2019 NFC South Previews & Predictions: Chasing Ghosts

With the season underway it’s time to take a look at the NFC North where the most loaded division in the conference exists. In the last 10 years, 3 of the teams representing the NFC in the Super Bowl have come from here. The Saints in XLIV, the Panthers steamrolled to Super Bowl L and the Falcons are still reeling from the comeback they gave up in LI. Last January many felt the most egregious non call in NFL history prevented a 4th with seconds to go in the NFC Championship Game.

The Saints have said they have gotten over the debacle of the NFC Championship….have they?? What about the Minneapolis Miracle on the last play of the ’17 NFC Divisional loss to the Vikings?? Not since the Cleveland Browns of the late 80’s have we seen an NFL team so snake bitten with bitter endings in playoff games.??

2019 NFC North Predictions

  1. New Orleans Saints 11-5*
  2. Atlanta Falcons 10-6**
  3. Carolina Panthers 8-8
  4. Tampa Bay Bucs 5-11

The most competitive divsion in football just solidified with Julio Jones inking a 3 year extension which will keep him in Atlanta. The beauty is he stayed in the fold working and he and Matt Ryan should be firing away from the start of the season. However Deion Jones needs to return to form and their defense has to improve from a ranking of 28th.

Will Vic Beasley ever return to his 2016 All Pro form when he had 15 1/2 sacks and terrorized the division?? Matt Ryan has to get the Falcons leads and over the last 2 years he hasn’t had the rushing attack of the Super Bowl season of 2016. He’s been mired in games where he has been forced to throw to bring the Falcons back in games.

Can Freeman carry the load in ’19?

Last year the rushing attack plunged to 27th after dipping to 13th in 2017. Ever since the loss of Kyle Shanahan’s playcalling (’16) and Tevin Coleman’s departure (’17) and Freeman’s injury, Atlanta has left that defense on the field and they’ve suffered too many breakdowns.

Matt Ryan has to become the QB that can overcome play deficiencies and deliver. He has to be able to take over games when the attack is sputtering. Might not be fair but as a Super Bowl franchise quarterback, he has to held to that standard. This is Matt Ryan’s 12th season he isn’t a kid anymore and has to take over in games that mean something for Atlanta.

In Carolina and Tampa each will be held back by their quarterbacks and could both be looking for new ones next April. Since this game has been founded nothing has derailed a quarterback’s career like shoulder injuries. Cam has been recovering since off season surgery and hasn’t looked right.

Will Carolina develop other weapons to take the heat off McCaffrey.

His delivery was always a problem but earlier in his career he could power the football with his shoulder strength. He hasn’t developed throwing on time where he doesn’t have to and loft over the underneath coverage. Newton throws a lot of interceptions to Linebackers undercutting his routes.

Newton has been hesitant to let the football go and the offense relies way too much on Christian McCaffrey. Without the threat of attacking defenses downfield McCaffrey is an easy key and will be worn down by season’s end. Carolina has an aging defense that will short circuit their best efforts as Newton learns to trust the system and throw on time. He also can’t run and accumulate punishment on it either. This is a recipe for disaster as most of the Panther’s offense revolves around Newton running and throwing.

As for Winston and the Bucs… they brought in the QB whisperer in Bruce Arians. The question is will Jameis Winston pick up on the nuances of reading defenses and delivering the football on time to all of his receivers?? Winston is locked in on TE Cameron Brate but he has to be able to complete all his throws… deep digs, posts, post corners and get the ball out on time. Much like Newton he tries to gun the ball in late and sees a lot of interceptions by defenders cutting under his routes.

jameisIt’s one of the reasons DeSean Jackson connected with Ryan Fitzpatrick last year and emerged as a deep threat for Philly in game 1. However 2 of the Bucs former head coaches are on the Falcons coaching staff where Raheem Morris and Dirk Koetter are employed.  Tampa is in another coaching rebuild and will struggle. Tampa will struggle as will their quarterback. Will Winston make improvements to the point Tampa picks up his 6 year option?? Or will he fall by the wayside where the Buccaneers officially enter the Jalen Hurts sweepstakes??

The Chancellor of Football thinks it will be the latter.

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2017 NFC South Previews & Predictions

Last year the Atlanta Falcons won this division and broke a 3 year strangle hold the Panthers held over this division. With their coming up short in the Super Bowl as the Panthers had the year before, will they plummet this season?? Will the Panthers rebound with rookie weapon Christian McCaffrey providing a spark??

