The NFC South has been probably the most up and down division the last five years. You have had Tampa come out of the division to win the Super Bowl, Atlanta making it all the way to the NFC Championship game, with New Orleans doing the same, and Carolina making it to the Championship game, and also going the distance to the Super Bowl, only to lose in a close, thrilling 32-29 loss to the Patriots. It is the most unpredictable division to pick a winner out of because of its noticeable inconsistency, year after year, at the quarterback position (expectations not reached). Who would’ve thought the Saints would go 11-5 and take home the division crown before the start of the â€˜06 season? Who picked Tampa to win the Super Bowl in 2002?
Anybody select Carolina to represent the NFC in 2003? Also, who predicted that Atlanta would fall so low, not even to make the playoffs – the last two years – after high hopes, coming off of a great 2004 run (Jim Mora Jr.’s first year on the sidelines)? Who thought Mora would’ve gotten canned after a short stint as head coach? Did you see the Panthers falling under .500, after the 2005 playoff season (most so-called experts had them as the NFC representatives)? I’m sure you didn’t think Drew Brees would throw for over 4,000 yards in his first year with the Saints, under a first year head coach, while also coming off a serious shoulder injury? Lastly, did you think Carnell “Cadillac” Williams would fall flat on his face once again in ’06, while the Tampa offense played musical chairs with quarterbacks, with the defense putting up a below-average performance (usually a Top 5 Defense), all during the same season, I didn’t think you foresaw that one? As you can see, the team to win the division has almost come out of nowhere, in each of the past five seasons.
To refresh your memory here’s the scoop: 2002 – Tampa Bay (Veterans rise to the occasion under Gruden) 2003 – Carolina (Defense explodes, they play unbelievable) 2004 – Atlanta (1st Year Coach brings team two wins away from title) 2005 – Tampa Bay (QB Controversy is not a problem, as Rookie RB leads offensive team, while Galloway goes off for big year) 2006 – New Orleans (New Coach, New QB, usually bad defense, coming off an awful year, when Hurricane Katrina plagued â€˜em). Any repeat winners in this division? No, but in ’07 the odds are stacked against Atlanta (w/out Vick), Tampa Bay (No Superstar Players or Impact Offensive Weapons, for new QB Garcia), and Carolina (RB Situation is up in the Air and defense is shaky, after standout DE Julius Peppers, there are question marks). So, many questions arise in many areas and aspects of the game when you talk about those three teams; for all the “right” reasons and then some, I’m picking the Saints to capture the division crown and become a repeat winner of the NFC South. To avoid controversy and conflict, (comments back) I’m going to stick with Brees, Bush, Duece, Will Smith, and the whole crew to be atop of this roller coaster division, when it’s all said and done in 2007.
New Orleans Saints 11-5 – While these Saints have concerns on the defensive side of the ball once again, they still return the best 1-2 punch at DE: Will Smith and Charles Grant. The two All-Pro pass rushers help New Orleans overcome their other weaknesses on the defense, to help form an average unit that gets to the quarterback with the rush. Smith and Grant can change a game with one big hit on the QB, as they bring heat on pass downs, and brute strength against the run, forcing teams to go up the middle, not outside, where they set up shop. A great offense can overcome a mediocre/average defense most times, but in this case it’s not a question whether they can do it again, it’s a matter of how many times they have to get it done, over a course of a full, 16-game season (plus playoffs). The Saints proved in ’06 they could score more than 25 points a game, while giving up close 21 a game, as Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister put on a clinic, for opposing teams to watch. Bush ran by defenders with his electrifying moves and Duece finished â€˜em up, with the power game, in which he ran over linebackers and safeties on a consistent basis. The unique thing about this high-flying, attention-getting, top rushing attack; is that they can beat you in a variety of many different ways, either via the receiving end, the red zone/goal line situations, or with the shear talent that both these star backs possess and combine, to use against helpless defenses. New Orleans this season will not be a team under the radar; they will be marked with a bull’s eye targeted on their chest. The defense may not have the luxury to be on and off, so they will have to adjust and improve their pass defense, while continuing to sack the QB (only way to stop QB’s picking apart the secondary). On offense, no problems or worries here, with Brees running the show (leading the way to another MVP year), Coach Payton calling the plays, Bush breaking free for big gains, and Duece plowing his way for touchdowns, New Orleans has the #1 potent offense in the NFL. The only thing that may hold the Saints back may be there Special Teams, or the lack thereof. True football fans know the close battles between good teams in the postseason come down to the wire, and for Saints fans, they better hope that Olindo Mare can still come through in the clutch like he did with Miami, when it matters the most, and when the game is on the line. This area of the team could use improvement and I think they can do well and showcase Reggie Bush as a game-changer, being a main threat returning punts, showing you that the Saints have playmakers all over the field, at any time, ready to make big contributions – on their way to a trip back to the Playoffs. Saints may need the home-field advantage to make it to the Super Bowl (Chicago and Philadelphia on the road in January) because I do not see them overcoming the freezing, “cold” obstacles on the road, in the Championship Game (39-14 – Bears).