For the division that has been known as parity central over the years, the NFC South has experienced its share of excellence of late. In 2010, the division was the only one in the NFL to feature three teams with at least 10 wins, and no division had more than the NFC South's combined 36 victories (an average of nine per team). And that was with bottom-dwelling Carolina dragging things down with an NFL-worst 2-14 finish.
True, the division went 0-2 in the postseason, and the second-place Saints (11-5) failed to defend their Super Bowl title last year. But New Orleans did actually become the first team in the division's history to put together back-to-back playoff trips, with its combined 24-8 record standing as the best in the league over 2009-10, tied only by New England and Indianapolis. While the NFC South still has never had a repeat champion, the well-run Falcons have made it three consecutive winning seasons now after never managing even two in a row from 1966-2008.
Even third-place Tampa Bay has reason to brag. The Bucs (10-6) improved by an NFL-best seven games in their turnaround season of 2010, and narrowly missed making it eight straight times that a team finished last in the NFC South one year and made the playoffs the next season. But if you believe in the take-your-turn mojo of the NFC South, this might be the Bucs' year. Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina have won the past three division titles, making it Tampa Bay's time once again.
No team in the NFC had a bigger gap between the ranking of its passing game (No. 3 in the league) and running game (28th), so it's not tough to discern where the Saints' greatest strength lies. With quarterback Drew Brees leading the NFL in completion percentage for two years running, and a deep and versatile assortment of pass-catchers that includes receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and emerging tight end Jimmy Graham, defenses can only pick their poison when they try to slow down the Saints through the air.
Brees had to do too much at times last year due to the fall-off of the running game (just 94.9 yards per game, after 131.6 in 2009), and the result was his interception total doubling to a career-worst 22. But the savvy 10-year vet still threw for 33 touchdowns and 4,620 yards, with a mind-boggling 448 completions on 658 attempts (68.1 percent). Less would be more this year in New Orleans, with the expected boost that first-round running back Mark Ingram supplies to the rushing game.
A year after the Saints defense rode its opportunistic, takeaway style of play all the way to a Super Bowl title, New Orleans lost the magic on that front last season. The Saints of 2009 were third in the league in interceptions with 26, but collected a paltry nine in 2010, ranking last in the NFL. Not surprisingly, the team's takeaway total shrunk from 39 to 25, with its turnover ratio basically flipping (plus-11 in 2009, third-best overall, to minus-6 in 2010, ranking 23rd). The short-field touchdown drives just didn't materialize last season like they did in '09.
The secondary is the strength of the defense, so the hope is the takeaways will return if the Saints can finally generate some pass pressure without relying almost exclusively on the blitz packages that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to implement. New Orleans overhauled its front seven this offseason, picking up defensive end Cameron Jordan (first round) and outside linebacker Martez Wilson (third round) in the draft, and making run-stuffing veteran tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers the key acquisitions up front. Improving the pass rush remains the priority, and the Saints believe their changes have made them better off in that department.
The surprising release of veteran defensive end Alex Brown this week fairly well spells out the writing on the wall: The Saints view Jordan as ready to immediately contribute. Though ex-Lions defensive end Turk McBride has had a strong preseason and might share time with Jordan early in the year at left end, the former Cal standout has improved throughout August and looks like he can be relied on. He might have to be, especially if starting right end Will Smith serves a league suspension in September for his role in the long-ago StarCaps investigation. Jordan's strength is his talent as a run defender, but he's a versatile player capable of shifting inside on passing downs and creating penetration from the interior.
Though they play in a deep division that features opponents with talented quarterbacks and quality coaching, the Saints still look like the elite team in the NFC South to me. They appear in prime position to fashion just the second streak of three consecutive playoff trips in franchise history (1990-92), and possibly only Green Bay is more likely to wind up representing the NFC in the Super Bowl next February. Improvement by the defensive front seven is the key factor in how far the Saints will ride their impressive blend of talent, experience and depth.