When 2016 concluded no offense looked more predictable than Cam Newton and the Panthers. A season after scoring a team record 500 points as one of the top scoring units in NFL history, they could only average 18 points as they went 2-3 in their final 5 outings.

Not only is McCaffrey an all around threat, he can break big plays in the open field where Jonathon Stewart and Tolbert struggled mightily last season. Those of us out west watched him break huge plays in all phases of the game in Pac 12 competition. With Newton, TE Greg Olsen, and WR Kelvin Benjamin, Christian should be a serious wild card on 3rd downs and spread formations. Will it be enough for Carolina to win their 4th division crown in 5 seasons??

 

2017 NFC South Predictions

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-5*
  2. Carolina Panthers 10-6+
  3. Atlanta Falcons 7-9
  4. New Orleans Saints 5-11

In a division that sent 3 teams to the Super Bowl in the last 8 years which includes the last 2 consecutively, Tampa has taken their lumps and grown within the division. They are young and hungry & every time they take on a division rival they are playing teams who have made the NFL elite. So they know it’s in range. Last year they were 4-2 against their brothers in the NFC South and finished the season 6-2 over the 2nd half.

With the addition of DeSean Jackson and 1st round selection TE OJ Howard out of Alabama, Jameis Winston will have serious speed to stretch the field deep. Which should completely open up the intermediate areas where Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson thrive. It will back Safeties out of the box which would allow Doug Martin a superb chance at a bounce back year.

This is a big year for Martin who is in the 2nd year of a $36 million deal yet had an on again /off again season with only 429 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has been a Taylor Blitz Times favorite for many years and he has had 2- 1,400 yard seasons showcasing his talent. However Jacquizz Rodgers 560 yards and 2 scores flashed promise. Martin will get the chance as Rodgers is not an every down back. If he has another subpar season it will be his last in Tampa.

Quick question….how well did “Matty Ice” and the Falcons pick up the pieces after that meltdown in the NFC Championship in 2012?? Now they are supposed to do it after blowing a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl??

Weren’t the waning moments of the 4th quarter where Matt Ryan made his bones over the last 9 seasons?? He is about to enter his 10th season and well into the latter half of his career. 2016 saw Ryan achieve career highs in completion percentage (69.9%), 4,944 yds, 38 TDs, and interception low of 7 along with a passer rating of 117.1. He will have to adjust to the loss of Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan. They were in a comfortable groove all year and will be tough to replicate with Steve Sarkisian.

The Falcons did have the NFL’s leading sack artist in Vic Beasley with 15 1/2 sacks, however upon further review you can see where the defense needs improvement. The Falcons finished with a ranking of 17th against the run. Not bad until you remember this team had several double digit leads that forced their opponents to take to the air. So going into 2017, opponents will look to run the football and keep Ryan and Julio Jones off the field. Call it good self scouting but the Falcons have to improve on their 25th ranking allowing 4.5 yards per carry as they did last season.

This team will suffer a hangover all year and it will be imperative to see how they react in the 2nd half when opponents seize momentum. They will see the ghosts of Super Bowl LI all year and will need to recover in 2018 once they see a shrink.

The New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees will have a long year. They brought in Adrian Peterson to split time with Mark Ingram however this team will struggle with their identity and took a big loss with WR Brandin Cooks going to New England.

So the NFC South in 2018 will go to the young, hungry and lethal Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They will have the best young LB crew with Kwon Alexander, LaVonte David, and LSU rookie Kendell Beckwith. The Carolina Panthers will make the postseason as a wildcard.

2017 Atlanta Falcons Preview

Now as the dust settled you heard QB Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons saying all the right things. “We had a great year and we’ll be back to take another shot next year.” The sting of getting to this point and letting one they should have won get away was a painful elixir. The team was young and intact in most of the key spots so why wouldn’t they be back?? Huh…wait a minute… you thought we were talking Super Bowl LI?? Oh no…these were the sentiments right after Navorro Bowman knocked down their desperation pass at the goal line at the end of the 2012 NFC Championship. Why are we reaching that far back?? Keep reading…

When Alford returned Brady’s interception 82 yards for a 21-0 lead, it seemed the Falcons held an insurmountable lead.

Did you know when Alford broke out with his 82 yard interception return for a TD, it was the first in Super Bowl history returned for a score by a team that lost the game?

The turning point last February was Freeman’s whiff and Donta Hightower’s sack of Ryan.

