A quick word about this division before we dive in. Like the AFC South, NFC East, and AFC North, this is a really competitive division. I think a team like the Buccaneers could sneak up on some people, but wins will be hard to come by in this division. Stay tuned at the end of the previews to get a look at my overall power rankings, because the win totals here are not necessarily representative of the ability of the team.
1. New Orleans Saints OTC Projected Record: 11-5
Calling Card: Offense
Weakness: Dependence on Turnovers on Defense
Franchise Player: Drew Brees
Oh when the Champs come marching in. They bring back most of their starters from last year and look to get back to their winning ways. There has been a lot of talk about the Saints potentially doing too much partying and resting on their laurels a bit, and while that is not an unfounded claim, I am not worried about that as much as I am about other things. The offense should be fine as Robert Meachem tries to join Marques Colston and Devery Henderson out wide and Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush hold down the running game. However, the defense has some issues to deal with, so this will not be a honeymoon of a season.
Drew Brees and Co. will be just fine. He will probably throw for 30ish scores again and 4,000 yards without many turnovers. Nothing to worry about on the offense, and management sees it the same way as they really did not add to the offense. They did resign Jahri Evans, but otherwise, the Champs stood pat, giving us fairly limited material to discuss. However, one preseason performer has got me salivating. Reggie Bush is running with a purpose for the first time in a long time, and that is a frightening prospect for defenses. He came out last year and said he was going to be a more downhill runner, but it really did not show up in games. he was really just a receiver lining up in the backfield last year, but with this new inspired running, I think Bush can finally break out. I mean people have been predicting this since his rookie year, but something is different with him, and it is something the Saints should be thrilled about.
Bold prediction? Reggie Bush is New Orleans leading rusher this year. Naturally, this depends on him getting enough carries, but I think he can do it.
This defense was about as aggressive as it could have been last year and it paid off. They got turnovers at the perfect times and cashed an inordinate number of them in for scores without even needing the offense to punch it in. Maybe the perfect example was the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings. The Vikings absolutely gashed the Saints possession after possession, but the Saints got 5 turnovers and made the Vikings pay for it. Now much of this was the Vikings fault, but the Saints were completely unable to stop the Vikings without the Vikings help. Repeating that type of routine again will be extremely difficult and I really doubt they can do it. They need to get more solid if they are going to get back to the Super Bowl because this overdependence on turnovers just will not work regularly in the playoffs. The defense has a lot to work on if it is to become a good defense instead of a lucky defense
I realize I did not talk too much about specific guys here, but the problem lid more with the dependence on turnovers than anyone in particular. They did seek secondary help in the draft, but I think just slight tweaks are needed in game plan more than tweaks in personnel.
Normally, I would question the kicker here, but he hit a game winner to win the NFC Championship game so I will assume he is plenty good. And he kicks in a dome. Morstead was injured in the pre-season so punter will be a concern as well, but the return game should be solid.
The defending champs have some serious work to do, and the only reason they win the division this year is because the other teams are not quite ready to take the crown. The offense is still outstanding, but that defense needs some work.
2. Atlanta Falcons OTC Projected Record: 10-6
Calling Card: Running Game
Franchise Player: Matt Ryan and Michael Turner (tie)
This is everyone’s sleeper in the NFC. They have a rejuvenated Michael Turner back, Matt Ryan hopefully past his sophomore slump, and some guys who stepped up last year that are looking to repeat their solid performances. Things look good on the offensive side, and I do think that the defense will get better, but I am very reluctant to give them the division given the overall state of their defense. The big question this year for the Falcons will be if the defense can step up and make the Falcons a contender.
With Michael Turner back to a reasonable playing weight, the Falcons should be able to depend on him more on the ground. In turn, that should keep Matt Ryan out of long yardage and limit his turnovers. Now there are still health concerns with Turner, but I am of the opinion that this weight loss will keep some stress off his knees and keep him healthy enough to help this team make a charge. I still like Roddy White outside, and while Tony Gonzalez seems greatly diminished, I still think he can be a red zone threat, especially off play-action. The offense will not be elite, but it will be just fine.
