2011 NFC South Previews & Predictions

First things first, we’d like to welcome you to the best division in all of pro football. Although the NFL’s marquee rivalries exist between it’s glamour teams, no division is as competitive from week to week like the NFC South. Do you realize that since the division’s inception in 2002, there has been NO repeat champion in it’s history??  It also has the distinction of being the only division in the NFL, where each team has played for the conference championship and a right to go to the Super Bowl in that same time. Not even the NFC East can match that because neither Dallas or Washington have sniffed the NFC Championship in the last decade. This division is defined by physical, spirited play punctuated by last year’s bloodbath between the upcoming Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons in week 13. The hardest hitting game of the NFL season came down to a game sealing interception by Falcon CB Brent Grimes with under a minute to go. As a going away present, Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman was given an unnecessary roughness, personal foul for hitting him several yards out of bounds. Man, you have to love football season!!

As we make our way toward the 2011 season, there are several questions about the teams in this division. Are the New Orleans Saints poised to reclaim the divison from the Falcons?? Are the Buccaneers and the aforementioned Josh Freeman for real after a 10-6 season?? Have the Buccaneers improved enough to unseat them both and become the 10th different division winner in so many years?? How will the Carolina Panthers progress under new coach Ron Rivera and develop Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton?? What will become of last year’s #1 draft pick, quarterback Jimmy Clausen??

To answer a few of these questions, you’ll have to read deeper into this article. As for our picks


Atlanta Falcons 12-4 *

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-5 +

New Orleans Saints 9-7

Carolina Panthers 3-13

We look to the Atlanta Falcons to end the revolving door of NFC South Division Champions. Head Coach Mike Smith has them playing mistake proof football behind a power rushing attack that is augmented by the play action passing of Matt Ryan. With the NFL’s leading receiver (Roddy White) in the fold, it will be interesting to see how potent the offense can become with 1st round draft pick Julio Jones from Alabama. The Falcons overspent for Jones’ services but it seems as though they figure to score with Green Bay if they see them again in the playoffs. They still need a player to emerge to rush the passer along with John Abraham. It was this glaring weakness that was exposed by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the 48-21 loss to the eventual world champions. Last year’s big splash was CB Dunta Robinson. He needs to play up to his potential and not be overshadowed by his Pro Bowl counterpart in Brent Grimes. That embarrassing playoff loss should keep this team motivated and working hard to improve.

It’s time for Matt Ryan to win his first playoff game.  He has amassed a regular season record of 33-13 and has led his team to 2 division championships. Going into his fourth season should be able to handle the entire playbook as well.  He still has workhorse running back Michael Turner and now has 3rd down back Jacquizz Rodgers from Oregon State to add to the explosive Jones. The Falcons are primed for a Super Bowl run and on the Georgia Dome turf this team will  be hard to catch. Right now they still have the lone weakness of rushing the passer that hasn’t been addressed.

The Buccaneers young signal caller, Josh Freeman.

Now buoyed by the fact that they learned how to win last season will propel the Buccaneers into the playoffs in 2011. Coach Raheem Morris has to get some early pressure from draft picks Adrian Clayborn, Da’Quan Bowers, and Mason Foster to help cover secondary deficiencies until CB Aquib Talib gets back from suspension. Where did they learn how to win? Well last year going into week 15 they hadn’t won a game against a team with a winning record. They had lost several close games to teams with winning records but when it counted in the last two weeks, they beat the playoff bound Seahawks 38-15. Then in the last game of the season they outhit and beat the defending champion Saints 23-13 in the Super Dome. In that game the Saints were trying to catch the Atlanta Falcons to steal the NFC South but called off the dogs when they realized the Bucs weren’t going away.

What has been lost in this offseason is how good this team was playing when the season’s final seconds ticked away. Did you know that Josh Freeman completed 61.4 % of his passes and finished the season with 25TDs thrown to only 6 interceptions?? Or how about Freeman was second only to Tom Brady with an interception percentage of only 1.3% with 474 passing attempts?? Right, we know you didn’t. The NFL pundits are too busy talking about Manning and Brees than to actually see what is happening on a week to week basis right in front of them. Consider that he is only going into his 3rd season. Yikes!! Now add to that battering rams RB LaGarrette Blount, then FB Earnest Graham, and you can see this team overpowering the weak tackling New Orleans Saints as they did last January.  They have to approve against the run and they addressed their defensive front 7 with 3 picks and several free agents. On the rise and will make the playoffs this year. Possibly the promised land next year.

Descending back to the pack are the New Orleans Saints. The light defense that couldn’t tackle Marshawn Lynch in last year’s playoffs is still in tact. Why they are returning to the pack?? Try the fact that in their Super Bowl season when they had Darren Sharper, they led the NFL with 26 interceptions. Those numbers fell to less than 10 for the 2010 season and the last time we saw the Saints secondary?? Matt Hasselbeck threw for over 400 yards, 4 touchdowns and had a perfect passer rating in the Seahawks WildCard 41-36 win. They added DE Cameron Jordan in the draft to help the pass rush but the team returns with 10 of 11 defensive starters who underwhelmed last year. So the last two times we saw this defense was when division rival Tampa took their lunch money and Matt Hasselbeck throwing a 7 on 7 skeleton drill. Listen, Drew Brees can pass for 6,000 yards and wouldn’t be able to right this ship.

As a passer he has been on a roll ever since arriving in New Orleans. Brees has won a Super Bowl, passed for over 5,000 yards in a season and has been regarded as one of the best in football.  All of this after the Chargers left him unsigned with a shoulder that needed surgery, it seemed his career was over. So here we are several seasons later in the midst of Brees’ renaissance, will he take the ball out of his hands and hand it off to a Mark Ingram as often as he should?? A question no one is really asking. If Ingram provides a more stout running game, it will rest the Saints defense, but will it knock the Saints passing game out of it’s rhythm?? Last year, the Saints were knocked out of a good passing rhythm by their own defense’s inability to get off the field. It’s one of the reasons Brees tossed 22 interceptions last year. Interesting questions that we think it will take New Orleans beyond this year to figure out. So no playoffs trip this year.

In Cam they trust. Coach Rivera has decided to go with Newton in their final pre season game and we know what that means: He’s going to start the season barring a subpar performance. Somehow this could be the vanguard of introducing the spread offense as a pro football attack. With power backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart still in the fold, we know the Panthers will be running the football. Against some 8 man fronts this season, Newton or Clausen should have 1 on 1 opportunities to showcase their arms. If Clausen gets in the game he needs to hit on those since he’s auditioning for his next NFL stop with each throw. Its a mistake if the Panthers start Newton right away. They should let him get into the season first before inserting him into the lineup, somewhere around week 5. Right now the Panthers have a great young group of defensive linemen and building a solid defense around MLB Jonathon Beason. They just need to trade QB Jimmy Clausen, WR Steve Smith for draft considerations and bring in some weapons on the outside. Right now, they’re in last place in the NFC South.

Next up, the NFC North!!

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