Well a sense of de ja’ vu fell along with the confetti in Houston last February where there was a seismic shift from near Super Bowl champion to one of fallen prestige. This wasn’t an ordinary loss. It was historic and how this team can pick up the pieces and move forward offers the first questions to what they will do in 2017.

Quick question….how well did “Matty Ice” and the Falcons pick up the pieces after that meltdown in the NFC Championship in 2012?? Now they are supposed to do it after blowing a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl??

Weren’t the waning moments of the 4th quarter where Matt Ryan made his bones over the last 9 seasons?? He is about to enter his 10th season and well into the latter half of his career. 2016 saw Ryan achieve career highs in completion percentage (69.9%), 4,944 yds, 38 TDs, and interception low of 7 along with a passer rating of 117.1. He will have to adjust to the loss of Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan. They were in a comfortable groove all year and will be tough to replicate with Steve Sarkisian.

The Falcons have had several coaching changes as Defensive Coordinator Richard Smith and DLine coach Bryan Cox were let go. New DC Marquand Manuel will inherit the 26th defense in football and will assume play calling duties. Quinn had stripped Smith of play calling duties as the Falcons foundered early in the year. Former 49er great Bryant Young will take over DLine coaching in Cox’s absence. Although Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks, as a unit they only compiled 34 as a team.

Now you see why the defending NFC Champions traded up to select Takkaris McKinley in the 1st round. You can clearly see Dan Quinn wanting to recreate the Cliff Avril / Chris Clemons twin DE pass rush when his Seahawks became champions back in 2013. If he can develop quickly this team is built to play down hill with a lead. Pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.

Can Beasley repeat his 2016 season sack total with offenses geared to stop him in ’17??

However upon further review you can see where the defense needs improvement. The Falcons finished with a ranking of 17th against the run. Not bad until you remember this team had several double digit leads that forced their opponents to take to the air. So going into 2017, opponents will look to run the football and keep Ryan and Julio Jones off the field. Call it good self scouting but the Falcons have to improve on their 25th ranking allowing 4.5 yards per carry as they did last season.

No CB can handle Jones 1 on 1. Patrick Peterson found that out the hard way.

Offensively the Falcons are built to be a juggernaut and the catalyst is All World wideout Julio Jones. A younger quicker version of Terrell Owens & truly the best receiver in football. After averaging 120 rec. for 1,732 yards over the 2014 & 2015, his numbers fell to 83 catches 1,409 yards and 6 scores. The attention he garnered allowed Mohammad Sanu & Taylor Gabriel to combine for 95 rec. 1,232 yds and 10 scores.

The offense blossomed into one of the highest scoring in NFL history with 540 points. Yet when you look at Jones, he is the one the Falcons couldn’t target enough. Just like T.O. in his only Super Bowl appearance,had the Falcons gone to him more in the 2nd half against New England they would have won. His size, speed, hands, and ability to toe tap on his sideline receptions makes him impossible to guard one on one.

If the Falcons are to repeat as NFC Champions and make it to Minneapolis, the team psychologists will be the MVP. Make no mistake the demons from Super Bowl LI are being relived in the minds of all the Falcons. It will be imperative to see how this team reacts to 2nd half momentum swings that go against them. We have to see if the team’s fight or flight mechanism has  been damaged.

From an X’s and O’s standpoint, the Falcons should glide right back to the Super Bowl. The psyche of this team coming back from blowing a 28-3 lead will haunt them in 2017 and they won’t make the playoffs. Go back to all the great upsets and collapses in NFL history and you’ll see the majority of the teams follow with a disappointing season. If you have read my Missing Rings articles you’ll see The Chancellor has chronicled this over the generations.

Deion Jones seen here putting the wood to Cam Newton is a force.

A Falcon fan or sympathizer will say “yeah…but that happened to those teams”…. and those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Remember when Navorro Bowman knocked down Ryan’s 4th down attempt in the 2012 NFC Championship?? What happened?? Well…the 2013 Atlanta Falcons collapsed to 4-12 where they had been 13-3 with homefield throughout the playoffs the season before. No significant injuries and they coaxed TE Tony Gonzalez to not retire and signed RB Steve Jackson.

So here we are headed into the 2017 season… where is the psyche of this football team and what will happen this season??

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2016 NFC Championship Preview: Green Bay Packers v. Atlanta Falcons

Well if there are two tickets to paradise, one of them will get punched down in Atlanta today after the Packers take on the Falcons. We will know who will make it to Super Bowl LI from the NFC side of the ledger. Who will win??

