The NFC South was arguably the most competitive division throughout the 2008 NFL regular season.
It could be just the same in 2009. However, it could also be one of the worst.
Why? Well, the answer is pretty simple.
Last year: 11-5 (lost in Wild Card round of playoffs)
Key additions: TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Mike Peterson, DT Peria Jerry, S William Moore
Key losses: LB Keith Brooking, LB Michael Boley, S Lawyer Milloy, DT Grady Jackson, CB Domonique Foxworth
Biggest strength: Offense. The combination of rookie QB Matt Ryan with running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood worked to perfection last season.
It’s hard to believe, but this season the offense should be even better. Look no further than Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez for the reason. Gonzalez will give Ryan a middle-of-the-field target he did not have in 2008.
If the offense stays injury-free and the line blocks even adequately, just watch out.
Possible weakness: Defense. The Falcons finished 24th in total defense last year, and it is an even bigger question mark heading into the 2009 season. Now the question is whether or not all the changes will help or hurt.
Mike Peterson should be a suitable replacement for LB Keith Brooking. However, even though Peterson will be comfortable playing for Mike Smith—his former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville—he is 33.
Secondary is even more of a concern than the new-look linebacker corps. William Moore, a previously sure-thing first-rounder-turned-second-rounder, must be ready to step in right away. The bottom line is that the defensive front, led by DE John Abraham, better put a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks because the secondary is weak.
Last year: 12-4 (lost in Divisional Round of playoffs)
Key additions: LB Everette Brown
Key losses: none
Biggest strength: A balanced offensive attack. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will once again team up in the form of an extremely dangerous duel threat in the backfield. Combine them with big-play receiver Steve Smith, and the Carolina offense could be tough to stop.
Possible weakness: Jake Delhomme’s tendency to make mistakes. The veteran quarterback was positively abysmal in last season’s playoff loss to the eventual NFC Champion Cardinals. He was so bad, in fact, there’s a good chance he has not even gotten over it.
Nonetheless, there is some good news for Carolina on the Delhomme front. He got a big contract extension in the offseason and—if nothing else—that should help his confidence immensely. Furthermore, all Delhomme has to do next season is be decent.
For a team as talented and well-balanced as the Panthers (on both offense and defense), a quarterback who simply does not make mistakes is one who will work just fine.
New Orleans Saints
Last year: 8-8 (missed playoffs)
Key additions: S Darren Sharper, CB Malcom Jenkins
Key losses: RB Deuce McAllister, CB Mike McKenzie
Biggest strength: As usual, an explosive offense. The Saints finished atop the NFL in total offense last year with plenty of room to spare, and they did it despite finishing 28th in rushing! That’s just how dominant Drew Brees was during a season in which he almost broke the single-season yardage record.
Running back Deuce McAllister is gone and it is clear now that Reggie Bush is not an every-down back (especially in this era of two-back sets). Still, the running game only needs to be serviceable in order to compliment Brees, and Pierre Thomas is good enough to make it so.
Possible weakness: Defense. What’s new? The Saints finished 23rd in total defense and 26th in scoring defense last season. Veteran Darren Sharper and rookie Malcolm Jenkins are nice additions to a perennially disappointing secondary, but that won’t be enough to suddenly turn the Saints into a defensive powerhouse.
New Orleans’ best defense remains Brees and Co. keeping opposing offensives off the field.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last year: 9-7 (missed playoffs)
Key additions: QB Byron Leftwich, QB Josh Freeman, TE Kellen Winslow, RB Derrick Ward, LB Angelo Crowell
Key losses: QB Jeff Garcia, LB Derrick Brooks, LB Cato June, WR Joey Galloway
Biggest strength: Offensive stability. The Bucs brought in a veteran quarterback in Byron Leftwich. While he clearly is not a star, he should be able to make good decisions and hand the ball off to running backs Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward.
Tampa Bay will be featuring the run throughout the season. When Leftwich has to air it out, he will be able to do so with the benefit of another newcomer in Kellen Winslow. The tight end will give the Bucs a safe target in the middle of the field as well as a red-zone threat.
The Bucs should be able to run a mistake-limited offense. In the worst-case scenario, the team falls out of contention early and is able to build for the future by giving rookie QB Josh Freeman some playing time.
Possible weakness: Inexperience. After surging to a 9-3 record last year and collapsing down the stretch, it was apparent that the Bucs were in need of a drastic overhaul.
Mission accomplished. Head coach Jon Gruden got the boot, as did close to every single veteran player on defense (except Ronde Barber).
Rarely are the playoffs a destination for a team that heads into a season with a new head coach and a new quarterback. Last year, however, two teams—the Falcons and Ravens—managed to do just that. Could the Bucs be the same in 2009?
Midway through last season, the NFC South looked like arguably the toughest division in football. That was until the Bucs forgot how to win football games, thus leaving Carolina and Atlanta as the only serious playoff contenders.
Not a whole lot has changed this offseason. So, instead of being one of the most difficult divisions in the business, it will merely be decent.
The Panthers did nothing to improve, the Falcons’ defense is a huge question mark, the Saints did not do enough to get better on the defensive side of the ball, and the Bucs are in complete overhaul mode.
If the resurgent Falcons somehow digress this season and fail to make the playoffs, it won’t be because of their division. It will be as a result of the new-look defense’s inability to gel and also a brutal non-division schedule.
Chances are good, however, that at the end of 16 regular-season games, the Falcons won’t be asking questions about what could have been. From the looks of the NFC South, the Falcons are in a division that is theirs to win or lose.