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2010 NFL Preview – NFC South

We’re only days from kickoff as the 2010 season preview rolls into the NFC South where Drew Brees and the NFL’s defending champions look to repeat. Can Matt Ryan lead the Falcons to a division crown, or will the Panthers rise from obscurity to dethrone the champs?

I’m generally pretty tough on the NFC South. I’ve never cared much for the Saints or Falcons, I’ve hated the Buccaneers since the NFC Championship catastrophes of 2001 and 2002, and the Panthers (whom I actually like) always make me look stupid. Therefore, I’m going to keep my analysis of the division brief and defer to my brother, who happens to be a die-hard Carolina Panther fan.

1. New Orleans Saints
After last season’s Superbowl, I reluctantly wrote the New Orleans Saints an apology for doubting them … ok, ok, ridiculing them throughout the 2009 season. If I could avoid doing so again in 2010, that would be marvelous.  I’m still not a fan of Sean Payton, but he and Drew Brees appear to have the Saints hungry for a repeat. I give them a 1.6% chance of repeating, but with a relatively weak division, they’ll probably return to the playoffs.

DWC’s Take: Saints – (I think I might be sick). Personal biases aside, I have to go with the Saints. They are the defending champs, and survived the off-season without losing significant contributors. Their defense can’t win a tight game, but their offense makes that mostly irrelevant. Drew Brees is one of (if not the) best in the game. His ability to read defenses and make adjustments is a real treat to watch. He’s quick with the ball and always seems to find the open receiver when there doesn’t seem to be one around. Throw in Sean Payton calling the plays, and we might have the greatest tandem since Batman and Robin. With all that said, they are not invincible. The defense can make it tough on days when the offense sputters, and they still lack a respectable run game. This won’t be a huge problem against most NFC teams, but against any team with the ability to the light-up the scoreboard (see Packers, Green Bay), the Saints could be in trouble. Here’s hoping all the praise I just gushed on the Saints proves wrong.

2. Carolina Panthers
If you recall, I mentioned the Panthers have made me look stupid on numerous occasions. I do not wish to relive all my embarrassing missteps, but last year I finished 8-8 in my Carolina picks. That was bad enough to tie for 29th place out of 32 teams. Perhaps they’re not really the ones that make me look stupid; maybe I’m just stupid for picking them. So why are you picking them above Atlanta? Glad you asked. The answer: I can’t help it. I drool uncontrollably over teams with a talented backfield and ferocious defense. I’m also one of two people left on earth who believe you can win without a prolific quarterback (Rex Ryan is clearly the other). The Panthers have the most dangerous backfield in the league. Their defense is not ferocious, at least as far as we know. However, history has shown that a defense of no-name players (with apologies to Jon Beason) can evolve into a top-tier unit (hello 2009 Bengals). No one is expecting much from the quarterback position and ultimately, the Panthers as a team. Playing with a chip on their collective shoulder could turn the Panthers back into playoff contenders as they fight for John Fox’s job. If not, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve looked stupid in backing them. So much for brief.

DWC’s Take: Falcons – After the Saints, the rest of the division is a real toss-up. I like the Falcons because of their offense. Having said that, I seriously question Matt Ryan’s decision making in key moments. Too many drives stalled when Ryan threw INT’s or had an unacceptable incompletion. If he doesn’t clean those up, these Falcons will never make it three years in a row with a winning record. That would be a shame because I like what the Falcons are building. They have a lot of pieces in place to become a Superbowl contender. They have a solid receiving corps to go along with a solid running game. Michael Turner (should he stay healthy) is due for another season like 2008. The defense remains a question mark as Abraham is one year older and slower. Without his pass rushing presence, the rest of the unit is vulnerable. When the defense is finally able to catch up with the potential of the offense, I think the Falcons could be a threat. Unfortunately, that statement includes too many “what ifs.”

3. Atlanta Falcons
Picking Atlanta to finish third isn’t so much an indictment of their talent. It’s an indictment of how little I know about them. But here’s what I do know: As I predicted, Matt Ryan took a step back last year. Was it a sophomore slump, a sign of things to come, or growing pains? Michael Turner is coming off an injury and approaching the age of 30 (the age when the NFL takes RB’s out back and shoots them Old Yeller style). The defense must drastically improve over the unit that ranked 28th in pass defense in 2009. The addition of Dunta Robinson should help, but unless someone can help John Abraham pressure the opposing quarterback, Robinson’s efforts will be for naught.
P.S. I just looked at Atlanta’s schedule, there’s no way they don’t finish 9-7. I’m an idiot.

DWC’s Take: Panthers – I’m a Panthers fan and I’m torn up about previewing them 3rd in the division. First, I was all for the “veteran dumping” the organization conducted during the offseason. My one critique of the current regime has been their reluctance to cut veterans who were well past their prime. Now those spots have been replaced with young talent. The defense (which should be the big question mark) is showing itself to be much improved. The absence of Julius Peppers will not be as painful as some want to let on. I foresee the defense keeping this team in every game, and maybe even winning one or two. Part of me feels as though a repeat of the 2003 “Cardiac Cats” could be in play. Low expectations always bode well for a John Fox team. The only problem I have is too much uncertainty on offense. Is Matt Moore ready to start 16 games? Who is Steve Smith’s help? Can the offensive line stay healthy? They have pieces to win, but a lot of questions that can only be answered once the season begins. The good news is that John Fox is in a great situation. If he coaches this team to a playoff spot, he can be sure of a contract extension. If not, he will be one of the hottest head coaching candidates heading into next season.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Quick, name two players on the Buc’s roster… Sorry, you lose. Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson no longer play for Tampa Bay, and no, Jon Gruden is not their coach. I think that says enough about the 2010 Buccaneers. On a positive note, the Bucs play 14 of their 16 contests at 1PM ET, so if you want to watch, you’ll know when to look.

DWC’s Take: Bucs – The Bucs are young, both on the field and the sidelines. The jury is still out on Josh Freeman as a franchise quarterback. He showed glimpses during his rookie campaign, but the sophomore year is always the real test. His lack of weapons doesn’t bode well for him though. Raheem Morris wants to be known as the next Mike Tomlin-type coach. He’s young, loud, and expects a lot from his players. The only problem is a lack of locker room leaders. The glory days of Brooks, Lynch, Dunn, and the like are long gone. Someone needs to step up and help Morris establish this team as the team that once instilled fear in their opponents. The past two drafts should aid that cause, but they are still a long way off.

If you’re wondering, last season’s NFC South predictions were:
Me: CAR, NO, ATL, TB
DWC: ATL, NO, CAR, TB
Actual Results: NO,ATL, CAR, TB

Thus, DWC 4, Me 1, No Winner 1

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