As I was predicting all the games this season, something stay consistent with 2008, the NFC South will be very close. Last year, nearly every team in the division had the lead at some point in the season. Can Reggie Bush be a showstopper for the Saints? Can the new regime in Tampa Bay keep up with their winning ways? Can Jake Delhomme rebound from a rought post-season and help lead the Panthers to a division crown? Can Matt Ryan survive a sophomore jinx? Check out the NFC South portion of our 2009 NFL Preview.
New Orleans Saints– (Projected Finish 11-5)
Drew Brees had a career year last season, but the Saints fell short of their goals as a team. Reggie Bush missed a good portion of the season due to injury, but they found a potential future star in Pierre Thomas in the process. Deuce McAllister is no longer with the team and they will need Thomas to produce. If he is unable, Mike Bell and P.J. Hill will have to take over. The Saints receiving corps are loaded with guys with great hands. Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, and Robert Meachem are all due to have nice seasons since Brees spreads the ball around. If their offensive line holds up, their offense will be fierce.
The Saints defense has been their weakest part of their game, mostly their secondary. Scott Fujita and Jonathan Vilma are a good duo at linebacker and Charles Grant and Will Smith should get to the quarterback with efficiency. They drafted Malcolm Jenkins in the first round this summer and they will need him to contribute immediately. If he stays at corner, which is still in question since he would be a nice safety, he will be tested often by NFL quarterbacks. If they can stop the run and be able to play in 3rd and long situations in a dime or nickel defense with added help in the secondary, the Saints will go a long way this season.
The NFC South play the NFC East and AFC East this season and they will have a tough schedule. Both of those divisions are good, but they lucked out since they get the New York Giants, New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys all at the Superdome. The other non-divisional games are at St. Louis and they get Detroit at home, you couldn’t ask for an easier two opponents. The Saints have a little edge with the schedule and in such a tight race, they should win this division.
Atlanta Falcons– (Projected Finish 10-6)
It’s rare that a team can improve as much as the Atlanta Falcons did in one season. They went from 4-12 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008, a lot of it had to do with the additions of Matt Ryan and Michael Turner. They both produced better than expected in their first seasons in Atlanta. Roddy White and Michael Jenkins improved with Ryan at quarterback as well. Management started to worry about the receivers, but last season changed their mind. I was looking for Harry Douglas to have a breakout year this season, but an injury will keep him out all year. The addition of Tony Gonzalez at tight end will make this offense better than last season, since they barely targeted the position last year.
John Abraham and Mike Peterson are the two veterans on this very young defense. Some of the young players like Jamaal Anderson will need to step up if they plan on staying in the playoff race. I think the Falcons take a small step back this season because of their defense
Atlanta have a tough schedule ahead of them. They had tough road games at New England, New York Giants, and Dallas. Their other non-divisional games are at San Francisco, and home against Chicago, which they should split these games. As I look farther into their schedule, 10-6 may be their best case scenario, but it’s definitely plausible.
Carolina Panthers– (Projected Finish 9-7)
The Panthers looked great last season, until Jake Delhomme decided to throw passes to the other team in their playoff game. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were a great duo and each saw their share of the end zone. Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammed contributed and they received better than expected contributions from the tight ends, Dante Rosario and Jeff King. They will need to rely on their tight ends again, since a third-option at wide receiver has yet to emerge, but Dwayne Jarrett may step up and be that option. If the Panthers can keep running the ball on defenses, they will win, but if they get behind and Delhomme has to pass the ball, it could be a long season.
Julius Peppers had a long off-season and finally settled with the idea of being a franchise-tag player this season. He will want to have a great season to garner a huge contract, so Peppers will be a beast this season. Jon Beason and Dan Connor are a great young linebacking corps and should only get better and better. Their secondary could use another impact player, but Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall will need to hold their own against the pass. If Peppers can stay healthy and if they are able to put points on the board, the Panthers will be alright, but Peppers has been known to miss a few games.
Carolina is in the same boat as Atlanta when it comes to their schedule. They also play at New England, New York Giants, and Dallas, and hav a tough non-divisional schedule with Minnesota and Arizona on their schedule. Carolina will had a tough road ahead if they plan on making the playoffs, so I them about a game out of the last Wild Card spot in the NFC.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers– (Projected Finish 5-11)
Jon Gruden is out as the head coach and Monte Kiffin followed his son to the University of Tennessee. Raheem Morris is the new head coach and he plans to implement a new defense and the “Tampa 2” will no longer be ran. That is the biggest difference that is taking place in Tampa, but their quarterback situation is also clear as mud. Byron Leftwich is the leader out of the clubhouse, but Luke McCown is second-in-line, and Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future. They added Derrick Ward this off-season and they should have a nice three-headed attack with Cadillac Williams and Ernest Graham seeing carries. Their wide receiver corps lacks depth and experience. Antonio Bryant is the #1, but he’s dealing with an injury. Maurice Stovall is stepping up his game and Sammie Stroughter is said to be a hard worker. Kellen Winslow will be needed a lot if the receivers don’t step up and produce. The offensive line will have their hands full with Leftwich’s slow release. He will be on his back a lot this season, they can’t get discouraged since many of the sacks won’t be the fault of the O-line, but should be blamed on his slow release.
Tampa Bay have cleaned house, Derrick Brooks and Cato June are no longer at the core of the defense. Ronde Barber is the only elite player left from their Super Bowl team. They will have to rely on their young players developing into Pro Bowlers. Gaines Adams and Aqib Talib are the players with the most pressure to produce. It may be a long season for the Tampa Bay defense and may take a year to get the personnel to fully implement the new defensive scheme.
The Bucs have a non-divisional schedule of Green Bay and Seattle, much better than Atlanta and Carolina’s schedule. Their regular games against the AFC East and NFC East are favorable as well, since they play a lot of the better teams at home. The easier schedule may be wasted on them, since Tampa Bay may have a hard time notching wins this season. The changeover on the roster and the new coaching staff may lead to some growing pains in 2009.