This may be the toughest division in football. Atlanta and New Orleans will continue to be 10-plus win teams, and Carolina could surprise everyone the way the 49ers did last year. Even Tampa Bay, with new head coach Greg Schiano, will be high-effort and tougher than last year. The unknown in the division will be the day-by-day effect of not having head coach Sean Payton with the Saints. His suspension gives Atlanta an opportunity like never before because the Saints simply won't be at full strength all year. The winner of the division will either be made great by the tough competition and will be dangerous in the playoffs, or they will get worn out by the struggle within this very strong division.
ATLANTA FALCONS: If there ever was a year that the Falcons could take advantage of another team's adversity, this is it. Bounty-gate in New Orleans has given the Falcons a significant chance to top the division. The biggest change in Atlanta this season is not with players as much as offensive and defensive coordinators. In are Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, and both coaches have said the same thing: "we will be more aggressive".
And Atlanta has the talent to be very effective by being more aggressive. The knock on Matt Ryan is that he throws too many check-down passes and not enough deep balls with success, even though he has a good deep ball arm. With Roddy White, Juilo Jones and Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez , why they were only the eighth-best passing offence is hard to figure. They also have a young left tackle in Will Svitek that may surprise as a good 16 game starter. With all that talent they should finish in the top three!
On defence, they were good against the run and poor against the pass, which is why Asante Samuel is now a Falcon. If you can't cover the Saints receivers, you can't win in the NFC South. Atlanta will have a better chance to do that this year.
As a head coach, Mike Smith has done a good job. He is 43-21 and has a very good home record. But he is 0-3 in the playoffs and in the last two seasons have been eliminated by the eventual Super Bowl champs. This has to be the year where they make a playoff run, not just another playoff appearance. With the Saints vulnerable, it's now or never for Atlanta, and I think they will finish first in the NFC South.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: I think there are two teams that can be the 'surprise ' teams of the year in the NFC. One is Detroit and the other is Carolina, and for similar reasons, starting with great young QBs. Cam Newton had an astonishing rookie year. He and Andy Dalton of the Bengals changed the perception of rookie QBs and when you should play them. Clearly Blaine Gabbert of Jacksonville and Christian Ponder of Minnesota could have benefited from a year observing and learning, but not Newton. He was ready and the Panthers let him go and watched him excel. Now with a real training camp he has the potential to be as good as good as any QB in football.
If Newton is the number one reason I like Carolina, then head coach Ron Rivera is a close second. When he was in Chicago as defensive coordinator, the Bears had the best defence in football and reached the Super Bowl. Then in San Diego, he turned the Chargers into one of the best defences in the league. To me, Rivera has done it twice before so it is just a matter of time before the Carolina Panthers have one of the best defences in football.
I may be jumping on the Carolina bandwagon a little too early, but better early than late and I really believe in this team. With three runners over 700 yards (Newton included) and ending the year tops in explosive plays (with 90 plays over 20 yards) the Panthers were a good 6-10 football team -very good. In their last six games of 2011, they won four, lost two, and beat a solid Texans team in Houston 28-13 on December 18.
With Jon Beason back at MLB and maybe the safest draft pick in recent history, LB Luke Kuechly of Boston College starting at OLB, the Panthers have a chance to improve into a top 10 defence and really compliment the offence, which was No. 7 last season.
The Panthers play the Saints in Week 2 and at New Orleans in Week 17. That last regular season game could have a lot on the line in terms of playoff positioning, and think Carolina will come through and finish second in the tough and competitive NFC South.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: I realize the Saints last year were No. 1 in total offence, No. 1 in passing offence, and No. 1 in third down offence, but the guy who put it all together is not there in 2012 and that has to make a negative difference. Within the organization I always viewed Sean Payton as the intimidator. He's the guy who keeps everyone in line simply through his presence and his vibe. He is also an excellent play-caller who is situational aware and willing to change a finesse game into physical game by running the interior over and over and over. Payton can dictate a game by calling plays to change emotion as much as produce a result.
Yes, Drew Brees will take on a bigger leadership role but he has to be careful. Brees has to first and foremost take care of Drew Brees. As aQB, if he tries to assist in too many other areas it will take away from his personal preparation cycle.
It is true to say that teams take on the personality and priorities of their head coach. Now with that personality gone, will there be an adjustment period? I say yes, there will. And I will also say this. Steve Spagnoulo will assist in many intangible ways. He may be the as of yet undefined head coach anyway.
The Saints won four games last year by a touchdown or less, which means they were successful on key drives on offense and got key stops on defence. That might not happen again because of the off-season and the instability and doubt it has created. I peg the Saints to finish third in the NFC south .
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: At one time the Bucs were 4-2, but they they completely fell apart and lost 10 in a row. And in the last five games the opponents scored 30 or more each time. Welcome Greg Schiano, the new boss in Tampa Bay. I think the Bucs will improve on their four win season if they can survive Schiano's training camp. Any time you have a new coach you have a new approach and part of the new approach is evaluating who is tough enough to play for you. And with Schiano coming directly out of Rutgers, the Tampa Bay training camp will be a real test of mental will as much as football ability.
I will say this, they did spend money this off-season. The Bucs signed the best WR out there in Vincent Jackson and the best offensive guard out there in Carl Nicks. And yes, they over-paid for both, but both are 16 game starters and masters at their positions. Jackson has dominated in camp, which is good news. You add a good draft pick in safety Mark Barron, RB Doug Martin, and the Bucs have four new starters right now. If the defensive line lives up to expectations, as all are high draft picks, Bucs football will be more than respectable.
Then there is QB Josh Freeman, who was excellent his first year, average at best his second. In year one he threw 25 TDs and six interceptions. In year two it was 22 TDs and 16 interceptions. Here in year three, the Bucs want to see something closer to Freeman's first season. The names Penn, Nicks, Zuttah, Joseph and Trueblood are not popular but they are a good offensive line in the making and that will help Freeman.
Over the last two seasons, the Bucs have been the NFL's youngest team. Now with Schiano in charge, will that youth mature into focused veterans or remain a group of inconsistent youngsters? Either way, the NFC South is a tough division in which to win. The Bucs will improve in 2012, but not enough to stay out of fourth place.