If you just look at last year, the NFC South looks like the least competitive division in the NFC. Other than the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons, the three remaining teams all had losing records (all 7-9). When you take a longer outlook, though, you’ll see that this division has never had the same division champion two years in a row (since its creation in 2002), and each team has won the division multiple times. In recent years, the NFC South has also had a tendency of having at least one outstanding team. In fact, for four years straight the NFC South division champ has held an impressive 13-3 record, including the Super Bowl XLIV Champions (2009 Saints).
Looking at this year’s schedule, the NFC South teams will play their 6 divisional games, and then they will play each team from the NFC West and the AFC East (a rough schedule with the Broncos, Niners, and Seahawks). On top of that, each team will get two unique games based on last year’s division rankings: one against a NFC North team, and one against a NFC East team. Could this be the first year that the NFC South sees a repeat champion? For what it’s worth, here’s my take:
2012 Record: 13-3 (1st in NFC South)
- Passing Offense: 6th
- Rushing Offense: 29th
- Passing Defense: 23rd
- Rushing Defense: 21st
Key Additions: RB Steven Jackson, DE Osi Umenyiora
Key Losses: RB Michael Turner, DE John Abraham, CB Dunta Robinson
Their Season Depends On: Matt Ryan not letting the money go to his head, Steven Jackson remaining ageless, and the defense getting to the QB without John Abraham on the roster.
Last year Matt Ryan threw for 4719 yards and 32 TDs with a 68.6% completion percentage, all career highs. That’s good. He also just signed a well-deserved contract for 5 years, $103.75M. As Bills fans, we’ve seen what can sometimes happen to quarterbacks with big new contracts (cough… Fitz… cough). Sure, it’s unlikely Matt Ryan will surpass his 2012 season, but it will be up to him to ensure his numbers stay impressive. If Ryan eases up and relaxes, the Falcons might miss their chance to repeat as division champs. Considering the weapons he has (Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez), Ryan has no excuses for a significant drop-off in production.
As for Steven Jackson, he has been one of the most consistent running backs of the last decade. He just completed his EIGHTH STRAIGHT SEASON with over 1000 rushing yards. What’s more, Jackson didn’t fumble a single time in 2012. Talk about reliable. Michael Turner, on the other hand, managed 800 yards with 3.6 average yards per carry and 3 fumbles. Not so reliable. The one thing Turner managed, though, is scoring. Last year he had 10 touchdowns, compared to Steven Jackson’s 4 touchdowns. Turner was almost guaranteed to pick up a yard or two in short yardage situations, and he was very effective on the goal line. Jackson is a pretty big guy too, and you can imagine the Falcons offense will give him a lot more chances to hit the end zone. Jackson should be an improvement over Michael Turner, as long as he remains the same Steven Jackson we’ve seen for the last eight years. We know age will catch up with Jackson at some point. The Falcons are betting that it won’t be this year.
On defense, the loss of DE John Abraham cannot be understated. Last year he had 10.0 sacks and 6 forced fumbles, which led the team. You know who had the second-most sacks on the Falcons last year? Kroy Biermann with 4.0 sacks. That’s it. Without Abraham, who steps up to fill the void? Enter Osi Umenyiora. Granted, Osi didn’t have the year that Abraham had in 2012 but he did alright (6.0 sacks, 2 FF). Osi also tends to have up and down years (he’s posted multiple 10+ sack seasons), so he could be due for a big year in 2013. The Falcons defense was not great last year, though they have a very strong secondary which includes two aggressive ball-hawks in Thomas DeCoud (6 INT) and Asante Samuel (5 INT). That front 7 remains a concern, though, even with the addition of Umenyiora. The other players in that defensive front need to step up and make sure Osi doesn’t have to carry them like Abraham did last year.
Prediction: The few big losses that the Falcons had were immediately replaced by good players. Even the loss of CB Dunta Robinson was addressed when the Falcons picked up two corners in the draft. Their unique games come against the Packers and the Redskins (which is tough), but I just can’t see the Falcons doing any worse than 12-4, still at the top of the NFC South.
2012 Record: 7-9 (2nd in NFC South)
- Passing Offense: 16th
- Rushing Offense: 9th
- Passing Defense: 13th
- Rushing Defense: 14th
Key Additions: CB Drayton Florence, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Domenik Hixon
Key Losses: CB Chris Gamble, S Sherrod Martin
Their Season Depends On: Cam Newton putting on his big-boy pants, getting value out of their Running Backs, and the front 7 being good enough to overcome a weak secondary.
