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NFC South 2013 Preview: Falcons still flying high…

One of the Atlanta Falcons many weapons. Julio Jones

One of the more interesting divisional races should be the NFC South. Of course, there is no NFC divisional race, that won’t be interesting this season. The parity in the NFC is unprecedented, and should make for an outstanding regular season. Sports & Swag starts its look at the 2013 NFL season, with a look down south at the NFC South.

Some would argue that the Atlanta Falcons, won this division by default last season, as the New Orleans Saints went through ‘Bounty Gate’. That’s very arguable, to say the least. This season, the Saints are a full team again, and dangerous as ever.  The Falcons aren’t going anywhere, however. The two games these two teams play (9/8 and 11/21) are must see tv, in what has become one the NFL’s greatest rivalries. That’s only 2 teams. What about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Carolina Panthers. Neither of these teams are elite, but both are capable of beating  anyone on a given Sunday. Sports & Swag breaks it all down, as we’ve moved from college to the NFL, to preview the upcoming season.

1. Atlanta Falcons,  are the defending champs of this division, from 2012. Unfortunately, the first thing you think of regarding the Falcons 2012 season, is the blown 17 point lead to the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. It was one of the best games of the postseason, and of 2012, but it left a sour taste in mouths of the Falcons team and fans alike. Nevertheless, the Falcons come into 2013 as one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. With good reason. Atlanta, is still getting better. They’re not a young team, necessarily, but they’ve really just entered their prime.

One Falcon that should be past his prime, is back. Tony Gonzalez, actually retired. Then, he thought better of it and decided to come back for supposedly one more season. He looks like he could play 5 more years. Gonzalez, is entering his 18th NFL season. His conditioning is off the charts, and he looks like he could play 2 or 3 more seasons easily. Gonzalez, at tight-end is just one of many weapons for the Falcons. Matt Ryan, arguably has one of the best group of receivers in the league. Roddy White, is the veteran, but Julio Jones is fast becoming the leader of the pack. Harry Douglas, provides depth and one of the most underrated slot receivers in the league.

The only problem for the offense last year was the running game. Michael Turner, and Jacquizz Rogers combined for just over 1,100 yards rushing, and below 4 yards per carry. In comes Steven Jackson, to the rescue. The Falcons acquired Jackson from the St. Louis Rams. Adding Jackson to the mix gives the offense a dimension, that could make the Falcons nearly unstoppable. Jackson’s acquisition may also help the defense. Short yardage was also a problem. With Jackson, the Falcons should be able to have more sustained drives and help the defense stay off the field.

The defense needs all the help it can get. The defense ranked 24th in total defense (365.6 yards/game). The Falcons were also, 28th in the NFL, in sacks. There has been a couple of key losses to the defense, in John Abraham and Brent Grimes. While veteran defensive end, Osi Umeniyiora, will take over for Abraham, rookies will take over for Brent Grimes. Falcons, first round pick, Desmond Trufant and 2nd round pick, Robert Alford look to take over at corner for Grimes. Other than that, the Falcons remain intact offensively and defensively.

Outlook:  With Stephen Jackson in the fold, at running back, the Falcons take a back seat to no one offensively. Defensively, the Falcons aren’t the worst, but improvement is needed. It’s just questionable whether or not the Falcons are any better on D. The schedule is tougher, also. The Falcons host the Patriots, Sehawks, and Redskins. While, Atlanta travels to Green Bay, and San Francisco. All playoff teams from 2012. The Falcons could actually be better than last season, but I think it will be hard for them to equal or exceed their 13 wins from 2012. I do think they get back to the NFC Championship Game, and are a solid threat to get to the Super Bowl.

Prediction:  Falcons win the division, but lose in the NFC Championship Game

More of this, could make life for Drew Brees and the Saints a lot easier.

2.  New Orleans Saints, are a full unit, once again. Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season, is back and the Saints now look to pick up where they left off in 2011. That 2011 team, went 14-2 but lost to the 49ers in the Divisional playoff. Drew Brees, of course is still the face of the franchise, and he has his usual weapons that we’ve gotten used to seeing. Marques Colston and Lance Moore at the receiver spots, and Jimmy Graham at tight-end. One receiver that won’t be back is Devery Henderson, but look for Chris Givens, or rookie Kenny Stills (Oklahoma) to take over his spot. So, the Saints should be potent through the air, once again.

The running game may be another story. It looks to be a running back by committee setup again. 2011 First round pick, and former Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram has never really hit his stride in New Orleans. He’s been bothered by lingering injuries, but did start to come into his own late last season. Pierre Thomas, looks to be the starter, but that really doesn’t mean much, because Ingram and Darren Sproles will also see time on the field. Each back knows their roles, and when each of them are good, they make for one really complete running back. Consistency is the key element they have not had from this group.

