Bout this time last year, I had written a piece about the outlook of the NFC South and the possible finish of each team. In it, I was cautiously optimistic and predicted at least a 2nd place finish within the division. I ate crow, and my heart was ecstatic. First Garrett Hartley’s THE KICK then Tracy Porter’s THE PICK. Last season fulfilled what many of us had dreamed of but not too many of us had openly boasted. So lez get down once again, and deliver the verdict. Laissez bon temps rouler.
The Key: Year in, year out, the key remains Drew Brees. Without a good defense, we went 8-8. Without Drew Brees, we’re looking at Raiders-style mediocrity. A Patriots fan in Foxborough asked Drew Brees to sign his Tom Brady jersey. Which begs the question…what does happen if Brees goes down?
The X-Factor: Last year it was Gregg Williams. This year we know what Williams can do. But let’s play defense once again. How well do our linebackers function this year? Can Shanle be the strong run-stopping, tight-end clamper that he’s now been switched to? Can Casillas be the fast demon all around the field? How is the depth behind our starting 3? The middle of the defense is the median range for an offense to attack. So our linebackers better be ready.
The Outlook: Saints take the division again and go deep into the playoffs. As many have stated, the difference between the Saints ad most previous SB Champions is that mostly the same team returns. The turnover is not that drastic. Consistency is the key.
The Key: We know what Matt Ryan is capable of. But the key on this team is Michael Turner. Matt Ryan thrives off of Turner. Can Turner return to form? With Turner in the lineup, the Falcons won 7 out of their 9 games last season. Even in the games that the Burner had meager stats, he still made an impact. Can he stay completely healthy this year?
The X-Factor: Last year, as one writer said, the offensive strategy against the Falcons was simple. Let your receivers go straight down the field and one of them was bound to get open. This year, the Falcons inked Dunta Robinson to a massive deal to help shore up that secondary. Can Dunta clamp down on the opponent’s #1 reciever? The secondary will determine the defense’s success, and this team will only go as far as its weakest link- the defense.
The Outlook: The Falcons are not so weak that the Panthers and Bucs will give them a run for their money. But the Falcons are simply not as deep as the Saints either. I’ll call the Falcons a 2nd place finish in the division with a very legit chance at a wild card berth.
The Carolina Panthers:
The Key: The running game was the team’s biggest asset last year and will be once again this year. The 1-2 punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart destroyed many teams last year (as Saints Fans know). This team will live and die by its running game.
The X-Factor: There are many directions to go here. John Fox, the receiving corps, or popularly, the quarterback. I’m choosing John Fox as the main X-Factor. John has a deadly running game, an underrated defense, one of the game’s best vertical threats in Steve Smith, and now a new QB. Take off the clamps John. The Saints have one of the most aggressive coaches in Sean Payton. John Fox is on the opposite end of that spectrum. He is as plain and bland as can be. Fox’s coaching is the real x-factor here.
The Outlook: The Panthers are going to hover from mediocrity to good throughout the season as they will narrowly miss out on the 2nd place in the division. A 3rd place finish is the most likely scenario, but with a few twists, who knows? Could the NFC South have 3 playoff teams this year?
The Key: This defense, after being taken over by Raheem Morris, finished strong last year. The Bucs draft, especially the first two picks, keyed the defense. This is the strength of the team. Now can they contend with the versatile offenses in the NFC South?
The X-Factor: The development of Josh Freeman is important. The Buccaneers have to contend with the offenses in the NFC South, and Josh Freeman has to lead the offense. He flashed some franchise moments last year and now has to step up. He is mobile, has a good arm, and displays good leadership instincts. But Freeman has to put it all together and take a major step forward. The question is: will he?
The Outlook: The Bucs’ situation is similar to that of the Lions. While both these teams have improved and taken steps in the right direction over the offseason, their divisions are simply too powerful for them to contend. Tampa Bay will be better this year, but not enough to get out of the basement.