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-6 – You can add this one, to one of my many, bold predictions for the upcoming NFL season. I feel that Tampa Bay will make it back to the postseason under feisty, Head Coach Jon Gruden for five reasons: The change of QB, resurgence of RB Carnell Williams (he will be let of the garage and regain his image/standard of play), a younger, quicker defense, that will up its performance a notch or two (Adams, June, Black, among others), veteran playmakers on defense will re-etch their mark one more time again, and the offensive line looks better, and will open holes and protect the QB Jeff Garcia. Garcia will bring some much-needed veteran leadership, and he will add consistency to a position where it’s been lacking since ’02. He will be effective going to Galloway, Clayton (ready for year like ’04 – he’s Healthy this time), Stovall, Smith, and Williams/Pittman for short dump-offs. I expect Tampa to become more aggressive on offense with Garcia, as last year was a very, conservative year, with young signal callers, that were not ready for the big stage. This year Gruden will open up the playbook and let Garcia handle the job, giving him the reins to change the complexion of this dull offense. Watch for the Bucs to go to the air a lot, and then go the ground to get Cadillac going, so he can wear down defenses late in the game. He has all the talent in the world to produce and become a Pro-Bowl caliber RB. To get the running game ready to succeed, Tampa will first start to pass, to get in a rhythm, as that will take away much of the eight-man fronts. Look for the offense to spend more time on the field; preserving the time they have the ball with good/better clock management. Last year the Bucs got down early, abandoned the run, and then went to the air deep – too late, when defenses were expected it. I see them improving the way they handle the offense and it will be more effective, featuring their weapons earlier in the game. The defense will return to a Top 10 mark, and they will not be on the field as long they were last season. Ronde Barber, Clemson DE Gaines Adams (4th Overall), Derrick Brooks, Brian Kelly, Will Allen, Jermaine Phillips, and Cato June will make sure the defense is ready to apply the pressure for coordinator Monte Kiffin. If you look at the schedule, early on it will be tough for Tampa, but if they get by with a good record, and move down the latter part of the season against weaker opponents, they can open some eyes and make their way into playoff contention. Garcia is a proven winner everywhere he has gone except in Cleveland, Williams will turn the corner and go 1,200 yards, and the defense, led by Barber and Brooks, will once again show teams why they are a dangerous threat to make offenses look bad in ’07.
Carolina Panthers 6-10 – I am not sold on the Panthers, and I will not jump on the bandwagon, thinking they can rebound from a letdown they suffered in ’06. I did like their draft with big name players, from big name schools (LB Beason – Miami, WR Jarrett – USC, and C Kalil – USC). They also drafted some good late-value picks in LB Tim Shaw (Penn State), DE Charles Johnson (Georgia), and WR Ryne Robinson (Miami, OH). Carolina will do well in developing younger players like RB DeAngelo Williams this season, but I do not see them making it to .500. QB Jake Delhomme is a good QB, just not good enough to help them recover this year. I think he’s a good medium-range, accurate thrower, but he does not have the arm strength to go long, nor the mobility to elude pass rushers, when they come in bunches, getting by a below-average offensive line. Besides OT Jordan Gross, every spot on the line is a question mark. On top of that, Carolina has yet to find a #2 WR to play opposite of Steve Smith (team keying on him), though they have some worthy candidates (unproven), and their run game is one of the worst in the league. Williams can change that this year with a strong season, in which he handles the majority of the load, carrying the ball at least 15, if not 20 + times a game. Carolina needs to limit Foster and start showing off what they have in DeAngelo (1st round – 27th – 2006). He can change a game, unlike injury-prone Foster, and he can receive, return, and run by most defenders in the open field. If Carolina lets him loose, they might make it to 8-8, but if they keep on going the “split” route (running by committee), they will be foolish and pay for it. Williams is the multi-threat, every down back they have been looking for, so now they have to elude to it and open their eyes, playing this former Memphis Tiger exclusively. On defense, Julius Peppers is good for 15 sacks, 60 tackles, and tons of big plays for Coach Fox. He is the best defensive lineman in the game and probably the top playmaker on defense in the NFL. He makes others around him better and he can drop back and play the pass. Julius is versatile and is only going to improve, as the sky’s the limit for #90. Carolina has a good pass defense with CB’s Chris Gamble, Richard Marshall, and Ken Lucas (injury-prone) but their safeties are a big hole that needs to get filled, after the retirement of Mike Minter. Their run defense is shoddy and could use Kris Jenkins’ help, whenever he wants to show up (took vacation after SB loss). At the LB spot, they have a promising, big hitting SLB in Thomas Davis, but after that, it’s a depleted bunch. Beason is only a rookie (can you expect much?), Morgan is a concussion waiting to happen, unfortunately, and Diggs has not made a sack since 2004. I just don’t see this team on defense or offense getting into the Top 10 in any category, and I see a down year for Steve Smith and Co, with Coach Fox getting fired.