Here is the catch with the Falcons. Curtis Lofton stepped up big time last year to be a reliable linebacker, but much of the rest of the defense struggled mightily. Their first round draft pick (Sean Witherspoon) is very solid, but hardly a game-breaking defender. They are still trying to recover from their Jamaal Anderson pick of a few years ago as far as defending the run, and while Lawyer Milloy did give the defense some solid leadership, it did not always show up on the field. 21st in total yards per game, and 28th in passing yards per game will not cut it. The run defense looked decent, but it is unclear if that was due to good play, or it just being to easy to pass against the Falcons. I think the defense can improve, but not enough to win the division.
Not bad, but not game-breaking like they were one upon a time.
I see the reasons for optimism here, but I am not as high on them as many are. 10-6 should get them in the playoffs, but they will not contend unless they can fix that defense.
3. Carolina Panthers OTC Projected Record: 8-8
Calling Card: Running Game
Weakness: Depth and QB
Franchise Player: Steve Smith
When will the Jimmy Clausen Era start? If things go the way the Panthers hope, not until 2011. However, in all likelihood, Jimmy will supplant Matt Moore within the year, signalling a new era in Carolina. The offensive line has had problems with injury, but appear to be healthy going into this year, and if ever there was a good environment for a rookie QB, it is one with a good offensive line and a good running game (ask Mark Sanchez). I like the Panthers a lot this year, but I am not sure if they can overcome their QB uncertainties and some depth issues. Regardless, there is a lot to look forward to for the Panthers this year.
Jimmy Clausen is all the talk, but the running game is still king here. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are still a potent duo, and with Jordan Gross back from injury, things are really looking up for the Panthers. Steve Smith looks like he could be back for the opening game despite his arm injury, and as long as that offensive line can stay healthy, he should be able to thrive even without any serious threat on the other side of the field. It is not a complex offense, but it is productive just about every year. All Matt Moore has to do is manage the game and the offense should be fine as long as they avoid the injuries. Not exciting, but effective.
With Julius Peppers leaving, there are a lot of questions to be asked about the Panthers. However, I think they will be just fine. Jon Beason is still a beast, and the secondary is still plenty solid. As long as the Panthers can stop the run, they should be fine. I think they will be serviceable, though not great on that front and it will keep them from bigger things, but I do not think that losing Peppers will cripple the defense. They will not have someone as talented as him to step in, but they will still be solid across the front. Just like the offense, the defense is not exactly exciting, but they are plenty good.
Always a good unit. Not an explosive one, but always gives the offense good field position. Appalachian St. QB Armanti Edwards (remember him?) might be the return man.
A very solid performance by a team without an established QB. John Fox seems to do a good job about every year and this year should be no different. Not a playoff team, but a team that will be very good next year.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers OTC Projected Record: 3-13
Calling Card: Youth
Weakness: Offense and Defense
Franchise Player: Josh Freeman
If this team was any younger, they might qualify to play Pop Warner. That makes them a very interesting, but also potentially very bad team this year. I am really not sure what to expect out of Josh Freeman and Co. except to expect the unexpected. Gerald McCoy looks to energize the defensive line, but, much like Ndamukong Suh, there are simply things he can’t fix with the defense.
This offense will probably be pretty bad. I am not worried so much about losing Antonio Bryant as much as I am about the offensive line and how they are going to gain yards. Josh Freeman is already dinged up, They have very few options at WR, and no sure things at RB. Kellen Winslow is a warrior (or so he says), but a tight end cannot be the main option on a team that plans on having any kind of success. Things will be interesting in Tampa this year.
McCoy might be the real thing, but most of the rest of the defense does not look like it will be. Barrett Ruud had a good year last year but there are very few guys to step up around him and help. I could see this defense finishing in the bottom 3 in many categories. Ronde Barber is still the leader of the defense, but he is not really a shutdown corner anymore, and will need Aqib Talib to step up if they want to avoid being absolutely carved open through the air. Remember the good old days of Tampa Bay’s Defense? So does Ronde, and he is the only remaining piece.
Not very good. They usually kick well, but rarely give their offense good field position.
Some teams rebuild, but others reload. Tampa Bay is not reloading, but Raheem Morris hopes to make the rebuild a little less painful with the youth in the team.