Around the Spot Predictions: NFC South
2012 may have represented a vacation for the rest of the NFC South as the New Orleans Saints had a down year while Sean Payton served a one-year suspension. Now, 2013 is here.
The Atlanta Falcons have something to say about that as they've won the division two out of the past three seasons (and the Saints had Payton in 2010), but it's just one rivalry in a division that's full of them.
The Saints and Falcons likely head a division that has the Carolina Panthers, who are trying to make a leap with Cam Newton in his third season and the smashmouth style of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will lean heavily on Doug Martin and the newly acquired Darelle Revis to shore up their defense.
Like the weather that they play in, it will be hot in the NFC South this year. Our Around the Spot panel takes a look at who will win the NFC South in 2013.
Chris Schad- Vikings Journalist
1. Falcons 13-3
Despite the return of Sean Payton in New Orleans, it's not enough to hide that it is the Falcons who have the most talented roster in the division. Atlanta got better with the additions of Steven Jackson and Osi Omenyiora and even convinced Tony Gonzalez to hold off on retirement for one more season. Their defense is a bit of a concern, but drafting Desmond Trufant gives them more youth in the secondary and should make them the best team in the division.
2. Saints 10-6
As mentioned, Payton returns to help Drew Brees, but it might not be enough to reclaim the top of the division. Looking at the roster, I see a defense that's going to get rolled over a lot as Rob Ryan tries to mold the unit into a 3-4 scheme. There also aren't many receivers to help Brees out as they had to dumpster dive to bring Robert Meachem back into the fold earlier this week. The Saints are a good team (and even a playoff team), but their roster will hold them back from a Super Bowl drive in 2013.
3. Panthers 6-10
Cam Newton is saying all the right things in Carolina, but he can't do it all by himself. The star quarterback has come under fire for his body language on the sidelines, but we might be depressed too if our top receiver was 34 and our running game was suddenly non-existent outside of the read option. Newton was on fire when he started staying in the pocket toward the end of 2012, but his talk concerns me that he may do too much and that will hurt the team's chances of overachieving.
4. Buccaneers 5-11
There's a lot of fire in Tampa Bay, but most of that comes from their coach. Greg Schiano has brought a dictators rule to the Bucs, but it doesn't seem like a lot of the veterans are buying what he's selling. The good news is that Doug Martin will be running behind a better line with offensive guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph returning. The key will be quarterback Josh Freeman as he tries to become this year's Joe Flacco and play for a better contract.
Chad Jenson- Broncos Journalist
Atlanta Falcons 12-4
Matt Ryan has finally turned the corner and taken his place amongst the NFL's elite QBs. In 2012, he finally got his first Playoff win. He'll have the Falcons O humming like a well oiled machine. And with the addition of Steven Jackson in the backfield, they're gonna be very tough to stop. However, there are some questions on Defense. They have a solid secondary, but their LB core and D-line is suspect. They'll still win the division though.
New Orleans Saints 10-6
Sean Payton is back. But they still have a terrible Defense. There are few coaches in the NFL who can game plan like Payton. Drew Brees and the Saints offense will return to form, but the defense that fielded the all time worst D in the history of the NFL, is still largely the same. And it'll cost them some games. I expect them to vie for a Wildcard spot in the Playoffs though.
Carolina Panthers 9-7
I think this is the year that Cam Newton and the Panthers finally crack .500. Why? Because their Defense is on the verge of being elite. Did anyone see the monster they have at MLB this preseason? Kuechly is a beast. He looked like the best MLB in football in the Preseason. When you factor in Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, that's a scary LB core. To boot, they added a freak on the D line in Star Lotulelei. And Kewann Short. That Defense will win them some games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10
This is the final year for Josh Freeman. If he can't put together a season in the same vein as his 2010 outting, he'll be gone, come 2014. And I don't think he can. He has Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, which are decent targets respectively. And the Muscle Hampster helps out. But in the clutch, when the chips are down, Freeman folds. Traditionally. Who the heck knows? Maybe he'll shock the world and have a career year and cement his place with the Buc's Franchise. But I doubt it.
Seth Keysor- Chiefs Journalist
Atlanta Falcons: 11-5
There's something about the Falcons that makes me say, "nope, they're gonna struggle." then I look at that offense and change my mind. There's just no good reason to believe the Falcons won't be a very good team again this year. Steven Jackson is an upgrade over Michael Turner's corpse, and Matt Ryan has a group of receivers that most QBs would kill for (including the ageless Tony Gonzalez, who at this point we have to assume is an alien. Either that or being a vegan really IS good for you. Yep... gotta be an alien).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 11-5
I think this is the year Jaaaaaaaaaaaash Freeman silences his doubters. with Mile "the ostrich" Glennon providing the first real competition Freeman's seen his career, the stakes are high enough to force the talented Freeman to actually, like, live up to that talent. Freeman is, at this point, a poor man's Joe Flacco. But really, all he has to do is get those lows just a tad higher and suddenly he basically IS Joe Flacco (streaky passer with a killer deep ball). Throw in the wildly improved secondary (I think we've all forgotten just how good Revis Island is) and the Muscle Hamster, and I like where they're going.
