August 27, 2006
NFL Preview: NFC South
Atlanta: The Falcons finished a respectable 8-8 last year, but most people now think that they aren't going anywhere with Michael Vick at the helm. I'm not sure about that, but he'll have to prove himself eventually. Vick should improve this year with a better supporting cast around him, but really, we've been saying that for each of the past three years. Vick and RB Warrick Dunn wreak havoc on opposing run defenses, but the biggest problem is that the Falcons have problems of their own against the run. The front seven are weak against the ground game, and that is a problem in a division that features Cadillac Williams, DeShaun Foster, Reggie Bush, and Deuce McCallister. Their pass rush is outstanding, with John Abraham, Patrick Kerney, and Rod Coleman all should get at least 10 sacks this year, but teams will pound the ball up the middle and wear the Falcons down. I think this team is too one-dimensional - both on offense and defense - to make a playoff run. They're a bit better, but so is virtually everyone else in the division (and the whole NFC, for that matter). So I forsee another 8-8 season for Atlanta.
Carolina: The Panthers went 11-5 last year and made it to the NFC Championship game, where they were beaten by Seattle. But the Panthers are arguably the most talented team in the conference, and they should have a great shot at making the Super Bowl again this year. John Fox is a great coach, Jake Delhomme is a wildly underrated quarterback, and DeShaun Foster is an underrated but injury-prone halfback. Oh yeah, they also have the best WR in the game right now in Steve Smith. Adding Keyshawn Johnson to start opposite Smith should help this offense tremendously, as last year Smith was basically Delhomme's only target but still put up the best stats in the league. If Foster is injured (which is now not so much of an "if" as it is a "when"), first-round draft pick DeAngelo Williams will get the carries in his place. The Panthers have a great defense, so there really aren't any glaring holes on this team. If nothing goes drastically wrong, Carolina should be back in the NFC title game this year, with a 12-4 record.
New Orleans: The Saints finished with a 3-13 record, typical of the Jim Haslett era in New Orleans. Obviously the Saints had plenty of other issues last year, what with the Katrina aftermath and all, but this team never looked focused or committed to me last year. After the opening-day upset of Carolina, the Saints' home game against the Giants got moved to New York, and things went downhill from there. During Week 2, it seemed like the players (and coaches) were more focused on how they got screwed by the NFL (taking away their home game) and not focused on playing the actual game. And, although most of you might disagree with me, it seemed like the Saints quit on their season after that game. Drew Brees is an upgrade over Aaron Brooks at QB, and Reggie Bush and Deuce McCallister will terrorize opposing defenses. But the Saints' o-line and run defense are nothing short of terrible, which isn't a recipie for success in this division. But the good news is that Haslett is out as head coach and Sean Payton is in. The Saints always had playoff-caliber talent under Haslett but always underachieved, and they should make some progress - say, 5-11 - with him finally gone.
Tampa Bay: The Bucs were also 11-5 last season, and they should be even better this year. Their defense was first in terms of YPG allowed, and their offense should be much better in '06. Their o-line is better, Cadillac Williams is in his second season, and Chris Simms should just get better. Basically everybody should improve from last year's team, although I think last year's team wasn't quite as good as their record showed. I think they'll stay at 11-5 for the coming year, but they're a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs.