It's a good time to be a fan of the Sun Belt-brand football of the NFC South.
Atlanta has won 10-plus games two years in a row for the first time in franchise history. New Orleans suffered a disastrous offseason but is still in the midst of the organization's glory days. Carolina is on the rise behind the most exciting young player in the game. And even lowly Tampa was a 10-win playoff hopeful as recently as 2010.
It wasn't always this way.
The NFL stuck together four of the NFL's least accomplished franchises when it created the NFC South in 2002. The division's four teams have combined to win just two Super Bowls (Tampa Bay, New Orleans) and make one Super Bowl appearance each -- in both cases the fewest of any of the NFL's eight divisions.
But this year both the Falcons and Saints harbor legitimate Super Bowl dreams, the Panthers are on the rise and the Buccaneers have the hope of two rookie first-round picks, a new coach and a new attitude.
Few teams in history have put the ball into the hands of so many different weapons in so many ways. Wide receiver Marques Colston caught 80 passes for 1,143 yards and 8 TDs, but was only third on the team in receptions. That list was topped by tight end Jimmy Graham (99) and jitter-bug running back Darren Sproles (86). The Saints also added 16 rushing touchdowns (7th in the NFL) to complement the record-setting passing game, while scoring a franchise-best 547 points. Defenders appear incapable of shutting down all those weapons at once.
New Orleans was whacked in the offseason with the closest thing to a death penalty the NFL has ever issued, after the league found the team guilty of handing out bounties to injure opponents. Some fans and insiders have argued the penalties were far too harsh. Regardless, the Saints must play the entire season without head coach Sean Payton and lose other key figures on and off the field. The 2007 New England Patriots fought charges of spying by ripping off 18 straight wins; the high-powered 2012 Saints can rebuild their rep and make the charges against them a distant memory with their own explosive season.
Brees has little to prove in his career. He's already a champion and fresh off the most accurate (71.2 percent) and most prolific season (5,476 yards) by a passer in NFL history. But he may face more pressure than ever, forced to carry the team after a devastating season of controversy and forced attrition, including the loss of Payton. The team simply can't compete without another big, and maybe even historic season from its deadly accurate quarterback.
The Saints are still the best team in the division. But taking on an NFL season without your head coach is uncharted territory for an NFL franchise. And Payton was no ordinary coach: the organization's fortunes changed instantly the day that he and Brees rolled into town. Coupled with defensive concerns (the Saints were ripped for 4,157 passing yards in 2011) it's hard to envision another 13-3 romp.
Matt Ryan was sacked just 26 times last year, or on just 4.2 percent of dropbacks, among the best in the league in each category. He enjoyed similar protection in 2010 (23 sacks). That protection has also helped make Ryan one of the least mistake-prone passers in football year after year, with just 21 interceptions over the past two seasons. But now is the time to use that cushy pocket to attack defenses more aggressively with weapons such as second-year stud Julio Jones. The downfield passing attack under Ryan has been frustratingly inconsistent.
Atlanta simply could not get off the field on third down last year, allowing opponents to convert 93 of 211 (44.1 percent) on third-down attempts. Only three teams were worse, including the disastrous defensive units fielded by Minnesota and Indianapolis. Those struggles continued in the ugly 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants, who converted 8 of 15 third downs (53.3 percent) along with their lone fourth-down attempt. The Falcons needed much better efforts on third down to seriously compete for a Super Bowl.
Whether right or wrong, quarterbacks are measured by postseason success. And so far there, the four-year record with Ryan at the helm includes four nice regular season performances, followed by zero playoff wins and low-lighted by two bad losses each of the past two postseasons. The 24-2 loss to the Giants in the 2011 playoffs was so embarrassing it caused even neutral football fans to cringe: Armed with a galaxy of weapons, Ryan and the Atlanta offense produced zero points. Ryan has failed to pass for 200 yards in any one of his three playoff starts and has posted a 71.2 passer rating.
The Ryan-to-Jones combo could live up to the hype in 2012, after a strong rookie campaign for the wide receiver. And Jones has averaged an impressive 18.5 yards per catch in the 2012 preseason. But depending on wide receivers to carry your team is always a shaky foundation -- too often opponents are able to shut down even star wideouts in big games. The defensive liabilities also remain a huge concern and may ultimately hijack Atlanta's Super Bowl dreams.
It's safe to say Cam Newton exceeded even the most rosy-eyed outlooks as a rookie, including a first-year record 4,051 passing yards, with 21 touchdowns. But opponents must respect Carolina's historic ground game.
Newton himself ran for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, while the under-appreciated tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart racked up explosive yards once again: a combined 1,597 yards and 11 TDs on just 297 carries. The Panthers averaged an awesome 5.41 YPA on the ground in 2011, the No. 7 mark in the history of the NFL and not far off the record set by Jim Brown and the 1963 Browns (5.74 YPA). Opponents will focus on Newton's arm at their own peril.
As noted in our look at
Life changes fast in the Not For Long League. Just ask Panthers linebacker Jon Beason. He was the defensive face of the franchise in 2010, signed a big contract before the 2011 season and then missed the entire year with an Achilles' injury. He's struggled with injury here again in the preseason.
His injury opens the door for Kuechly, a record-setting tackling machine at Boston College and the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft, to eventually take over the middle of the Carolina defense. Even if Beason is healthy, Kuechly will play the weak side, where his rangy play can be utilized in coverage. The linebacker has a rare and instant opportunity to lift a bad defense and make himself a star in the NFL.
If they make it through September, the Panthers can start thinking playoffs. But the early slate is not easy: Carolina faces the Saints, Giants and Falcons in three straight games before Sept. 30. A 2-2 month would be good; 3-1 a great sign for the future.
It was hard to find any bright lights for the Buccaneers in 2011. It was a horrible season, even by the standards of an organization that once lost 26 straight games. The defense was terrible, and promising third-year QB Josh Freeman regressed badly after a strong sophomore season.
The brightest light on the team was its offensive line, and even then it was only mediocre. Tampa ranked
Tampa's defense was the worst in franchise history by almost every measure, including the only place that really counts, on the scoreboard. The Bucs surrendered a franchise worst 494 points. For a little perspective, the 2002 Super Bowl champ Bucs were nearly 300 points better on defense (196 points). Tampa posted the worst defensive passer rating (97.2) in franchise history and joined the very short list of teams in NFL history that surrendered more than 5.0 YPA on the ground. Top pick Mark Barron (No. 7 overall) must live up to the hype to give the team a big boost, but has struggled with nagging injuries, too.
The new sheriff arrives in town with a reputation as a tough, hard-nosed devotee of fundamental football. He's been handed a young team that appears to have a lot of talent at key positions, but that underachieved badly and even simply surrendered by the end of the 2011 season. It's an ideal situation to mold a team in your own image, and there's really nowhere to go but up. Of course, Raheem Morris was that bright young coach in 2009. He won just 17 games in his three seasons. Schiano faces both opportunity and pressure to build a winner fast.
Tampa has shown glimpses of being a team on the rise in the preseason, including a 30-28 win over New England in which it pounded Tom Brady and Barron recorded a pick-6. But the regular season is a different animal and Tampa is thrown right into the fire, hosting Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 1 before a classic where-do-we-stand game in Week 2 at the Giants.