With the NFL regular season less than a week away, our final division preview looks at the NFC South.
Key Player: Cam Newton
Last Season: 12-4, 1st in the division, lost in the divisional round.
The Carolina Panthers were something of a surprise package winning the NFC South last season. Powered by the second hardest defence to score points against, the Panthers secured the 2nd seed in the NFC and a first round bye in the 2014 playoffs. Unfortunately Carolina’s lack of offensive firepower finally saw them fall to the 49ers. How do the Panthers fortunes for the coming season look?
Carolina’s greatest weakness, and eventual undoing, last season was their lack of playmaking ability at the Wide Receiver spot. The Panthers’ top three receivers from last season have all left Carolina for greener pastures.
The loss of number one receiver Steve Smith is a blow to Carolina, but rookie Kelvin Benjamin looks set to fill Smiths void. Carolina has a solid run game and a very good quarter back in Cam Newton. The question which remains to be answered is do any of the Panthers wide receivers offer the big play ability that is crucial to winning regularly in the NFL?
The Carolina Defence is undoubtedly the greatest strength of this team. If losing offensive leader Steve Smith in free agency was a blow, the potential six suspension of pass rusher Greg Hardy could cripple this defence. Along with middle line backer, and reigning Defensive player of the Year, Luke Kuechly, defensive end Hardy is a stand out player on this very strong defence. Losing either Hardy or Kuechly would be a massive blow to the organisation. The Panthers defence does an excellent job hiding the offence’s difficulties in scoring the ball, and this is the main reason the Panthers won 12 games last season.
Prediction: A strong defense and a solid running game is a proven way to win games in the NFL. The problem is, however, whether the Panthers can score enough to push for a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, this writer cannot see Carolina maintaining their high levels of last season in a difficult division. Anything over 8 wins will be a good season for Carolina.
New Orleans Saints
Key Player: Drew Brees
Last Season: 11-4, 2nd in division, lost in the divisional round.
New Orleans quietly had one of the better offseasons in terms of upgrading the personnel on their roster. Having finished second in the division and losing to eventual champion Seattle Seahawks last season, have the Saints done enough to secure a Superbowl berth this season?
When Drew Brees is the starting quarter back for your team you always have a chance to win the game. When Brees has weapons like tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marquise Colston and running back Mark Ingram surrounding him, that team has a chance to win a lot of games.
The New Orleans offence for the coming season is downright scary. WR’s Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks are young, but extremely talented receivers. RB’s Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas compliment Mark Ingram very well. As long as the offensive line protects Drew Brees this offence should be powerful enough to dominate most defences.
The New Orleans defense has seen a lot of personnel turnover since the famous bounty scandal was discovered in 2011. The Saints were quite strong defensively in 2013. The addition of free agent Safety Jarius Byrd has only served to make this unit even stronger again in 2014.
Prediction: This Saints team has all the tools to go to the Super Bowl. Expect the Saints to win 12+ games and to finish top of the NFC South.
Key Player: Julio Jones
Last Season: 4-12, 3rd in division, missed playoffs
The Atlanta Falcons battled the Houston Texans for most disappointing campaign for most of 2013 (the Texans ran out eventual winners). Coming off a great 2012 campaign many people predicted a potential Super Bowl berth for the Falcons last season. A Julio Jones injury, accompanied by the offensive line forgetting how to block, and a defence that had little to no pass rush quickly put an end to that dream. What does 2014 hold for the Falcons?
The good news for Falcons fans is that wide receiver Julio Jones is fit and ready for the season. Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas provide quarter back Matt Ryan with a host of options in the passing game. The bad news for Falcons fans is that future Hall-of-Fame tight end, and Matt Ryan’s safety blanket, Tony Gonzalez has retired. Gonzalez will leave a massive hole in this Falcons offence. The combination of Jones, White and Douglas will go quite a way to filling that hole.
Defensively the Falcons will struggle to be much worse than they were in 2013. The addition of defensive lineman Paul Soliai is a move the front office hopes will help shore up the front seven. Generating pressure on the opposing quarter back still looks like it will be Atlanta’s biggest problem. In the modern NFL even the weakest of quarterbacks will shred a secondary if they are given time to do so.
Prediction: Offensively the Falcons will improve from last season. Without a proven pass rush it will be difficult to improve greatly. The Falcons will win 8/9 games, but will be a couple of wins shy of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Player: Doug Martin
Last Season: 4-12, 4th in division, missed playoffs.
Every off season a number of experts predict a winning season for Tampa Bay and a run in the playoffs. 2013 was no different. Running back Doug Martin was touted as a top 5 back in the NFL. Young quarter back Josh Freeman was one of the new breed of QB’s set to lead the Buccaneers for years to come. By week six Freeman had been released by the team for poor play and reported off the field incidents, and Martin had been ruled out for the season with injury. The rest of the season was a write off for the Buccaneers. Coming into 2014 the Buccaneers are again viewed as a potential break out team for many experts. Is this the year of the Buccaneers?
The Bucs replaced quarter backs Freeman and Mike Glennon with former Chicago Bear backup Josh McCown. McCown looked like a very good QB when deputizing for the injured Jay Cutler last season. McCown should be excited when he looks at who he has to throw the ball to on the outside.
Tampa Bay possesses two of the larger wide receivers in the NFL in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. If McCown can strike up any chemistry with Jackson and Evans that should open up the running game nicely the fit again Doug Martin.
On paper Tampa Bay has a very good, borderline excellent, defence. The front four combined for 24 sacks last season, and that does not include line backer Lavonte David’s six sacks. If the front four can continuously create pressure on the opposing QB the Tampa Bay secondary has the potential to create turnovers regularly.
Prediction: There are plenty of reasons for optimism in Tampa Bay this season. The one reason for pessimism is that they must play New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina twice each. In a tough division some team has to lose out, and this year it’s going to be Tampa Bay. Five wins is the most the Buccaneers can expect this season.
There you have a preview of each of the divisions. It’s time now to sit back and get comfortable for an exciting season of football.