2012 Division Preview: NFC South
Drew Brees is under pressure to keep the Saints humming without Sean Payton
Falcons need to vastly improve their third-down defense to realize Super hopes
If the Panthers can survive a tough opening month, they could be playoff-bound
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.
What the Saints do best: Attack defenses relentlessly.
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.
What the Saints need to improve: Their reputation.
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.
Which Saint needs to step up: Drew Brees, quarterback.
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.
Predicted record: 11-5.
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.
What the Falcons do best: Protect the passer.
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.
What the Falcons need to improve: Third-down defense.
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.
Which Falcon needs to step up: Matt Ryan, quarterback.
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.
Predicted record: 10-6.
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.