Cam Newton could in fact be Superman, but will that be enough to propel the Carolina Panthers to the top of one of football’s deepest divisions?
1. Atlanta Falcons
I’m not at all a believer in the Falcons. In the 2010 playoffs I knew the Packers would cruise through the Falcons just as I knew the Giants would in 2011. Despite their impressive roster and gaudy regular season numbers, the Falcons don’t have that elite feel to them. Matt Ryan is a good but not great quarterback. With that said, if Atlanta is ever going to contend for titles in the Ryan era, this could be their best chance. Roddy White is already 30, Michael Turner’s tread is wearing thin, John Abraham is 34, and the Saints have been neutered. But if this is really Atlanta’s year, they’ll need their underachieving defense to step up. After all, Mike Smith is a defensive coach and his defenses have been AWOL in some of the Falcons biggest games. So why do I have the Falcons first if I’m so down on them? Because the Saints will be shorthanded (duh). I don’t care how good Drew Brees is. You don’t remove one of the best minds in football and not stumble a little.
DWC’s Take: Saints – I do not like the Saints, but even I must admit the NFL is using them as a poster child for their disciplinary procedures. Yes, the locker room tape before the Saints game was disturbing, but I doubt it was the only locker room where such talk went on. And because of the extreme punishment levied by the NFL, I am expecting the Saints to play with a large chip on their shoulder. They already love their city and now have a suspended head coach and linebacker to play for. This team will be angry and hungry, which is never a good combination. As a Panthers fan, I am more than a bit scared. My glimmer of hope is the defense doesn’t scare anybody. The playoff loss to the 49ers demonstrated as much. The addition of Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator won’t make up for a lack of talent at key positions. Teams can and will throw against the Saints.
2. New Orleans Saints
There are many who believe the Saints will continue their winning ways without Sean Payton. (See above.) Others believe everything will go wrong and New Orleans will miss the playoffs. I’m taking the middle ground. The offense won’t be quite as special but Drew Brees is still a superstar. Assuming he doesn’t allow his contract issues to impact his play, the Saints will still light up the scoreboard and compete for a playoff berth. Though, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t enjoy watching things unravel in New Orleans.
DWC’s Take: Panthers – Homer pick, right? Let me explain why I like the 6-10 Panthers over the 10-6 Falcons: 1) Cam Newton is going be better as a QB than he was last year. 2) The Panthers running game is deep and better than Michael Turner’s aging and over-worked body. 3) Jon Beason is back from injury and Luke Keuchly is as good as advertised. 4) The defense as a whole is healthy and had an entire off-season to learn the system they never learned due to last year’s lockout. 5) Steve Smith loves playing football again and when he loves playing football the Panthers go places (see 03, 05, and 08 seasons). 6) Ron Rivera has this team believing in their growth as evidenced by Center Ryan Kalil’s newspaper ad about the Panthers winning the Superbowl. 7) I am a Panthers fan.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs were shockingly bad in 2011. Josh Freeman was surprisingly worse. 2011 was simply one of those years when a young team thought it had arrived when in fact it was still scrapping its way through the maturation process. Had Tampa Bay had a better coach, 2011 may not have gone so sour. With everyone writing off Freeman and the Bucs, I’m expecting revival in Tampa. Revival as in 7-9 wins, not division champs and a first round bye.
DWC’s Take: Falcons – Having declared my belief in the Panthers, I must confess I also believe in the Falcons. Personally, I expect NO, CAR, and ATL to fight for the division title. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the three came out on top. For the Falcons, I do like Matt Ryan. He overcame the sophomore slump as well as any QB in recent memory. He and Roddy White are a lethal duo and Julio Jones is a better option than a lot of team’s #1s. I also like their low-risk deal for Asante Samuel who should do well now that he knows he is wanted. However, the loss of Curtis Lofton in the middle of the defense hurts. He was key in stopping the run. Replacing him won’t be easy.
4. Carolina Panthers
Just because I’m picking the Panthers to finish last in the division doesn’t mean I’m picking them to digress. I fully expect Carolina to win at least six games as they did in 2011, if not one or two more. Unfortunately, I don’t trust Carolina’s coaching staff. As great as Cam Newton was in his rookie campaign, the Panthers greatest asset is still their dynamic rushing attack. Sadly, the coaches often ignore Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for an inconsistent passing attack. Newton is still developing as a passer, just like any 2nd year quarterback. Lightening his load would certainly improve Carolina’s chances of moving up in the division and possibly competing for a playoff spot. Instead, the Panthers will probably throw too much, force a questionable defense to wear down, and soon realize they’ve wasted a boatload of money on two underused running backs.
DWC’s Take: Buccaneers – The remade Bucs interest me. I was disappointed to see how they quit on Raheem Morris in only his 2nd year as head coach, but I think Greg Schiano is a good fit for this team. More importantly, all eyes will be on Josh Freeman. After his rookie campaign it looked like Freeman was going to hit his stride in year two. Unfortunately, he fell flat on his face (as did my fantasy team). If he doesn’t vastly improve, the Bucs will be in the market for a QB. They can’t afford to play around after giving big bucks to Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks. This team is spending money to win, and they need to start winning sooner rather than later.
For those keeping score, last season’s NFC South predictions:
Me: NO, ATL, TB, CAR
Actual Results: NO, ATL, CAR, TB
Score: DWC 1, Me 1, Fail 2, Tie 2