This year's George Halas NFC Championship Trophy  just arrived today in Atlanta.

This year’s George Halas NFC Championship Trophy just arrived today in Atlanta.

When it comes to championship football you always start with who will control the line of scrimmage?? Who is coming in with the best defense?? However with the Packers ranked 22nd and the Falcons 26th..what defense??

The Falcons are 28th against the pass and the Packers are 31st… well let the scoring begin.

Julio JonesAaron Rodgers has been the toast of the town since his last second throw to beat the Cowboys last week. Upon further review it’s the Falcons that are coming in with the league’s #2 ranked offense and their 540 points is the 6th highest in NFL history. Did you know when the Falcons and Packers faced each other in 2014, Julio Jones caught 11 passes for 259 yards and 1 score?? Yes that is the most yards by a Falcon receiver in their history.

When the two teams played earlier this season, Jones was held to 3 rec for 29 yards in a 33-32 win. Mohamad Sanu caught 9 for 84 yards and the game winner. Which shows Matt Ryan can score even when Dom Capers takes Jones away schematically. However lost in the euphoria of last week’s win in Dallas is Dez Bryant went off for 9 receptions 132 yards and 2 scores. If Julio goes off today…it could be a long day for Green Bay.

Oct 20, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA;  Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) hands off the ball to wide receiver Ty Montgomery (88) in the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent via USA TODAY SportsThe Packers have won 8 in a row and they have scored over 30 in the last 6 straight. Rodgers has covered team deficiencies and led them to victory in more ways than any QB in football. Right here is where a Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski can help by sustaining a running game and keep the ball out of Ryan’s hands.

Green Bay is 6-2 this season when they can generate 100 yards in the running game. One of those losses was in Atlanta but they forced Matty Ice to win with a TD throw to Sanu with :31 left in the game. If they can sustain the run at the proper time and rob Atlanta of a couple possessions they can steal this game.

However the game will be decided by the OLine and running game that can impose their will on their opponent. In their matchup earlier this season Tevin Coleman (520 yds 8TDs) missed the game and Davonta Freeman (1,079 yds 11TDs) was held to 35 yards. They are both healthy and this team is 8-2 in games they rushed for over 100 yards.

The team that commits to the run will win this game…and that will be the Atlanta Falcons 38-30. One wildcard no one is talking about is the NFL’s sack leader Vic Beasley (15.5 sacks) and Dwight Freeney will be chasing Aaron Rodgers today. The Falcons need to establish the run and lean on it in the middle of the game where Matt Ryan falls into lulls which necessitate he scramble to win it in the end.

Establish the run and the Atlanta Falcons will be going to Houston to play for this trophy.

The Chancellor & Super Bowl LI Trophy at the Hall of Fame.

The Chancellor & Super Bowl LI Trophy at the Hall of Fame.

SUPER BOWL XXXIII RUNNER UP 1998 ATLANTA FALCONS

What a ride….What a nice ring too!!  Some teams are like machinery that keep chugging along and others are like comets…not to be seen again.  This 1998 Atlanta Falcon team was not a comet, however they did get in the way of one.

xxxiii11Were they one of the best that didn’t win a Super Bowl?  It’s debatable. The Falcons rode a workhorse in Jamaal Anderson and channeled a “win one for the Gipper” emotion after Dan Reeves open heart surgery, to make the most magical season happen in Falcon history.  To go from 7-9 in 1997 to 14-2 in 98 was quite an accomplishment.  In taking down the Minnesota Vikings 30-27 in overtime for the NFC Championship, they are seen as pulling off a monumental upset when if you look at the tale of the tape, maybe it wasn’t such a big upset after all.

Upon further review, the 1998 NFC Championship pitted the best records EVER to meet for a conference title. The Minnesota Vikings at 15-1 were hosting the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons in the Metrodome. The combined 29-3 records was equaled in 2004 by the Patriots and Steelers. The Vikings were the sexier team since they broke the scoring record (556 pts. breaking Redskins record of 541) which included Randy Moss’ electrifying rookie season with 1300 yards and 17 TDs. Couple this with NFL Comeback Player of the Year in MVP Randall Cunningham. Add future Hall of Famer Cris Carter, HOF John Randle and Robert Griffith (All Pro Safety) wow…the Vikings were a meteor.

xxxiii8Yet you have to understand where the spirit of the Atlanta Falcons came from.  To do that let me welcome you to “The Second Chance Saloon”.  All the principles of this football team were retreads that were unsuccessful at becoming a champion elsewhere yet combined with others in the same position, & melded into a tremendous fighting force.

