• Southern Hospitality?

    It’s been an incredible offseason for the National Football League. Quarterback Peyton Manning being released by the Colts and signing with the Broncos. Quarterback Tim Tebow taking his skills to New York after being traded from Denver to the Jets. And we’re still in the midst of the “bounty” scandal and all of its ramifications involving the New Orleans Saints and not only its current but former coaches and players as well.

    Yes, the Saints. Defending champion in the league’s most unpredictable division since the NFL realigned in 2002. New Orleans has captured the NFC South 3 times in the last 6 years, all under head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees, while the Buccaneers have also won the South on 3 occasions as well. The Falcons and Panthers each have a pair of division crowns since ’02 as well. But the one thing that’s hard to ignore is that no team has ever won consecutive titles in the NFC South, the only division in the league that can claim such a distinction. And how many time have we seen a team go from first to last in this division over the years?

    So what can we expect from this quartet in 2012? It’s just over 3 weeks before the draft but there’s been plenty of news on this front. The Saints’ aforementioned issues have been well-documented and it will be interesting to see who the head coach is this season (as well as what played could be punished), but on the field Brees is still unsigned. On defense, the team just signed MLB Curtis Lofton away from the Falcons.

    And what of Atlanta? The franchise has made 3 playoff appearances in 4 seasons during the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan Era but have yet to taste postseason success. And a year after being the NFC’s number-one seed at 13-3, the Falcons lost twice as many games and failed to score a touchdown in their Wild Card loss to the Giants.
    After a dismal 2010, the Panthers were worth the watch last season, although their injury-depleted defense didn’t do them any favors for obvious reasons. But rookie QB Cam Newton led an attack that scored 47 offensive touchdowns (14 by the former Heisman Trophy winner, a record for rushing TDs for a season by a quarterback) one year after the unit scored an NFL-low 16 offensive touchdowns). The healthy return of LBs Jon Beason and Thomas Davis certainly won’t hurt.

    And lastly (pun intended), the Buccaneers. The team was 4-2 and coming off a win over the Saints and had beaten the Falcons earlier in the season. But it proved to be a “springboard” for a 10-game losing streak which saw the team surrender an NFL-high 494 points on the season, one of the worst totals in league annals. Enter former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano and key free agents such as WR Vincent Jackson and Pro Bowl G Carl Nicks.

    So despite all of the issues, can the Saints be the first back-to-back NFC South champion? Or will it be the free-for-all business as usual?

    Comments 21 Comments
    1. buzmeg's Avatar
      The "Football Gods" will have something to say about the Saints chances of repeating as division winners. The "bountygate" scandal weighs heavily on the success/failure of the Saints. Add to that the "Brees situation," the coaching staff unpredictability, possible player suspensions, and fact that the Super Bowl will be played in NOLA.

      IMO they don't have a snowball's chance in hell to be division winners this season.
    1. iwatt's Avatar
      I love the Lofton signing, but it'll take a lot of leadership to avoid the team taking the year off with the sanctions as an excuse.

      New DC, no HC, No GM...I can easily see them floundering this year with a built in excuse of lowered expectations.

      The Panthers are scary. Sure, we can expect a Newton Sophomore slump. Of course, we also expected him to struggle as rookie. This is the first time since HS that he has the same team for a second year, I think. I put nothing past Cam. But more importantly, they get their D back, which was struck by so many early injuries and was an elite unit back in 2010. And the HC is a very good Defensive mind with a proven record.

      Bucs get yet another year of high picks. I love Freeman (as most of the poster here know ), and hopefully they will work hard at improving their Right side of the OL, to bring some toughness to the game. Don't like the rumblings of their interest in Trent Richardson, since there are better used for a high pick and they already have Blount. Might be a SEC thing, I guess.

      The Falcons are pretenders. Matty "Slush" is slight above replacement as a QB, and this is the 2nd year they've let talent leave their roster. Lofton is a hell of a player, as well as a team leader. Their DL is another year older.
    1. Dave Lapham's Avatar
      Uncertainty hangs over the Saints like a big mushroom cloud. Who knows what to expect and how the team will react and respond. The Bucs are in transition with Schiano at the helm. Usually it takes more than an offseason and season to adapt and adjust. Players don't know what the coaches expectations are, and coaches don't know first hand the strengths and weaknesses of the players. It would be reasonable to think Cam's numbers may slide some in year two. What he did was remarkable. Most players will tell you the light really goes on in the second season. Cam was amazing while not really knowing what he didn't know. There is more of a familiarity between coaches and players in Carolina with a year under their belt together as well. Atlanta seems to be in the position of most stability and continuity in the division. Does that give them a leg up in the division? Only time will tell.
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      Saints: Interesting comments in PFT about the state of the coach's room. Bottom line, will Payton's fear of losing his job override the team's best interests? If they bring in Parcells, Payton will feel safe but there might be huge resentment among the other coaches. And would Parcells have the power to fire a balky coach? It's early still, but they have a mess brewing. Also, player suspensions likely. I can't see NOLA doing it this year. The NFL's hard enough without all this drama.