It’s a good thing the Saints have the chance to be very explosive offensively, because they may need every point they can get. The Saints D set an NFL record last season, by giving up 7,042 yards last season. They also gave up 440 yards per game, and 28.4 points. Good for last and next to last, respectively in the NFL. This season, Saints fans hope that new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan can get things on the right track with his 3-4 defense. They certainly can’t get any worse. There is also the hope that free agent pick up, Keenan Lewis at corner, and 1st round pick Kenny Vaccaro (Texas) at safety can help turn things around.

Outlook:  After such a tumultuous 2012 season, I expect the Saints to be totally dialed in on winning big this season. The offense, can obviously score with anyone. Problem is, they’re probably going to have to do it far too often. The Saints running game could help take some pressure off Drew Brees, and the defense. Saints are definitely contenders in the division, but I think teams like the Falcons, 49ers, and Seahawks are just as good or have past them by since the Saints won it all in 2009. I don’t see a Super Bowl run from this bunch.

Prediction:  2nd Place in NFC South, a Wildcard berth seem about right.

Josh Freeman will look to pass himself and the Bucs out of mediocrity.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are in a critical time for their franchise. The Buccaneers have shown glimpses of being a really good team, and a contender at times, then at other times they look like a team with no identity at all. Head coach, Greg Schiano is in his second season with the Bucs. Schiano, is still learning on the job himself. Coming over from Rutgers, after a solid coaching stint there, where he literally helped put Rutgers football on the map, Schiano is trying to recreate that same magic in Tampa.

It’s been slow sledding so far. Largely due to the Bucs being such a young team. Quarterback, Josh Freeman is a prime example. Freeman, has shown flashes of greatness, but overall he’s been quite inconsistent. With all that said, Freeman still managed to pass for over 4,000 yard, and have 27/17 TD to interceptions ratio. The Bucs offense ranked 9th in yards, and 13th in points (24.3). So, I think the talk of Freeman’s days being numbered in Tampa are a bit premature, but does need more consistency. The Bucs have Vincent Jackson back again, and he should take pressure off of Freeman, and guys like Mike Williams at the other wide receiver spot.  Zach Miller looks to be the man at tight-end.

The running game should continue to get better, also. Doug Martin, is in his second season with Tampa. Martin, was very impressive last season, out of Boise St., going for 1454 yards on the ground. There isn’t much depth behind Martin, however, which could be a problem down the road. Still, Tampa has a pretty good nucleus on the offensive end, that if they can improve on last season’s respectable numbers, could make them a contender.

Seemingly, like the rest of the division, defense is the problem. The Bucs were very bad last year, ranking 29th in total defense (380 yards/game). That was due in large part to the pass defense, which ranked dead last. The rushing defense, on the other hand ranked number 1, giving up just 82 yards per game. The pass defense should get much better this season, with the acquisition of Darrelle Revis from the New York Jets. Revis’ presence should immediately improve the defense, but there is still a lack of pass rush, which took a hit when the Bucs lost Michael Bennett.

Outlook:  The Bucs will be an interesting team to watch. I think Josh Freeman bounces back and has a good season. I think Doug Martin, and Vincent Jackson will continue to provide the skill and big play ability, to make Tampa’s offense go. However, I don’t see the Darrelle Revis acquisition alone, being enough to turn the problems of the defense. I do think Tampa can improve on their 7-9 record from 2012. But, probably no better than 9-7.

Prediction:  3rd in NFC South. No playoff berth

Cam Newton hopes the Panthers find more weapons than Steve Smith in 2013.

4. Carolina Panthers, are in much the same boat, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in. Trying to find exactly what their identity is, before possibly having a big overhaul and starting over fresh. One component that won’t change is quarterback, Cam Newton. The unmistakable face of the franchise, is Newton, and the Panthers are clearly building around him. Now, who’s going to step up to build a nucleus with Newton is the question. Wide receiver, Steve Smith is there now, but he’s in his 13th season. The Panthers need more young talent, that will put the franchis on solid ground for the next 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, those players don’t seem to exist on Carolina’s roster right now. The Panthers do have Greg Olsen at tight-end, and Brandon LaFell is becoming a good complement to Smith at wide receiver, but there aren’t any skill players that just blow you away. Head coach, Ron Rivera is starting to take a lot of heat for the Panthers inadequacies, but there isn’t much help on the way.

The running game used to be Carolina’s strength with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but in 2012, Newton ended up leading the team in rushing with 741 yards. Williams and Stewart’s decreased numbers were also due to injury. Both players suffered injuries, that hampered them. In fact, Stewart didn’t play the final 4 games due to an injury. Defensively, the Panthers were respectable in all areas. Ranking 10th in total defense (333 yards/game).

Outlook:  The Panthers have quite a few holes to fill. This division and the NFC in particular are really not the place for teams that are rebuilding to have much success. That said, Cam Newton will only get better as a QB, but until the Panthers get some young talent to put around him, it’s hard to see the them being anything other than mediocre.

Prediction:  4th in NFC South. No Playoff berth

 

Hope you’ve enjoyed my look at the 2013 NFC South, where I think the Atlanta Falcons will win the division. I’ll be breaking down the rest of the NFL, as we get closer to kick off of real games later in the week. As always, comments are most welcome.

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