Let’s start by breaking down the numbers on Cam Newton. 3869 yards, 19 TD, 12 INT, and a 57.7% completion rate in 2012. Not phenomenal but not bad. You might say that he improved, since he cut his interceptions from 17 in 2011… but he also had 10 fumbles in 2012, which is 5 more than he had in 2011. True, his legs do plenty of work as well (more on this later), but his mistakes have cost this team a lot over the last two years. If I were to pinpoint what Cam Newton needs to improve on, however, it would have to be leadership. How many times have you seen Cam Newton make a mistake, cause a turnover, and then go sit on the sideline with a towel over his face, his head in his hands? It’s practically his default mode on the sideline! Compare that demeanor to other successful QBs in the league. Do you see Peyton Manning EVER sitting with his head in his hands after throwing a pick? No, he’s immediately talking to his offense and figuring out how they’ll do better and improve on the next drive. If Cam Newton can’t develop a short memory and start really leading his team, I don’t see his performance improving drastically.
I hear you saying, “What about how Cam Newton makes plays with his legs?” Sure, he does that. In fact, he led his team in rushing yards last year (741 yards and 8 TD), which brings me to my next point: Where are the Panthers running backs? You don’t want to see your QB leading the team in rushing yards. That will get you an injured QB in a hurry, and it also allows defenses to focus their efforts on him. Even with an athletic QB, you want a RB that will take the heat off, and the Panthers haven’t proven that they have one. Let’s look at the candidates from last year: DeAngelo Williams (737 yards, 5 TD), Jonathan Stewart (336 yards, 1 TD), and Mike Tolbert (183 yards, 7 TD). That’s right, three Panthers running backs together totaled only 12 yards more than CJ Spiller had all last year (while splitting carries with Fred Jackson and Tashard Choice, no less). Without performance from the RBs, the Panthers offense is in danger of becoming one-dimensional, and that won’t get them to the post-season.
The Linebacker corps in Carolina is in good shape with Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason, and Thomas Davis all returning. They also have an impressive D-Line, with DE Greg Hardy and DE Charles Johnson combining for 23.5 total sacks in 2012. The Panthers even added to that line in the draft, picking up DT Star Lotulelei. That is a strong group in the box, but once you look to the Panthers secondary, things get muddy. The unexpected retirement of Chris Gamble was rough for the Panthers, since he was their #1 corner. Even Gamble hasn’t been that impressive as a starter (3 INT total in the last three seasons). Captain Munnerlyn (owner of the coolest name in the NFL) will be a shoo-in for the top CB spot, but after that the Panthers don’t have much. They did bring in Drayton Florence (a former Bill), but he didn’t do much last year in Detroit. Barring a sudden blossoming of talent in the secondary, the Panthers could become a very easy team to pass against in 2013.
Prediction: The Panthers schedule isn’t stifling, with their unique games coming against the Giants and the Vikings. They really haven’t made any significant changes, however, that could push them to the next level. Also, I won’t hold my breath waiting for Cam Newton to show some maturity on the field. I think the Panthers will do their own version of a repeat, finishing 7-9 again, 3rd in the NFC South.
New Orleans Saints
2012 Record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC South)
- Passing Offense: 1st
- Rushing Offense: 25th
- Passing Defense: 31st
- Rushing Defense: 32nd
Key Additions: OT Jason Smith, CB Keenan Lewis, TE Ben Watson
Key Losses: OT Jermon Bushrod, WR Devery Henderson, RB Chris Ivory
Their Season Depends On: Drew Brees not getting injured, Mark Ingram proving himself as a three-down back, and Rob Ryan engineering a gigantic turnaround on defense.
5177 yards, 43 touchdowns, 19 INT, and 63.0% completion rate in 2012. Do I have to tell you how good Drew Brees is? No. No I don’t. As long as he’s healthy, the Saints are a threat. Nuff said.
Mark Ingram was the Saints first round draft pick in 2011, but they didn’t draft him that high so he could run for 602 yards and 5 TD like he did in 2012. They expected more. Of the four running backs that the Saints primarily used last year (Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory), Mark Ingram had the worst yards per carry (3.9). With Chris Ivory gone (who actually had the best yards per carry with 5.4), the Saints are doubling down on Ingram to be their feature back. It’s not like you need a league-leading rusher when Drew Brees is at the helm, but you do need a guy who can take the pressure off of the QB, and all eyes are on Ingram to be that guy.