First you had Chris Chandler, a career journeyman who played for 5 teams before landing in Atlanta.  Outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who had been a pro bowl player and perennial Super Bowl runner up with the Buffalo Bills, found new life in Atlanta once his tenure ended with the Bills.  Wide receivers Tony Martin (66 rec. 1,181 yds  6 tds) and Terrence Mathis (64 rec. 1,136 yds 11 tds) were castoffs of the Chargers and Jets respectively.  Martin was the deep threat that scored the deciding touchdown in the Charger’s 94 AFC Championship win over Pittsburgh. Mathis was a serviceable 3rd receiver for the Jets who finally became a starter in Atlanta.

Morten Anderson the Saints all time leading scorer.  Ray Buchanon, the cornerback who had spearheaded the ’95 Colts run to the AFC Championship, he brought a spirited attitude along with Colt teammate CB Ashley Ambrose. Eugene Robinson the veteran safety had played in the last two Super Bowl seasons with Green Bay was a steadying force at FS.

Rich Brooks the former St. Louis Rams coach who replaced Reeves as the interim coach during his time away recovering from heart surgery. Reeves? Well…

The casual football fan will remember Reeves as coach of the Denver Broncos for most of John Elway’s career. He had come from the Tom Landry coaching tree after his playing days with the Dallas Cowboys. After failing to win it all in 3 attempts with the Denver Broncos the team took a new direction in 1993. His former QB Coach then Offensive Co-ordinator was Mike Shanahan.

xxxiii15The Falcons rode a bruising running game by Jamal Anderson, who had over 1,700 rushing yards that year, to bludgeon defenses.  Chris Chandler played efficiently, new deep threat Tony Martin coupled with Clarence Mathis to form a complete offense.  They were more steady than spectacular.

As many sporting events and teams go…emotion and playing for a cause greater than themselves propelled them into the playoffs where they ran into Minnesota and one team HAD to lose.

The most important play of the game came during the late 2nd quarter when the high flying Vikings got too greedy. Up 20-7 the Vikings, at their own 20 with just seconds left in the first half, decided to come out passing. Chuck Smith had a sack and forced fumble that kept the Falcons within striking distance at the half, down 20-14. The Falcons would go on to win 30-27 in OT

Two great stories approached the 1998 NFC Championship Game with the winner to take on the defending champion Denver Broncos, in Super Bowl XXXIII.  One of the greatest NFC Championship games took place and an upset that may have kept a sexier matchup of high powered offenses from meeting in the Super Bowl but wasn’t as big an upset as others make it out to be.

 

2015 NFC South Predictions

When the Carolina Panthers lost wideout Kelvin Benjamin for the season, everything changed for Carolina Panther QB Cam Newton. Instead of coming into a second season with Benjamin and fellow 1,000 yard receiver in Greg Olsen, the offense regresses with Ted Ginn Jr becoming a starter. Ginn doesn’t fight for the football and hears footsteps on in routes. This further stunts Newton’s growth as he will have to run for his life again with a pedestrian receiving corps.

Falcons-590x9002015 NFC South

  1. Atlanta Falcons 10-6 *
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7
  3. Carolina Panthers 7-9
  4. New Orleans Saints 6-10

The heat is on for Jameis Winston especially after that first game performance losing 42-14. He was badly outplayed by Marcus Mariota and his head is definitely out of the clouds now. Yet he can turn and give the ball to the shifty Doug Martin and settle into a balanced offense.

Martin looks set to have a good 2015.

Martin looks set to have a good 2015.

Tampa has weapons in WR Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson also. Two big physical receivers that will collect all of the intermediate passes if Winston is inaccurate. The biggest lesson Tampa should have learned is to not give Winston too much of the playbook yet. Lean on the running game and expand the sophistication of the passing game as the game and season wear on. Doug Martin had a great preseason and needs to be reestablished.

New Falcon Head Coach Dan Quinn will get more out of the defense than former coach Mike Smith. Offensively this team has had the firepower to make a Super Bowl run yet came up short on the other side of the ball. Matt Ryan is in his prime and needs to mature fully as a quarterback. What is keeping him from being great are his 3rd quarter flame outs that necessitate 4th quarter heroics. Great quarterbacks keep the pressure on the opponent to keep scoring with them. The Falcons rarely get up 2 to 3 scores on opponents.  So now its up to Quinn’s defense to make up the difference.

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