      Tampa: Until he proves me wrong, I'll say that Greg Schiano is overmatched. He brought in some good assistant coaches. But bottom line, he's a slightly above average college coach who really shouldn't be in the NFL. Also, the Bucs spent big in free agency, which isn't the best of signs. I think they have more holes than a handful of free agents can fill.

      Carolina: Intriguing. I believe that if Newton has a sophomore (pronounce the "o", Keith Jackson says so) slump, it won't be because he slacked-off. I think he's a hard worker and a real pro. Not sure how much their defense will improve. A dark horse team, for me.

      Atlanta: A team that re-signed almost all of its free agents. But not its coaching staff. A new D and a new O coordinator. Plus (thanks Giants and NOLA!) a new offensive line coach. Obviously Thomas Dimitroff thinks the coaching was the problem, not his players. Can the Falcons play the smashmouth, conservative offensive Mike Smith prefers? Or will he have to open it up a bit? Is Ray Edwards finally healthy, after another off-season knee surgery? Impossible questions to answer. But you have to think that Atlanta is the default favorite to win the division.
    1. mkocs6's Avatar
      Matty Slush is made of win. All hail iwatt!

      Carolina is a really, really appealing pick, but it's so hard to pull the trigger on that, especially before the Draft, when I assume they'll try to fix that defense... unless they follow the Atlanta plan for defense improvement and draft a really fast wide receiver. I think you've got to consider Atlanta the favorite, at least until the end of the month.
    1. Nancy's Avatar
      I think "bountygate" is the symbolic beginning of the end of the Saints dominance of this division. The Panthers are really the team to watch here...if Newton is really as good as he appears, if Steve Smith can stay young for another season and if they get some defensive players back....it will be the "Convergence of the Twain," so to speak....and the Saints will go down.

      Is there a post icon warning people of "blatant homerism laced with cheesy literary references?" Perhaps there should be.
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      I'm with you, Nancy. Definitely my dark horse. A lot of fight on that team, and a lot of it is because of Newton. Hope he stays healthy.

      mkocs6, if that really is your name, if memory serves, Dimitroff drafted heavily for defense two years in a row before the Jones draft. There were lot of young players on Atlanta's D that they expected to come good. They still do, obviously. Some (Weatherspoon, Moore) already have. Others (Sidbury, Biermann, Franks) they still believe in.
    1. vancemeek's Avatar
      I'm going to watch some NFCS games this year out of curiousity. The finishing order is a complete toss-up. I'll say:

      Saints
      Bucs
      Falcons
      Panthers

      I think the Saints will rally around whoever coaches. The Bucs will bounce back out of embarrassment over last year. The Falcons will be good and in the playoff hunt. The Panthers will be improved, but still not quite ready.
    1. Pruitt's Avatar
      I just have a feeling that the Saints season may implode early on. Based on nothing but a gut feeling, but they are now the team with a target on their backs..
    1. SpartaChris's Avatar
      Count me as one who believes the Saints season is over before it really begins. Too much drama and uncertainty, and no one to really hold it together.

      You can also count me as one of the minority who's not terribly impressed by Josh Freeman. So far I've found his play to be underwhelming. Maybe he proves me wrong this season.

      I'm also not terribly impressed by Matt Ryan. The ice has melted.

      My pick to win that division is the Panthers. In the land of "You are what your record says you are," I believe they were better than their record last season. They lost a lot of close games due to an unlucky bounce here or there. I expect those bounces to go the other way this season, and for the NFC South to produce yet another "Worst to first" division champion.
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      Interesting blog in the AJC today about the Falcons' unsettled situation at left tackle. Not a position about which you want to read the words "unsettled situation." Arguably one of Dimitroff's two whiffs in the first round.
    1. mikesteelnation1's Avatar
      I think the saints missing payton is being understated here. That offense flows thru him, not carmichael. When he was hurt last year, brees was awful in 2 of those 3 games. The offense was listless against the bucs and rams, both terrible teams.

      Brees needs the face to face with payton between series to keep things grounded.

      Schiano and the bucs? I'm not buying. Quick, name the last collegiate coach, with no pro pedigree to be successful in the pros?

      Carolina has their qb, but will he have a soph slump? Will the d help him out?

      Matty slush is on the verge of being Matty cold water. This team always seems to fold under pressure.