Atlanta has been known for its Michael Turner-led running game in the Mike Smith coaching era, but the numbers didn't really stand out in that regard in 2010. Yes, Turner produced a 1,371-yard rushing season, and there's nothing shabby about that. But the Falcons were only the 12th-best rushing team in the league (118.2 ypg), and while they ran the ball more than all but four teams in the NFL, their average rush of 3.8 yards was tied for third lowest.
But Atlanta was superb on third downs, be it via the pass or the run. The Falcons converted 46.7 percent of the time last season, a rate that was only topped by the powerful offenses in New Orleans (48.8) and New England (48.2). And that number could even improve this year, because the Falcons drafted Oregon State scat-back Jacquizz Rodgers in the fifth round, with the plan to make him their change-of-pace, third-down weapon out of the backfield.
There was no secret to what Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff set out to do in April's NFL draft. Going 13-3 and winning the NFC South in 2010 was great, but if Atlanta was to keep up with the Saints in their division and the Packers in the NFC, it had to acquire another big-time playmaker or two on offense. Thus the blockbuster trade to move up 21 spots in the first round for Alabama receiver Julio Jones, and the selection of the elusive Rodgers, who should create matchup problems for a defense.
Jones looks like the real deal and his arrival should mean opponents can no longer double-team Falcons receiver Roddy White -- the NFL's leading pass-catcher in 2010 with 115 -- all game long. The hope is that with more downfield weaponry for quarterback Matt Ryan to utilize, increased running lanes open up for Turner, and his per carry average creeps back closer to the 4.9 yards he posted in 2009 (as opposed to last year's 4.1).
Atlanta spent in free agency to acquire the ex-Viking, with the goal of finally finding someone to pressure the passer besides veteran defensive end John Abraham. The Falcons finished with just 31 sacks last season, tied for 20th in the NFL, and Abraham had 13 of those (nine more than any other Falcon). Edwards collected 16½ sacks over the past two seasons in Minnesota, and he's entering his prime as a sixth-year vet in 2011.
More pass rush should make the Atlanta defense better on third down (39.3 percent, in the bottom third of the league), and serve to jack up a Falcons pass defense that ranked just 22nd overall last year, allowing 226.6 yards per game. Atlanta is going to score its share of points with Ryan and Co. pulling the trigger, so the defense doesn't have to be suffocating. But complicating the task of opposing passers would make everyone's life as a Falcon so much easier.
Since Dimitroff, Smith and Ryan got to town in 2008, the Falcons are a sterling 33-15 in the regular season, with three consecutive winning seasons (a franchise first) and a pair of playoff trips. All that's left now is erasing the stigma of their two one-and-done postseason showings and fully forcing their way into the ranks of the NFC elite. Atlanta has still never made back-to-back playoff trips, but that's a hurdle I see getting cleared this season. All those positives, and yet the Saints and Packers still seem to block the Falcons' path to Indianapolis.
Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris had the youngest team in the NFL in 2010, but you wouldn't have known it from the maturity level and poise under pressure displayed by the vastly improved Bucs. Four of Tampa Bay's first five victories were by three points or fewer last season, and the Bucs seemed to thrive on their ability to weather some brutal starts (just 43 first-quarter points, fourth-lowest in the league) and then make the plays that count with the game on the line.
All told, Tampa Bay was 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer last season, and second-year quarterback Josh Freeman engineered five comeback wins in the fourth quarter or overtime (giving him seven such victories in his nascent NFL career). Freeman in the fourth quarter is a different quarterback. Last year he threw eight touchdown passes, with a 97.4 passer rating and a 62.6 completion percentage, in the fourth quarter or OT.
Rebuilding the defensive line has been the single-minded focus at the top of the past two Tampa Bay drafts, and it's still very much an open question as to when the big payoff comes. After a very slow start, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was just starting to make a little impact last season when he tore his biceps and was lost for the final three games. His fellow rookie tackle, second-rounder Brian Price, missed all but five games last season with a fractured pelvis but just returned to game action last weekend.
This year, the Bucs went for guys who can get to the quarterback, taking Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn in the first round and falling Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second. So far, so good in terms of Bowers and his well-chronicled knee injury, but only time will tell if the Bucs selected the right linemen and have created for themselves a fearsome foursome for the future. Tampa Bay needs someone to help out a pass rush that finished tied for 30th last season, with just 26 sacks.