Finally, the record-breaking 2012 Saints defense has to be addressed. 7042 yards allowed meant that last year’s Saints fielded the worst defense in NFL history. Not a proud feat. The fact that the Saints still went 7-9 with that defense is a testament to their unstoppable offense (a.k.a. Drew Brees). Now the Saints new Defensive Coordinator, Rob Ryan, is inheriting this project after being kicked out of Dallas. I mean, some of that horrid performance can be blamed on fallout from the whole Greg Williams saga. With all eyes on them, Saints defenders can’t be blamed for letting up a bit in 2012. It’s a new year, though, and I’d anticipate the Saints defenders want to prove themselves. They definitely have talent for Rob Ryan to work with: Curtis Lofton, Roman Harper, Cameron Jordan, Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Jonathan Vilma… ALL of these are household names. Did you know that (with many of the same guys on defense) the Saints were 13th in the league in scoring defense in 2011? That’s just one year before being the WORST defense ever. Considering the effectiveness of their offense, all the Saints defense needs to do this year is be average. If they can do that, the Saints could win a lot of games.
Prediction: The Saints get lucky with relatively easy unique games against the Bears and the Cowboys. It’s almost a guarantee that the defense will be better this year (they couldn’t be worse), which means the Saints will definitely improve, and they might even see the postseason. I say 10-6, 2nd in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2012 Record: 7-9 (4th in NFC South)
- Passing Offense: 10th
- Rushing Offense: 15th
- Passing Defense: 32nd
- Rushing Defense: 1st
Key Additions: CB Darrelle Revis, S Dashon Goldson, WR Kevin Ogletree, RB Peyton Hillis
Key Losses: CB Eric Wright, DT Michael Bennett, RB LeGarrette Blount, S Ronde Barber, TE Dallas Clark
Their Season Depends On: Josh Freeman putting together a complete season, Doug Martin not being a one-hit wonder, and finding balance on the defense.
When you look at Josh Freeman’s stats from last year, he doesn’t seem too shabby. 4065 yards, 27 TD, 17 INT is decent, though the 54.8% completion rate leaves something to be desired. It definitely seems an improvement from his 2011 season, where he had a better completion percentage but had 3592 yards, 16 TD, and 22 INT (not a great ratio). If you look closer at last year, though, there’s an interesting trend in Freeman’s performance. Through the first 10 weeks, Freeman threw for 21 touchdowns and only 6 INT, leading the Bucs to a decent 6-4 record. In the last 6 games, however, Freeman threw for 6 TD and 10 INT, and the Bucs went 1-5 to close out the season. Given the recent drafting of Mike Glennon, this seems like Freeman’s last year to prove himself. He has most of the same weaponry back, including receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. The loss of Dallas Clark, however, won’t help him improve.
On the ground, the Bucs struck gold last year with the Muscle Hamster, Doug Martin. 1454 yards rushing and 11 TD (4.6 yards per carry) was impressive, and the Bucs are hoping they can get similar results this year. It should be noted, however, that those numbers can be misleading. For example, Martin only had 5 games in which he broke 100 yards, while he had 8 games where he had less than 70. His numbers are also heavily skewed by an impossible-to-repeat performance in Week 8 against Oakland (251 yards, 4 TD). It’s very likely that the Muscle Hamster’s numbers will be down this year. The question is HOW down will they be?
As for the Bucs defense, they were very specialized… perhaps too much so. The best rushing defense in the league was coupled with the worst passing defense, giving middling results at best. To address this, Darrelle Revis was brought in. Assuming there are no lingering effects from his injury, Revis will be an immediate upgrade for that secondary. Let’s be honest: He’s arguably the best corner in the league over the last 6 years. That said, the Bucs need to make sure they don’t spend so much time addressing weaknesses that they lose their biggest strengths. Case in point, losing DT Michael Bennett is a problem. He led the team with 9.0 sacks, and he also had 3 forced fumbles and 10 tackles for a loss. Basically, the Bucs lost their best pass-rusher and an anchor for their defensive front with no viable replacement. The loss of S Ronde Barber can’t be ignored either. He was still kicking butt in his 16th season, leading the team with 4 INT (an incredible 47 INT over his whole career), and posting 92 tackles and a forced fumble. Even though they brought in Dashon Goldson to replace him, Barber was an integral part of that #1 rushing defense, which likely won’t be #1 in 2013.
Prediction: Of all the things the Bucs need to do this year to see success, I have trouble believing they’ll manage more than marginally improving their defense. Even with the Lions and the Eagles as their unique games, I’m guessing the Bucs take a big step back and go 5-11, last in the NFC South.