      The nfcs will be interesting to say the least this year. Projecting a winner? It's too early for me to venture a guess. I will say I don't expect the saints to win it.
    1. hobbes27's Avatar
      Unless the Saints get hit hard with player suspensions, they are still too good to struggle. They may not make the playoffs, heck I didn't think they would make it last year and they surprised me, but they aren't going to be bottom feeders either. I don't see Carolina and Tampa doing much this year. I think Atlanta retakes the division.
    1. Russell S Baxter's Avatar
      The Saints have reportedly agreed to terms with former Seahawks LB David Hawthorne, who led the team with 115 tackles in 2011. Things are getting more interesting in the division by the moment...
    1. vancemeek's Avatar
      You better watch Russ, or Jonathan Vilma will come here and yell at you.
    1. Gandalf2300's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by SpartaChris View Post
      My pick to win that division is the Panthers. In the land of "You are what your record says you are," I believe they were better than their record last season. They lost a lot of close games due to an unlucky bounce here or there. I expect those bounces to go the other way this season, and for the NFC South to produce yet another "Worst to first" division champion.
      Agreed-the Panthers probably win the division at 10-6, followed by Atlanta at 9-7, Bucs at 5-11 and the Saints at 3-13. The Panthers' 'D' will bounce back from injuries and tough breaks, and Cam Newton will create plenty of points, even if he slumps a bit in his 2nd year-remember the Panthers have a pretty good run game to take pressure off Cam, and Cam can run the ball himself. The Falcons are good enough to finish with a winning record, even with coaching changes. The Bucs made a mediocre coaching hire and don't have enough talent on the roster to compete consistently-not spending money on players tends to catch up with a team.

      The Saints will be a mess this year-Drew Brees may show up late to camp, if at all, due to the contract situation. If Brees finally does get a palatable long-term deal from the Saints, it is likely to come later than earlier. Players will be suspended, and the coaching staff may be in upheaval if an outside guy (Parcells) gets the interim job. Nothing against Parcells, but the rest of the coaches will not be happy campers to be passed over for the interim gig.

      My 'football doctor' prescription for the Saints-sign Brees to whatever amount of money he wants-the team needs him now more than it ever did. Promote from within for the interim coaching gig - Spagnolou has head coaching experience, and he was not around NO during the bounty days. These 2 moves will help unify the Saints from within, and you have Brees as the unofficial 'ambassador' and official star QB. Spags will be happy to let Brees and Carmichael run the offense, while helping coordinate the defense. I would have already done both of these things were I the owner of the Saints. Even if they followed my advice, a winning record will be hard to come by for the Saints this year.
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Gandalf2300 View Post
      Agreed-the Panthers probably win the division at 10-6, followed by Atlanta at 9-7, Bucs at 5-11 and the Saints at 3-13.

      We need to see what the schedule's like before making specific predictions, I reckon. For example, once we saw Atlanta's sched last season, 10 or 11 wins was the absolute most you could expect. I realize I'm probably stating the obvious.
    1. hobbes27's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by wxwax View Post
      We need to see what the schedule's like before making specific predictions, I reckon. For example, once we saw Atlanta's sched last season, 10 or 11 wins was the absolute most you could expect. I realize I'm probably stating the obvious.
      While I sorta agree with you. We know the opponents of everyone. Its just a matter of where and when the games are played.

      The Panthers play 6 division games, 4 games against the AFC West, 4 games against the NFC East and games against Chicago and Seattle.

      This is speculation as to what the final schedule does look like:

      http://riggosrag.com/2012/04/06/2012...hedule-leaked/
    1. Gandalf2300's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by wxwax View Post
      We need to see what the schedule's like before making specific predictions, I reckon. For example, once we saw Atlanta's sched last season, 10 or 11 wins was the absolute most you could expect. I realize I'm probably stating the obvious.
      Agreed, I could have left out the win totals-but I feel comfortable with the order of finish, based on what we know at this point. Drew Brees is still a big question mark-if he signs a long-term deal quickly and comes to camp ready to roll, it will obviously help keep the Saints out of the cellar. My concern with the Saints is on defense-can they overcome potential player suspensions? Who will be the interim coach? A lot of unknowns for any team, especially for New Orleans. I just don't see a playoff berth for the Saints this season. I admit the rest of the predictions are a guess, as they are for all of us at this point.
    1. SpartaChris's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by wxwax View Post
      We need to see what the schedule's like before making specific predictions, I reckon. For example, once we saw Atlanta's sched last season, 10 or 11 wins was the absolute most you could expect. I realize I'm probably stating the obvious.
      Eh, I'm not sure we need the schedule to come out before making predictions. We already know the who and where, just not the when.
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