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?