The Bucs took a calculated gamble to let solid middle linebacker Barrett Ruud walk in free agency. Ruud was the team's leading tackler the past four years, but he rarely made big plays and Tampa Bay craved more size and physicality at that key position. Enter Foster, the team's 6-2, 242-pound third-round pick out of Washington.
Foster hasn't completely learned the playbook yet or the intricacies of his position. But he is hitting everything in sight this preseason, and already got fined $20,000 by the league for what appeared to be a pretty clean pop laid on new Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco in Week 2. On the bigger, more physical front, the Bucs have found their man in Foster.
Without a doubt, Tampa Bay's remarkable turnaround story went under-appreciated last season, largely because the Bucs were unlucky enough to have both the 13-3 Falcons and the 11-5 defending Super Bowl champion Saints in their own division. The problem is, the Falcons and Saints are going to be right there fighting it out at the top once again this year, and Tampa Bay might get a bit over-looked again because of it. Like Kansas City in the AFC, I think the Bucs will be a better team than last year's 10-6 version, but they may not get 10-6 results this season. Winning so many close games for a second year in a row is always iffy, and there will be no element of surprise in Tampa Bay's favor in 2011.
Carolina was the Black Hole when it came to offense in 2010, but the Panthers still have backfield talent and a running game that's envied by many teams. Carolina finished a respectable 13th in rushing last season (115.4 ypg) despite opposing defenses knowing they couldn't get hurt through the air by the likes of Jimmy Clausen or Matt Moore. Running back DeAngelo Williams re-signed with the Panthers and appears all the way back from the foot injury that cost him all but six games last season. He may never return to his spectacular 1,500-yard, 20-touchdown form of 2008, but he's still a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
Carolina also has Jonathan Stewart (770 yards, 4.3 average in 2010) and third-down back Mike Goodson (452, 4.4) to run behind an offensive line that features Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross and franchise-tagged center Ryan Kalil, so the Panthers going with a run-first mentality with rookie Cam Newton at quarterback makes solid sense this year.
Where to begin? The Panthers ranked last in the NFL in 2010 in passing (143.1 ypg), scoring (12.2 ppg), total offense (258.4 ypg) and red-zone TD percentage (30.3). And we mean dead last. As in no one even in the same neighborhood. Carolina scored just 16 offensive touchdowns all season, and just nine of those came via the passing game. Clausen, who started 10 games as a rookie, didn't complete a scoring pass to a wide receiver all year.
Newton, of course, means there's hope for the future, but maybe not the immediate future. He's going to require some time to learn how to throw the ball at the NFL level, and he won't be dealing with the limited playbook that he enjoyed at Auburn University. Carolina doesn't want him running all the time, so Newton will have to fight the urge to take off when things get tight in the pocket. It only figures that improvement in the passing game will be incremental this season.
When you're a Heisman-winning quarterback taken first overall in the draft, you're under a microscope from the minute you hear your name called. And if you're Newton, you have the recent success of first-round quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford to contend with. The Panthers may intend to be patient with the new face of the franchise, but that's easier said than done in today's media and fan climate.
Newton has hit all the right notes with his teammates, and he's put in the necessary work to get ready to play despite a very abbreviated offseason. But he has looked over-matched at times in the preseason, and his inexperience in a sophisticated passing game has shown. He's expected to start from day one in Carolina, and that's the right call because he needs the work. Maybe the best the Panthers can hope for this year is solid and steady progress, with more and more lights going on for him as his rookie season unfolds.
Thank God for the NFC West, or the NFL might have seen its second 0-16 team in three seasons last year. The anemic Panthers won just twice, both times at home, against the third- and fourth-place teams (San Francisco and Arizona) from the weakest division in the game. Carolina is starting over now with a new head coach in Ron Rivera and a new quarterback in Newton, and I can see them doubling their 2010 win total. That's not a bad first step, given how far the free-fall extended last year. But six games against the likes of the Saints, Falcons and Bucs means playoff contention is still at least a couple years away.