Thursday 24 August 2017 / 11:21 AM

NFC South Preview

Arguably the most competitive division in the NFL, the NFC South had all four teams finish with seven or more victories last season. No other division could say that.

These four teams are equally talented, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of them win the division in 2013.

2012 NFC South Standings

  1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
  2. Carolina Panthers (7-9)
  3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 

Tampa Bay had the NFL’s worst passing defense (allowed 297.4 yards per game) last season so they went out and addressed the need by acquiring cornerback Darrelle Revis from the New York Jets. Revis, 28, is a 4-time Pro Bowl player, 3-time All-Pro performer and a former AFC Defensive Player of the Year.

His ability to play press-coverage (bump and run) better than anybody in the league will pay dividends inside Tampa Bay’s defense.

Tampa Bay’s defensive scheme forces their corners to play press coverage before dropping back, just like Revis likes to play. He will fit beautifully in the system.

One player won’t turn everything around for the 7-9 Buccaneers. They will need help from all cylinders including their 5th year quarterback Josh Freeman.

Freeman came into the league with loads of potential as the No. 17 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He has shown signs of brilliance in the way he moves around in the pocket while making plays, but the bad outweighs the good.

Freeman tends to force balls when he doesn’t need to. He consistently wants to make the big play rather than check it down to a running back if his receivers and tight ends are covered.

The result: 39 interceptions in the past two seasons. In three of his four seasons, Freeman has accounted for at least 17 interceptions.

His decision-making must improve if Tampa Bay plans on being a postseason team.

Prediction: 9-7

 

New Orleans Saints

 

Gregg Williams’ absence, not Sean Payton’s, had the most to do with New Orleans’ losing season in 2012.

Both Williams and Payton missed the entire 2012 season due to suspensions for bounties. Payton’s play calling ability and general offensive strategies were missed by the Saints in 2012, but they could have been in the hunt if not for their porous defense.

The passing attack from Drew Brees was just like you would expect (best in the league), but the defense is what eventually doomed New Orleans.

They finished 31st in passing yards allowed per game and 32nd in rushing yards allowed per game.

So what did New Orleans go out and do this offseason? They drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro with the No. 15 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

They went to free agency to pick up former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis, a player who improved drastically last season. Lewis, a former 3rd round pick, increased his tackle numbers from 37 to 71 last season; he also increased his passes deflected numbers from six to 23.

But most importantly, the Saints added defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. In each season in Dallas (2011 and 2012), Ryan’s defense got significantly better. In 2010, one year prior to Ryan coming to Dallas, the Cowboys finished 23rd overall in team defense. The next year, they moved up to 19th. Then this past season, Dallas finished 14th.

With Drew Brees on offense and a revamped defensive look, the Saints have a great opportunity to make it to the postseason once again.

Prediction: 10-6       

 

Carolina Panthers

 

Carolina is my sleeper pick to come out of the NFC South. The talent they have on the roster, on offense and defense, is a collection of former first round draft picks, former Pro Bowl players, and even a Heisman Trophy winner.

Quarterback Cam Newton is arguably the best pass/running threat in the NFL. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner (best collegiate player in college football) and 2011 Associated Press Rookie of the Year is one of those special talents you don’t see often.

He can beat you through the air or on the ground. Newton has recorded 7,920 yards passing and 1,447 yards rushing in his first two seasons.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly has proven to be one of the most promising young defensive players in the league. After leading college football in tackles in 2011 with an amazing 191 tackles at Boston College, Carolina drafted him with its No. 9 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

He turned out to be exactly what they hoped for. Kuechly recorded 164 total tackles as a rookie in 2012, but most importantly, he was the leader of the defense.

Why was he the leader of the defense in just his rookie season?

He understands offensive schemes, he is a great student of the game, and he anticipates arguably better than any other defensive player in football. He is another special talent for Carolina, and he’s only going to get better.

Newton and Kuechly lead the offense and defense in different fashions. Newton is a little flashier while Kuechly is a blue-collar kind of player. As these two leaders continue to gain NFL experience, the sky is the limit.

Carolina had seven-of-nine losses decided by one possession or less last season. For whatever reason, whether it was Cam Newton’s mistakes in the 4th quarter, dumb penalties, or the defense allowing game winning drives – the Panthers showed their youth.

With another year under their belts, we will see Carolina figure out ways to close football games this season; Newton and Kuechly will play a big role.

Prediction: 10-6

 

Atlanta Falcons

 

Last season, Atlanta finished with a 13-3 record. In 2011, they finished with a 10-6 record. In 2010, the Falcons finished 13-3.

As you can tell, Atlanta doesn’t have many problems making the playoffs with Matt Ryan under center. What they do have issues with is winning in the postseason, and Ryan has a lot to do with it.

Ryan has recorded 127 touchdowns compared to 60 interceptions in 78 regular season games. He has never recorded less than nine wins in a season. Those numbers certainly tell you that he is a franchise quarterback, but let’s take a look at his postseason touchdown to interception ratio because winning when it matters is everything in sports.

In only five games played (1-4 overall record as a postseason starter), Ryan has been very average, posting nine touchdowns to seven interceptions. He chokes in the biggest games and he very well could have been 0-5 if Seattle didn’t allow the Falcons to drive the length of the field with seconds remaining in the NFC Divisional Playoff round last season.

The Falcons are still the team to beat in the division, but will they have enough to make it to the Super Bowl?

Ryan has to get over his postseason jitters. One win in five attempts from a franchise quarterback is horrific. He must play better when it matters.

Atlanta added veteran running back Steven Jackson this offseason, and I feel that he may be the missing piece for the Falcons. He has rushed for over 10,000 yards in his career and he’s a 3-time Pro Bowl player – Ryan hasn’t had a guy like Jackson at the running back position in his tenure with the Falcons.

I’m sure Atlanta will have another quality regular season, but they must make some noise when it matters. They have created a reputation for being soft and exposable come postseason time, and nobody can deny it.

It’s time for the Falcons to put it together in the postseason.

We’ll find out if they have what it takes because this team does know how to win in the regular season.

Prediction: 12-4

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Justin Welton

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