1. Atlanta Falcons
I hate picking the Falcons. I really do. It’s probably the most boring pick possible in this division.
However, in a division as turbulent as the NFC South, I’ve opted to go with the most stable team.
Atlanta returns almost every contributor from last season’s 10-6 team.
Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are the skill guys on an offense that hasn’t been as good on the field as it has on paper.
The hope is that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s play-calling will emphasize down-field passing more than conservative predecessor Mike Mularkey.
This would better take advantage of the team’s many weapons, especially Jones, who looks like he is on the verge of a huge breakout season. The one thing that could set things back is the team’s offensive line, which will need improvement from some unproven (Peter Konz) or formerly ineffective (Sam Baker) players in order to give Ryan the time to throw down field.
Defensively the Falcons are counting on second-year linebacker Akeem Dent to replace the production of the departed Curtis Lofton.
The secondary is stocked with big-name players such as Brent Grimes, Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson. The line could use Kroy Biermann and/or Ray Edwards to step up and provide some pressure opposite the aging but still effective John Abraham.
It’s not a great defense, but it should be good enough considering the weapons Ryan has at his disposal. This team will need “Matty Ice” to jump from being merely pretty good to one of the game’s elite if it is to change its reputation as a perennial one-and-done playoff team.
Whether he is able to do so or not, this team has the talent to win the dogfight for the NFC South
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Wild Card)
Tampa has been written off due to last season’s dismal 4-12 record. Much has changed since the 10-game losing streak that ended the season and cost head coach Raheem Morris his job. The “players coach” Raheem Morris has been replaced with former Rutgers disciplinarian Greg Schiano, a man who is demanding the attention to detail necessary for this young and talented roster to realize its potential.
The cupboard is not bare for Schiano; he inherits a roster full of young and talented play-makers. Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, LeGarrette Blount, Aqib Talib and Gerald McCoy were all key members of 2010’s surprising 10-6 season.
Likewise the team bolstered itself through free agency and the Draft, signing deep threat Vincent Jackson and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks while adding two instant starters in Mark Barron and Doug Martin on draft day.
Under Schiano, all this young talent will not be able to become complacent, as they had by the end of Morris’ tenure. This, combined with a relatively easy schedule, should allow Tampa to be one of the surprise teams of 2012. They are still a year away from being a legitimate contender, but they could easily sneak into one of the two wild card berths in the NFC.
For a more in-depth look at my thoughts on Tampa, click here.
3. New Orleans Saints
New Orleans has always been talented, but has been inconsistent during the Brees/Payton era. After returning to the playoffs under Brees in 2006, they responded with two mediocre seasons before coming alive and winning a championship in 2009.
After winning Super Bowl XLIV, they underachieved their way to a wild card exit against the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010. New Orleans had another monster season in 2011, finishing 13-3 before losing a nail-biter in the playoffs to San Francisco.
However, they have had one of the most turbulent offseasons any team has faced in recent memory. “Bountygate” psychologically could galvanize or break this team. On the field, its effects will mostly be felt through the loss of head coach Sean Payton.
Interim head coach Joe Vitt will also be suspended for the team’s first six games. Even with Drew Brees under center, its hard to imagine that such turmoil won’t hurt the team in some way. The offense should still be potent, as it returns key players such as Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston.
The defense remains questionable. New coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had lots of success with the Giants, but his scheme centered on getting a pass rush from his front four.
The Saints defensive line only had 16.5 sacks last year and will be without their best pass rusher (Will Smith) for a month due to bounty-related suspension.
Without a steady pass rush, a mediocre secondary that lost starting corner Tracy Porter to free agency will be exposed. A team with Drew Brees is built for shootouts, but they won’t be able to win them all.
4. Carolina Panthers
Carolina has become a bit of a trendy “surprise team” pick this year. They saw a four-game improvement in the win column in 2011, largely due to quarterback Cam Newton’s impressive rookie campaign.
However, they did little to address the gaping holes in the roster. As good as Newton is, he won’t fix a defensive line that was dreadful last season. End Charles Johnson is the only proven pass rusher here and the interior was regularly gashed against the run. The defense should improve a little with the return of Jon Beason from injury and the addition of top ten pick Luke Kuechly.
However, no defense can succeed if it cannot win the battles at the line of scrimmage. As long as the team’s defensive line issues remain unaddressed the defense will struggle. Things look better on offense.
They boast an impressive running game with three productive backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Newton is the game’s premier dual-threat at quarterback and receiver Steve Smith had a resurgent season with Newton under center.
They do lack depth at receiver though, with few proven pass catchers behind Smith and tight end Greg Olsen.
Like the Saints, the Panthers can expect to see a lot of shootouts. Unlike them, the Panthers are still a year away from having the roster depth to beat some of the better teams in the league.
Things are heading in the right direction, but Carolina has too many holes in its roster to make the leap this season.
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