By Mike Ivcic
One down, five more days of previews to go. Welcome to day two of the Ultimate Capper NFL preview, where today we take a look at both the AFC and NFC South division, where two years ago the Super Bowl featured teams from both of those divisions. Can the Saints and Colts make it back to that level, or will they both fall short again this season? I have my thoughts, and thatâs why this column exists, so letâs get to it.
1) New Orleans Saints
This is the part of the preview where everyone in Atlanta hates me. I know the Falcons are talented â in fact, if they played in either the NFC East or West, I’d be picking them to win the division, but alas, they don’t. They play in the same division as the Saints, a team I think should be the frontrunner to win the entire NFC. New Orleans was third in the league in passing offense and fourth in passing defense, usually a formula for success. And it’s not as if they had a terrible year last year, save for one 59 second stretch where Marshawn Lynch made like Barry Sanders in Techmo Super Bowl. So it’s not at all absurd to look for a better year from the Saints, especially considering the addition of Mark Ingram will almost surely boost the 28th ranked rushing offense in the league into somewhere in the teens, which combined with Drew Brees and that passing attack should once again lift the Saints back atop the South.
The Saints will get out of September without playing a division opponent, and the first one they will see on October 9 is Carolina, the middle game of a three-game road trip. Like the Texans, Colts, and Steelers, the Saints also draw that late, week 11 bye week, and come out of that week with four of their final six games at home and just one of those six against a 2011 playoff team. That would be the Monday nighter on December 26 against Atlanta, a game in the Superdome that could likely decide the division. Factor into the equation as well that the Saints draw Carolina as their week 17 opponent in the second year of the NFL’s “all division games in the final week” schedule, while Atlanta faces the tougher draw in Tampa Bay, and all signs point to a division championship for the second time in three seasons for New Orleans. As for home field advantage in the playoffsâ¦ well, that’s what week one is for, and we’ll get to THAT on Thursday.
2) Atlanta Falcons
It will be a close race between the Falcons, Ravens, and Patriots for the title of “best team to not win their division” this season (giving away a bit of tomorrow’s AFC East preview). Atlanta and New Orleans are both looking to bounce back from their tough playoff losses a season ago, but I actually believe the Falcons loss is more demoralizing than the Saints loss. Why? Well, for starters, even though the Seahawks had a 7-9 record, they were playing at home, and as everyone seems to agree, Qwest Field is widely regarded as one of the most difficult places to play a home game, right there with the Superdome and Arrowhead Stadium. So the Saints went from one of the best home fields in the league supporting them to a venue equal or better as far as home field advantage, except they were all rooting against them. Plus, the Seahawks had absolutely no pressure on them whatsoever. They weren’t even supposed to be there. The Falcons, however, were at home, the top seed against a Green Bay team that had just won three straight win-or-go-home games against the Giants, Bears, and Eagles, were missing about half of the team because of injuries, and Atlanta had a week off to prepare. So the Falcons defeat, especially considering the game became lopsided somewhere between the coin toss and kickoff, was much more of a devastating blow, and would be more likely to have an impact on this season.
All of that said, Atlanta won’t fall off the map. They will waltz into the five seed much like New Orleans did a year ago â with the seed locked up sometime before Christmas, leaving only the aforementioned week 16 contest in New Orleans to determine the division champ. The addition of Julio Jones will make this offense even more prolific, but it’s hard to see where the front office addressed the weaknesses in the secondary that were exposed by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last January. With both games against the Saints likely to be more shootouts than shutouts, the edge has to shift to New Orleans because of their significantly better pass defense. Plus, the Falcons have to travel to Houston and Indianapolis in the cross-over games, but the Saints get both of those teams at home. A pretty stiff start awaits Atlanta (at Chicago, Philadelphia, at Tampa Bay, at Seattle, Green Bay) so even assuming a 3-2 start might be a bit much for the defending top seed in the NFC. They’ll still be playing postseason football, but this year they’ll be doing it in opposing teams’ stadiums as opposed to the Georgia Dome.
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A casualty of playing in the same division as two of the league’s best right now, the Bucs finished short of the postseason last year and will likely face the same fate this year. Tampa fans should be happy, though, with their tremendous potential as an organization, which seems to have rebounded from the rough days since winning it all in 2003. The young tandem of head coach Raheem Morris and quarterback John Freeman have been talked about quite frequently, but the talk is all true â the duo has a chance to establish themselves as contenders in the NFC for the next decade if they can continue to build and grow together. Many criticized the Bucs for not spending a ton of money when they had it available this offseason, but it’s not a terrible idea to sit and save if the players on the market don’t fit the need and role on the team. Look for the Bucs to make a big splash after this season, when they will probably have a better chance of leapfrogging one of the two teams ahead of them in the division. For now, another season of highly competitive football should prove to the fanbase that the organization is moving in the right direction.
The interesting part of the schedule is that Tampa is paired up with Dallas, both teams finishing their in their respective divisions last season. Most pundits don’t seem to know what to expect from the Cowboys, but there’s a very high likelihood that their meeting in Tampa on December 17 will go a long way towards deciding if one or both of these teams will be playing postseason football. The Bucs open with five of seven at home, including both visits from the division frontrunners and a game against Indianapolis, but subsequently finish with five of their last seven on the road, wrapping up the year in Atlanta. If the Bucs can at least get to that game with a chance at the playoffs, especially if catching the Falcons is a possibility, then perhaps the pressure will once again shift to the Atlanta sidelines and in the Bucs favor. All told, though, 9-7, third place, and no postseason is the probable outcome for one of the league’s more promising teams.
4) Carolina Panthers
And then there’s Carolina. I’m going to go opposite the common train of thought and say that anointing top overall pick Cam Newton as the season’s opening day starter is an absolutely terrible idea. If Newton falters or even just plays subpar football, there’s no way the organization will be able to make any move at all to Jimmy Clausen. Basically, what the Panthers have told their second round pick from last season is, “rent, don’t buy, because you won’t be here next year.” That doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the young man, nor will it really create a situation where Newton will feel any sort of push from behind, because whether consciously or subconsciously, the former Auburn standout will know that he’s the future of the team, and that any benching or quarterback switch will only be temporary. After all, the fans will be furious if their top pick and opening day starter doesn’t play for consecutive weeks. Instead, had Carolina elected to start Clausen, it would have forced Newton to earn his way into the lineup in practice, and made it much easier (and more appealing to Panther fans) to bench Clausen for Newton as opposed to the other way around. Either way, Carolina has hitched it’s carriage to a player who has 14 total college starts and didn’t play in an offense that translates to the NFL. Best of luck to you, Carolina â you’re going to need it.
On the bright side, Newton actually has someone to block for him, which means he’ll have a better first season than Andy Dalton and the Panthers will be better than the Bengals. Notice I didn’t say win more games, I just said better. Aside from the six division games, the Panthers will get Tennessee, Jacksonville, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Washington at home, along with trips to Houston, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, and Arizona. Carolina will be underdogs in every game, and while there are certainly potential wins to be had (home games against the Jaguars and Redskins jump out first) I wouldn’t expect more than a one game improvement at most from last year, nor would I be surprised if Cam Newton isn’t the only number one overall pick on the roster when the team assembles for training camp in 2012.
Monday, September 5: AFC North
Monday, September 5: NFC North
Tuesday, September 6: AFC South
Tuesday, September 6: NFC South
Wednesday, September 7: AFC East
Wednesday, September 7: NFC East
Thursday, September 8: AFC West
Thursday, September 8: NFC West
Friday, September 9: Playoffs and Super Bowl