With the NFC South's top team mired in scandal, the Falcons are looking to make a run for the division title while the Panthers and Bucs just look to keep up.
It’s been over six months since anything even remotely resembling football has been on television (unless, of course, you live in Canada, where their bastardized rendition of the Great American Game starts in July, has three downs, 10 extra yards and literal acres of end zone). It’s August and we’re all tired of the 162-game baseball slog; it’s time to start talking football again, and this week we're talking NFC North.
AFC Previews: East, North, South, and West.
NFC Previews: East, North.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Over the last few years the Atlanta Falcons have quietly become one of the league’s best offenses; while the Bradys, the Brees and the Rodgerses have hogged all the limelight, QB Matt Ryan has been almost as good while flying well under the radar. For instance: in the last nine games of 2011, Ryan threw for an average of 277 yards and 20 TDs while only giving up four interceptions.
Those are what we would call elite numbers. The emergence of WR Julio Jones as a legitimate downfield threat (he caught four TDs from 48+ yards last season) has really added another dimension to a Falcons air attack that was already above average with route-runners Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. In the backfield, they’ve got a banger in the 247-pound Michael Turner, who at 30 is well on his way to the woodshed but still put up impressive numbers in 2011 (1340 yards, 4.5 YPA and 11 TDs). It’s optimistic to think he’ll repeat anywhere near that level in 2012, but he adds yet another component to an already potent offense and one more outstanding season isn’t out of the question.
2012 Expectations: All the pieces seem to be in place here for a coup in the South. As Ryan enters his fifth season under center he looks poised to take that next step, and though the primary offense weapons are, to put it politely, seasoned, they look more than capable of carrying the load of a quarterback coming into his prime. The Falcons, unlike their offensively minded counterparts, have the added benefit of a half-decent defense (ranked 17th in total YPG in 2011), and with Jones likely to be worked into more slant routes this could be one of the best teams in football. 13-3, first in the NFC South.
Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Gone are the days of waiting in the wings; the era of the rookie QB is upon us with Cam Newton leading the charge. He shattered the ceiling last year, becoming the first rookie ever to throw for 4,000 yards, and led the Panthers to an unlikely 6-10 record.
But that success is unlikely to be repeated. One of the things that made Newton so good in 2011 was his unpredictability on the ground (706 yards, 14 TDs); having never seen him play on a pro level, no one could have predicted the rushing game he used so effectively in college would translate to the NFL, but defenses will be well aware in 2012 and play him accordingly. That will put more pressure on him to throw, an area that, although he did excel at in 2011, is not his forte and not the Panthers’ strong suit. WR Steve Smith cooled off considerably in the last half of last year, putting up 442 fewer yards, and no one else even came close in terms of production. TE Greg Olsen looks serviceable as a tight end, speedy, but caught only 51 percent of the passes thrown his way, and Brandon LaFell (17.0 YPC on 36 catches last year) lacks experience (though, in candor, is one of our sleeper candidates for a breakout year). The last part of the equation is RB Mike Tolbert, fresh from San Diego where he filled in nicely as a part-time runner, full-time blocker and goal-line wizard. If he can repeat that success in an expanded role, the Panthers could see at least a little more success in the passing game.
2012 Expectations: The Panthers do have an average to above-average ground attack, but as we said earlier, that could be called into question with Newton out of the picture. With their defense in no real position to take over the game and some pretty sizeable question marks on the other side of the ball, they look set up to take a few steps back. 4-12, fourth in the NFC South.
New Orleans Saints (13-3)
It’s open season on the Saints in the South; Roger Goodell is calling for their coaches, the media is calling for their heads and the Falcons are coming for their crown. This is a team mired in scandal, with off-season and off-field issues potentially interfering with their on-field product at a time when they’re no longer a lock for the division, and the NFC wild cards will be just that: wild.
Losing your coach, especially one as talented as Sean Payton, would be crushing for a lot of teams, but not the Saints. Not only did Joe Vitt fill the role last year when Payton was laid up with a broken leg, but they’ve got one of the best field chiefs in the game in Drew Brees; he calls his shots and offenses oblige. He probably won’t come close to last year’s record numbers (342 YPG and 46 TDs); 300 yards and 35 TDs sounds a little more realistic, but all the offensive weapons are still in place in ’Nawlins for a top three–type offense. Credit that to a wide range of talented receivers capable of stepping into the role vacated by Robert Meachem and to the ever-improving hands of RB Darren Sproles, who along with TE Jimmy Graham opens up a lot of red zone opportunities for a Saints team that will be there early and often. On the ground they’ve also got Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas, who, while not all-stars in their own right, make for a formidable trio of backs when your throw in Sproles as well.
2012 Expectations: All that without even mentioning Marques Colston. Look, this Saints team is still super talented, with enough offensive depth to handle a few personnel losses be it from free agency or injury. But on the other side of the ball, they ranked among the worst on defense and aren’t looking any better with the loss of linebacker Jonathan Vilma (season) and defensive end Will Smith (three games). That won’t make for too much falloff, but maybe just enough that they’ll have to fight for a wild card. 12-4, second in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
For a team with at least some semblance of talent at key positions, 4-12 seems a little off. Don’t get us wrong: the Bucs are by no means a playoff-caliber team, but with WR Mike Williams, RB LeGarrette Blount and QB Josh Freeman, it seems like they could have done a little more. So what went wrong?
Well for starters, OC Raheem Morris had a team without four wide receivers running a whole lot of four-receiver sets (only Detroit had a higher percentage of passing plays) and that led to a league-high 40 turnovers. Morris is gone now and in his place is Greg Schiano. Schiano will rein this offense in, opting for a more conservative run-oriented game with big yardage coming off play-action passing.
Enter WR Vincent Jackson and tailback Doug Martin. Jackson, a well-known face around the league, will certainly provide the Bucs with more potential downfield (a whole lot more potential) while Martin, a rookie, comes in with a pedigree not unlike Ray Rice’s; a little taller and heavier than Rice, he’s fast (4.49 40), can catch a ball (28 receptions for 4 TDs in two years at Boise), can break a tackle and ran for 2,569 and 28 TDs in college. Schiano will be using him extensively, experience be damned, with Blount serving as a backup.
2012 Expectations: This all makes a lot of sense, considering the wheels really fell off for the Bucs in 2011. They potentially added their two best players in Martin and Jackson, but the story still revolves around Josh Freeman and whether he can shape into an everyday quarterback; his 16-22 TD to INT ratio in his third season suggests otherwise, but with less pressure to pass, he might settle in nicely as a big-play-potential game manager and the Bucs just might surprise a few people with a winning record. Or at least not a losing one. 8-8, third in the AFC South.