unit (especially in the secondary), slowing down Smith and Muhammad will be a tough task.

New Orleans Saints (2008 record—8-8):

For a team that led the league in passing yards, New Orleans sure was inconsistent overall.

The Saints never put a winning streak of more than two games (only once) throughout the year despite the exceptional play of quarterback Drew Brees.

However, New Orleans' defense was less than spectacular, giving up 339.5 yards per game.

The Saints addressed this problem—mainly its 221.7 passing yards a game problem—by drafting defensive back Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins could play soon in a secondary where Randall Gay may be the best player.

If the Saints defense can improve then the team will be dangerous, as the offense can outscore just about anyone with everything is clicking.

In New Orleans' first game against Atlanta in 2008, Brees threw for over 400 yards in a Saints loss—despite throwing three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown by cornerback Chevis Jackson) and having Abraham at his throat the entire game.

In Game 2, the Saints rallied to win 29-24 behind a big day from Reggie Bush. Bush still hasn't developed the ability to run between the tackles so if Atlanta can contain him in the flats then he's taken out of his element.

The Saints should be as good, if not better, on offense—assuming everyone stays healthy. Wide receiver Lance Moore became a viable option in the slot, especially when Marques Colston was hurt.

Devery Henderson can come up with a big play or two when needed. And of course Bush factors well into the passing game.

With that said, the Falcons should be the favorite in both games due to New Orleans' lack of a solid defense. Also, the Saints lack a power running game after releasing Deuce McAlister, which plays into Atlanta's hands.

Atlanta will need a sweep over New Orleans as well, considering Tampa Bay's offense might surprise a lot of people and Carolina's defense should provide problems with or without Peppers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2008 record—8-8):

Whether Jon Gruden should have been fired or not might be debated until after Tampa Bay's first game of the season.

And with that, comes the speculation of what Raheem Morris brings as the new head coach of the Buccaneers.

The Bucs are still trying to forget the dreadful finish to last year's campaign, when they started out 8-4 only to lose their last four games.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia is no longer in Tampa Bay, but the Bucs have a group of quarterbacks that look to vie for the starting spot.

A few days ago Luke McCown declared himself the starter, saying he wasn't "letting anybody take it from me." Whether that comes true or not remains to be seen, but McCown will have competition from Byron Leftwich, Brian Griese and rookie Josh Freeman.

The Bucs also acquired tight end Kellen Winslow this offseason which should help the wide receivers and the running game, much like the Falcons signing Tony Gonzalez.

Former Buccaneer Warren Sapp went as far as to say this is one of the best offenses he's seen in Tampa Bay in an NFL.com chat.

Sapp wrote: "I like their offense, but can you tell me that an offensive-driven team in Tampa wins a championship. They have a championship caliber offense, now they got to get their defense back on that level."

In addition to Winslow, the Bucs signed Derrick Ward to help out Earnest Graham and Cadillac Williams in the backfield.

Against Tampa Bay, it was much of the same for Atlanta against the NFC South in 2008: A split.

The Bucs won the first game in Tampa 24-9, but the Falcons won the second meeting 13-10 in Atlanta.

Tampa Bay mirrors Atlanta this offseason, with the Winslow and Ward signings as the offense looks to come on strong this year. The only difference is Tampa Bay's defense just might be better than Atlanta's.

Atlanta should hope for a split (and should), but don't be surprised if Tampa Bay takes two from the Falcons.

NFC South Outlook:

The NFC South is hard to decipher since each team has a viable chance to win. But here's how I think the division will shake out:

1. Atlanta 11-5

2. Carolina 9-7

3. Tampa Bay 8-8 

4. New Orleans 7-9

With the non-division schedule as tough as it is, it is impeccable Atlanta wins the NFC South to ensure a spot in the playoffs. If the Falcons fail to win the division, it may be tough to sneak into the Wild Card round this year.

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