Atlanta Falcons 6-10 – Mike Vick’s gone (unfortunately – a joy to watch) and Harrington’s (Lame Duck) in. Insert a QB who has done absolutely nothing in his career, and count on him for a year, what are you thinking Bobby Petrino? I just hope Atlanta goes after a veteran (Holcomb, Brunell, or someone:) so they can give the fans a chance to put out a winning product on the field. The QB situation is the bad news for this team, now let’s get to what’s good on the Falcons side. RB Jerious Norwood is going to be the Frank Gore of this season. Mark it down and tell when I’m right at the end of the year. Norwood has blazing, breakaway speed, and speed kills, but that’s not all, it’s just the start. He also has the power to bang with the big boys to bruise â€˜n’ cruise by, over, and through defenders. I cannot say enough about Norwood, is the “Real Deal.” He is the complete RB and will rush for over 1,500 if Atlanta gives him the ball enough (that’s the question), and puts Warrick Dunn on third-down duty. Norwood would win 2-3 games alone for Atlanta and he will make sure Dunn stays in his assigned position – the sidelines. He is one of the most talented backs in the league and can take it the house from 80 yards out. He will make Atlanta a respectable team, and he will see a lot of eight-man fronts, as this will open up the passing game, for what it is. This team has a good offensive line that will protect the passer and make room for Norwood and Dunn. With the time in the pocket, to whoever’s the QB, TE Alge Crumpler, WR Michael Jenkins, newly signed free-agent WR Joe Horn, and youngsters Roddy White and Laurent Robinson will find time to get open. Another reason I think this team can find a way to win six games, is their draft, as they picked up four NFL-ready players: DE Jamaal Anderson – Arkansas (Def. ROY Candidate at 6’6” 280), OG Justin Blalock – Texas (Mammoth lineman that will start right away and contribute), CB Chris Houston – Arkansas (Best CB in the draft, speedy coverage defensive back), and Stephen Nicholas – South Florida (Will log in good playing time and produce early and often.). With that being said, I’ll move on to say this defense can make the Top 10 in many categories in 2007. A healthy pass-rushing John Abraham, teamed along with Anderson at defensive end, will be imposing to most teams. Add the LB group that consists of: Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, and Demorrio Williams, this defense will be stout against the run, also due to the presence of DT’s Jonathan Babineaux, Grady Jackson, and Rod Coleman. The pass defense gets better with All-Pro, shutdown CB DeAngelo Hall (Playmaker with incredible speed), to along with Houston, Jimmy Williams, and veteran S Lawyer Milloy. I expect Atlanta to have a good year and surprise some people who expect â€˜em to fall tremendously because of Vick. Though he was a big part of their team and whole offense – Norwood, Dunn, Horn, and Crumpler will offset the loss, and have big years. The Falcons have something in their defense, and it ain’t holes, it’s more like ball hawking defenders, that can pursuit the ball carrier, rush the QB, and hit, just as well as cover, being led by All-Pro MLB Keith Brooking. They will not be a liability, so look for â€˜em to make their presence felt by putting a strong unit out on the field, every Sunday. These Falcons will not make the playoffs, but they will not be in the running for a Top 5 Pick in next year’s NFL Draft – either. This team is still good and has enough talent to make it to .500 – and it’s not too far of a reach; Atlanta don’t doubt these “Dirty Birds.”