The Atlanta Falcons
The unfavored favorites
Record Prediction: 12-4 (5-1)
The Atlanta Falcons are the best team in this division and though all the other teams have pieces to make themselves interesting, the Falcons should win this division with relative ease. Twelve wins seems very doable for the Falcons, but a 5-1 record within their division seems a bit high.
What to like:
This offense is stacked.
Matt Ryan continues to improve in every statistics category from year to year and yet he continues to do so a bit under the radar. Ron Jorwarski’s quarterback rankings did give Ryan some respect, ranking him fifth, but somehow he remained behind Joe Flacco, one of the more mediocre Super Bowl winning quarterbacks out there.
Ryan set career bests in yards (4,719), touchdowns (32) and completion percentage (68.6) in the 2012 season. He has improved in all of these categories in each of his five seasons in the NFL and there does not seem to be any sign that he can’t improve further in 2013. Ryan is one of the smarter quarterbacks in the league. His ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage based on what he sees from the defense is Peyton Manning-esque. If there is someone who is going to take over the league’s best quarterback throne when Manning and Brady are retired, Matt Ryan is the guy to do it.
People who say that Ryan has reached his ceiling look at the talented wide receivers he has to throw to. It is hard to argue with the talent that Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez bring to the table. Julio Jones, the young man of the group, would be the number one wide receiver on about 15 teams in the league, but with the nine-year veteran Roddy White, he remains in the backseat (at least on the depth chart). White won the reception and yard battle with 1,351 yards and 92 receptions compared to Jones’ 79 receptions for 1,198 yards. Jones did end up with 10 touchdowns to White’s 7.
They do not seem to bicker when they are not getting the ball, which is good because Ryan also has the benefit Gonzalez, one of the greatest tight-ends in the history of the league. Ryan and the rest of the team begged Gonzalez to come back for one last season and he did so without much hesitation. Gonzalez is entering his 18th season in the league and has already totaled over 14 thousand yards and 100 touchdowns in his career.
All of these weapons helped the Falcons become one of the top passing teams in the league, but where the team improved most in the offseason is in the backfield, adding Steven Jackson. Jackson is about as reliable as they come. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in eight straight seasons. Jackson adds a running threat, which they lacked a bit last year with the burnt out Michael Turner.
This offense probably should be the highest scoring in the league.
There are some concerns about this defense not being able to get pressure on the quarterback. The defensive unit only produce 29 sacks last season, ranking 28th in the league. The secondary plays great at times, which makes this defense a bit underrated, but in a division where you have to go against Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Josh Freeman (with Doug Martin especially), you have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback.
Other than the defensive line, this team does not have any concerns as far as the regular season is concerned. Matt Ryan was finally able to get over his winless playoff record last season, getting the Falcons to the NFL Championship game. They were one play away from the Super Bowl last season.
Matt Ryan throws for 5,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns this season.
The New Orleans Saints
Out to prove a point
Record Prediction: 9-7 (3-3)
The Saints were irrelevant in 2012, finishing the season 7-9 and missing the playoffs. The old coach is back on the sidelines and this offense is just as scary as ever. This team is going to run up the score on every team they play this season, partially because they have to, but also to stick it to the league for their coach’s full season suspension last year. A nine win season probably would not be enough to get this team in the playoffs and I see team getting in as a Wild Card. A 10 win season should do it.
What to like:
Sean Peyton has served his suspension for the bounty fiasco that made headlines last summer. Essentially he comes back to the same team that he had before, with the only one exception: they missed the playoffs in his absence. You think Peyton is a bit peeved from sitting and watching football on his couch all season? I would say so. This is not a team anyone will want to play this season. They were second behind the Packers in scoring last season with 547 and in all likelihood they will score more than that this season. Remember how the Patriots ran up the scoreboard to prove a point after spy-gate?
Drew Brees could probably find a way to outscore teams if the Saints literally played no players on defense, so it is safe to say he will be able to out score teams with the terrible defense they have. He is looking to pass for over 5,000 yards for the third season in a row and there is not much preventing him from doing so.
The offense is back in full force, led by one of the league’s best tight ends in Jimmy Graham, veteran wide receiver Marques Colston and the rookie out of Oklahoma Kenny Stills. Stills stood out in the preseason and will play as the teams third wide-out. His draft profile compares him to Andre Roberts, but the simple fact is he has 4.38-40-yard-dash speed. That along with Brees throwing him the ball will likely make for a productive combo this season.
The Saints Defense is not good. It has one of the worst pass defenses in the league and is near the bottom when it comes to rushing. All that being said it should be an improved defense with the help of Rob Ryan, who comes to the team after being fired from the Cowboys. The Cowboys fired Ryan because Jerry Jones felt the need to fire someone and for whatever reason blamed the defense for all of the team’s failures. In his two years with the Cowboys he improved that defense a great deal and he should be able to do the same with the Saints.
As mentioned above, the Saints defense is one of the worst in the league and though Ryan should be able to improve the unit, they may need a few years to really get to where they need to be. Because of this major hole, Brees and the offense will have to outscore a lot of the teams they play. The defense will up the level of the opposing offense from week to week, making it hard for the Saints to win against any of the elite quarterbacks. Brees will outscore many teams, but they can not count on him to do it week in and week out.
Defense wins championships and though this team should be in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, they will struggle going anywhere in the playoffs unless their defense makes significant strides forward.
