The NFC South enjoyed stellar regular-season success in 2008; no NFC South team endured a losing record last season, and only the New Orleans Saints lost a division game at home.
The division’s 0-2 record in the playoffs last season left something to be desired; however, the NFC South proved its mettle against the league’s best teams and was only extinguished by the eventual NFC representative in the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals. Those same Cardinals suffered a controversial 27-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Those factors, in conjunction with a grueling out-of-division schedule in 2009, will only strengthen the parity in the NFC South.
The Panthers, last year’s NFC South Champions, needed a late-second field goal to clinch the division title, and should expect a similarly strenuous journey through division play once more.
Now, I will break down the Panthers’ threats to the division title in descending order, starting with my favorites to win the NFC South in 2009, the Atlanta Falcons:
“With the first pick of the second round in the 2009 NFL Draft…”
… the Atlanta Falcons essentially selected Tony Gonzalez.
The addition of a Hall of Fame tight end—even if he is aging—will vault the Falcons to the top of the heap in the NFC. The Dirty Birds showed great promise last season, despite the fact that the team had to rebuild in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding Michael Vick.
The Falcons split two games with the Panthers last season, yet exposed Carolina’s defense in the second matchup with the deft running of Michael “the Burner” Turner, who arguably was Atlanta’s MVP last season. Add steady quarterbacking play from second-year player Matt Ryan, in conjunction with a hungry defense, solid coaching and shrewd personnel moves, and you have a team poised to take over the division.
New Orleans Saints
The Panthers swept the Saints last season; however, New Orleans pushed the Panthers to the brink in the teams’ second matchup last season. The Saints erased a large deficit, thanks to team’s patented aerial assault, and only succumbed to the Cats because of their defensive woes.
Fittingly, this will continue to be a problem for the Saints in 2009, I believe. Drew Brees, one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, will continue to flourish with the Saints’ weapons and free-wheeling game plan.
However, a lack of attention to detail on defense, in combination with nagging injuries to standout skill players such as Reggie Bush and Marques Colston, will be the team’s undoing. I anticipate a third-place finish in the division for the Saints in 2009.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ front-office completed a heavy overhaul to end 2008 after the team crashed and burned near the end of the regular season. I won’t debate whether the overhaul was necessary, but I will say that the Bucs won’t be in the division picture for the next two seasons because of the changes.
Tampa Bay won’t enjoy the same rags-to-riches story as last year’s Falcons, for one very important reason—the Bucs don’t have an answer at quarterback.
I frown on a McCown at quarterback, Byron Leftwich won’t be able to stay healthy, and Josh Freeman isn’t the answer at QB.
The Bucs will finish in the division cellar in 2009.
Here’s my order of finish in the NFC South in 2009, going from first to worst: Atlanta (11-5), Carolina (10-6), New Orleans (8-8) and Tampa Bay (5-11).