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2011 NFL Preview – NFC South

The NFC South is one of the NFL’s deepest divisions, especially at the quarterback position. Can we include the Carolina Panthers in that statement? Well, that’s up to Cam Newton.

1. New Orleans Saints
As thrilling as it was to see Seattle thump the Saints and shock the sports world, I was disappointed. New Orleans and Green Bay in the Conference Championship was an intriguing matchup. I felt cheated. What’s worse, I was treated to Marshawn Lynch grabbing his crotch as he scored the decisive touchdown instead. (Real classy, by the way. Must be a Seattle thing [Shawn Kemp].) Thankfully, the very first game of the 2011 NFL season provides us the Packers/Saints matchup Seattle stole from us last winter.

After their inconsistent play throughout most of last year and the embarrassing end to their 2010 season, expect a more focused team from Sean Payton. No Super Bowl hangover. All business. The division, excluding the Panthers, has caught up to New Orleans. While there’s still time for Drew Brees and the Saints to make another title run, they better get on it soon. That clock won’t tick forever.

DWC’s Take: Saints – Trading Reggie Bush was the best move the Saints made this offseason. Trying to fit him into their offense was too much of a headache. He didn’t run between the tackles (or at least they didn’t think so), and he wasn’t good enough to play the slot. Bush was often the odd-man out. His injury history also didn’t help. Now they have two gifted runners in Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. While Drew Brees had a surprisingly mediocre (for him) season last year (22 INT), I expect him to bounce back in 2011. As a result, the offense will put up numbers. Looking at the big picture, I see the Saints and Eagles a slight step behind the Packers. Both have the offensive potential, but their defenses will determine how far they go.

2. Atlanta Falcons
I’m sorry, I just don’t see the appeal with the Falcons. Offensively, absolutely, they could be unstoppable. If Julio Jones is the player many expect, he, Roddy White, and Matt Ryan should put up some incredible numbers. Lack of offense wasn’t what killed the Falcons in 2010, though. It was their defense. Atlanta somewhat addressed the defense by adding defensive end Ray Edwards. Edwards should free up John Abraham and together terrorize opposing quarterbacks. While it seems like a nice solution, I’m not buying it as enough. Look at the quarterbacks who stand between Atlanta and the Super Bowl: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Tony Romo. Unless you have four John Abrahams lining up, you’re going to need a decent secondary to win the NFC. Atlanta’s secondary is a liability. A liability I expect will be exposed more often than not in 2011. No need to fret, though. Matt Ryan is on the verge of super-stardom.

DWC’s Take: Falcons – I really like Atlanta’s offense except for Michael Turner. His best days are behind him. On the other hand, Matt Ryan continues to develop. I liken him to Joe Flacco except Ryan has the stronger skill-set. Unfortunately, he mimics Flacco’s tendency to shy away in big moments. Roddy White was unstoppable last season, and the addition of Julio Jones makes the Falcons another team capable of scoring points at will. However, I still don’t like that defense. John Abraham is old and I am not completely sold on Ray Edwards. Thankfully for the Falcons, every other contender has issues on the defensive side as well.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I was actually tempted to go with the Panthers here. Then I remembered the Panthers have two highly touted college quarterbacks who can’t currently throw worth a lick. Tampa Bay has that “from 10 to 6 wins” feel to them. Similar to how I felt about the Chiefs, Tampa Bay took advantage of a gawdawful schedule in 2010. Take a look for yourself: Wins: Browns, Panthers (2x), Bengals, Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, Redskins, Seahawks, Saints (meaningless game for New Orleans).  Add that to the expectations of following a 10 win season, and I just don’t see a young Buccaneers team making it to the finish line with better than six or seven wins. On a separate note, how about the quarterback forecast in the NFC South? Josh Freeman, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan. Three years from now, the Saints could be the short straw in the division.

DWC’s Take: Buccaneers – As a Panthers fan, I would love to see Cam Newton play like Josh Freeman. He’s big, athletic, and usually makes the right decisions. I think Freeman will start making his way up the charts this season. Watching him play is a real treat. While I believe LaGarrette Blount will rush for at least 1,000 yards, the Bucs just don’t have enough weapons to keep up with the Falcons and Saints. The most unfortunate part is the Bucs had money to spend this offseason. I’m not sure if the lockout shied them away from using it or if Raheem Morris has something up his sleeve. Hopefully, they won’t wait too long, because if they do, they may be trading the Tampa sun for tea and biscuits in London.

4. Carolina Panthers
Although I’m worried he won’t be one of the top two quarterbacks from this draft, drafting anyone but Cam Newton with the first pick would have been mistake, and may have set Charlotte ablaze. Carolina needed a franchise building block, someone to rally the fans and bring hope. Newton is Luke Skywalker. Raw and unfinished, but with potential to raise a struggling, downtrodden franchise from the ashes. Now, where do the Panthers go from here? They have great running backs, stellar linebackers, one of the league’s better offensive lines, and until the 2011 preseason, what many believed to be a respectable defense. With an adequate rookie quarterback, that seems good enough for seven or eight wins. But not in Carolina. Injuries always inflict the Queen City. It’s a shame the last years of Steve Smith’s prime and the dynamic running back duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been mostly wasted. Even worse, it’s hard to imagine Carolina competing in 2012 as well, unless of course, Cam Newton learns to trust the Force.

DWC’s Take: Panthers – This division has a history of worst-to-first jumps. Do I lack faith in the boys in blue? No, I am merely a realist. The 2-14 record wasn’t completely accurate, but Carolina, at best, was a six win team last year. While the Panthers were riddled with injuries on both sides of the ball, they also lost a handful of games in the 4th quarter because the defense couldn’t overcome the offense’s mistakes. This year will include significant growing pains. I like the Panthers going out and signing their younger core. I also like Cam Newton. He’s got the swagger of a winner, and yet he understands the NFL is a tough place for a rookie quarterback. He is a playmaker, which is what this offense needs in its leader. But as a rookie, he will also see rough times, especially given their schedule (toughest in the NFL). While the offense has a lot to learn, the defense has a lot of holes, too many to overcome. They still need a dominant tackle or shut down corner. I like the future of this team, but they are at least two seasons from competing for anything significant.

For those keeping score, here are last season’s NFC South predictions:
Me: NO, CAR. ATL, TB
DWC: NO, ATL, CAR, TB
Actual Results: ATL, NO, TB, CAR

Score: DWC: 2, Me: 1, Fail: 3

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