Mark Ingram Ingram finally has the breakout season everyone was waiting for when he came out of Alabama. The numbers will still be relatively modest, but very solid in this offense. Stat line: 900 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Embracing the spoiler role
Record Prediction: 8-8 (1-5)
This is a hard team to peg. There is talent on both sides of the ball, but there is not enough consistency for the team to really be in the playoff picture. This team will not go 1-5 in the division and will beat a few teams that no one will give them a chance against. The overall record of 8-8 feels right.
What to like:
I liked what I saw out of Josh Freeman in his 2010 campaign where he threw for 25 touchdown and just six interceptions and maybe I am just stubborn, but I am not ready to give up on him. The 2010 season set a high standard for the young quarterback, one that he has not quite been able to live up to.
All of that being said, he did have a good stretch of games last year before finishing the season with some miserable performances like the week 15 game where the team was shut out 41-0 by the terrible Saint’s defense. He finished the year with a career high 4,065 yards, throwing for 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He helped the Buccaneers go 3-3 in a very tough division, beating Cam Newton twice, beating Matt Ryan and the Falcons once (and losing to them 24-23) and fighting to keep up with the high scoring Saints in one game, losing 35-28. The Buccaneer’s front office is not sold on Freeman yet, leaving him in a position where he is going to have to prove himself to get a contract extension. You have to like a guy like Freeman using that motivation to his advantage.
One big reason why Freeman should be in a position to succeed is because the offense continues to develop around him. The biggest surprise of last year’s team was the success of the rookie running-back Doug Martin. Martin ran for 1,454 yards in his rookie year, to go along with 472 yards in the receiving game. At 5-feet-nine-inches, Martin is often compared to Ray Rice. The comparison may be overdone, but he literally feels like a Ray Rice clone. The offensive line is finally 100 percent so the expectation is that Martin can only build upon the success he had his rookie season.
Maybe the biggest off-season signing last summer was when Vincent Jackson came to Tampa Bay after spending seven years with the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers were pretty boring in the 2011 season and despite Jackson’s 1,106 yards and 9 touchdowns he was kind of forgotten about. Every team can use a guy who is 6-feet-five inches and 230 pounds. He may not be on the level of the big possession receivers like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall, but with his size he is still a matchup nightmare. If Freeman is going to get a contract extension, it will be in large part tied to the success of Jackson, who will look to build upon his 72 catches for 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns.
Jackson’s presence also benefits Mike Williams on the other side of the field. Williams (Syracuse) had a solid rookie season in 2010 (964 yards and 11 touchdowns), but after his 2011 season where he caught just three touchdowns, many people questioned if he was a one-year-wonder. Last year he shut up the nay-sayers, increasing his touchdowns back to nine and going for 996 receiving yards. If both of these receivers go for 1,000+ yards and 8+ scores, this team could be one of the 2013 surprises.
The defense added Darrelle Revis this offseason. If he has recovered fully from the knee surgery he should help a secondary that has a miserable division schedule every season, having to stop high scoring offenses in the Saints, Falcons and Panthers.
Josh Freeman needs to be mentioned here. The NFC South is one of the strongest quarterback division in the league and many people would rank Freeman at the bottom of the list. When he is on he can be good enough to beat just about anyone, but when he is off he looks like he should be riding a bench as a backup.
He has all the pieces around him: his receivers are great, his running game is elite, his offensive line is healthy and his defense is good enough to keep them in games. He just needs to show that he can be a consistent starter in this league.
I am staying on the Josh Freeman bandwagon this season. I just can not ignore the team he has around him.
Josh Freeman will throw for no less than 25 touchdowns and no more than 12 interceptions. The Buccaneers will give him his contract extension.
The Carolina Panthers
Record Prediction: 7-9 (3-3)
The Carolina Panthers finished 7-9 last year and a repeat performance in 2013 seems about right to me. Not sure this team is as well-rounded as the other teams in the division and there are some major issues that limit their success.
What to like:
It is hard not to like a quarterback stat line that consists of 3,869 yards passing with 19 touchdowns combined with 741 yards rushing with eight touchdowns. That is the season that Cam Newton was able to put together last season. Entering his third season, Newton should have no issue putting up similar numbers.
Newton’s favorite target Steve Smith continues to be productive at the age of 34. Last season he had 1,174 yards and four touchdowns.
The defense should be much improved and should be able to keep the Panthers competitive in their tough division.
That was one of the shortest “what to like” sections I have written yet. It may be a because I am getting a bit warn out from writing these, but for me it is more so that there is not a whole lot I like about this team.
What is there not to like about a team with the play-making ability of Cam Newton?
I have one answer to that: the attitude of Cam Newton. Newton is one of the biggest babies in the league. People make fun of Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers for their whining and screaming, but because of Newton’s talent all of that seems to be ignored. For me Newton’s attitude may be worse than both of these guys.
Newton does not yell and scream at his offensive linemen for missing a block or his wide receivers for running a poor route, instead he goes to his post game press conferences with a big pouty face and he cries about the team’s performance. Then the next game when he scores a touchdown he does his Super Man move and soaks in the attention.
I believe in the talent, I do not believe in the attitude. Look, Newton was not as fortunate as other quarterbacks drafted in recent years, the Panthers just do not have the playmakers for this team to be anything more than a 8-8 kind of team. The defense is supposedly better this season, but Steve Smith is another year older and one has to wonder if he will be able to produce for another season.
I just wonder if the Cam Newton can keep his composure through a stretch of two or three losses or if he starts crying again.
Prove me wrong Cam Newton.
I do think this is the year that Steve Smith starts to drop off. This team does not have much else at the receiver position so I am going to say Newton has a career low in yards this season.
That is it for the southern divisions. Next up the AFC North.