New Orleans Saints: 9-7
Yes, Drew Brees is a stud. Yes, they get their coach back. But.... the weaknesses from last year still exist. The defense is soft, the running back group is underwhelming, and Brees simply can't do it all by himself. I don't think Payton's return will suddenly cause a revival of the once-opportunistic defense. Barring some unknown stepping up big time, it's all downhill from here for Brees and the Saints.
Carolina Panthers: 9-7
The Panthers, on the other hand, are a team I can see taking some steps forward. I think they'll have people thinking "playoffs" for at least a little while this year. Their defense has gone from pathetic to ok to... well, we'll see. And regardless of how much the hype has died down on Cam Newton, it's worth remembering that he's still the most freakish player in the NFL.
Anthony Rizzuti- Panthers Journalist
1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
When you take a glance at Atlanta's depth chart, you're probably looking at the most complete offense in the NFL. The addition of two-time All-Pro running back Steven Jackson is essentially the "icing on the cake" of an offense that boasts considerable talent across the board. There may, however, still be some uncertainty surrounding the other side of the ball.
The Falcons defense allowed 365.6 yards per game last season, the ninth-most in the NFL. Although the front office did pick up Osi Umenyiora and Desmond Trufant during the offseason, asking a veteran well past his prime and a rookie corner to turn the 24th-ranked defense into a solid one may be a bit too much.
Despite what the defense may look like, we've learned that you should never bet against offense in today's NFL. Jackson, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez aren't guys I'd exactly bet against either. The Falcons' high-powered offense should bring them to double-digit wins, just enough to capture the NFC South title once again.
2. Carolina Panthers (9-7)
Often overlooked amongst the lost expectations of the 2012 season was the overall performance from the Carolina Panthers' defense last year. Despite finishing just 7-9, Carolina finished tenth in the NFL in total defense. Look for that ranking to improve this time around with linebacker Luke Kuechly as the unquestioned leader.
The addition of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will loom rather large in the team's front seven. Lotulelei, who was perhaps the top defensive prospect from the 2013 class, will consistently draw double teams and eat up plenty of space. Kuechly, Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and the returning Jon Beason are certainly going to take advantage of that open space in their routes to the backfield.
Even though most point out the progression of or lack of help for quarterback Cam Newton, the offense's real question mark sits with its coordinator Mike Shula. Shula is going for a more run-oriented offense that'll keep Newton from taking off much less than previous seasons. Neglecting to use Newton's running ability may end up being a mistake for Shula considering his 22 rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons.
The Panthers could ultimately wind up as a 10-win team or a 6-win team. Their chances all depend on what kind of depth they are provided in the secondary and in their receiving corps. My guess is that they'll get it right in 2013 and challenge for a wildcard spot with 9 wins.
3. New Orleans Saints (8-8)
Hooray for the Saints! Sean Payton is back! Now all order is restored in New Orleans, right? No, not necessarily.
Sure, Payton's return to the sidelines will presumably help Drew Brees come out a tad sharper this season. But that doesn't mean the problems haunting them on defense will go disappear. The Saints' defense finished dead-last (32nd) in the NFL with 440.1 yards allowed per game. (The 31st ranked team, the New York Giants, gave up 383.4 yards per game. Yeah, that much of a difference.)
New Orleans, as it always has, will look to ride the arm of Brees and his solid group of targets in Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston. And yes, they'll score a bunch in 2013. The lack of pass rush and the shaky secondary, however, will gift plenty of points to the opposition and force the offense to try to play near perfect games.
Simply put, the two sides of the ball in New Orleans are on opposing ends of the spectrum. That could account for a split at 8-8.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)
Outside of the Darelle Revis acquisition, the make-or-break season for quarterback Josh Freeman has been the biggest story out of Tampa Bay thus far. The Bucs do have some weaknesses on its offensive front but should still carry enough talent to help turn Freeman around. Running back Doug Martin and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are all coming off impressive 2012 campaigns.
From my viewpoint, Freeman is still not "that guy." He completed just 54.4% of his passes with 17 interceptions last year and even appeared overwhelmed at times. A mediocre quarterback and a defense that relinquished the fourth-most yards per game a year ago is a lot to overcome.
Jake Arthur- Colts Journalist
1. Falcons 13-3 - There is no reason for me to think the Falcons won't be the toast of the NFC South once again. With Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, the upgraded addition of Steven Jackson and a return of Tony Gonzalez; that is really all I need to know. Of course their pass rush is a concern, but I believe the offense will carry the team to many wins.
2. Saints 9-7 - Many people think that just because Sean Payton is back that it will fix all of their problems. Do you remember how bad their defense was last year? Not only that, but they are now transitioning to a 3-4 from a 4-3 defense. There is a good chance they don't have the personnel for that complete yet.
3. Buccaneers 8-8 - In my opinion, the Buccaneers have done some really good things this offseason - enough to make them a competitive team. The group of Darrelle Revis, Jonathan Banks, Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson should go a long way to having a supreme pass defense. If Gerald McCoy, DaQuan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn continue to improve then this team will be a force to be reckoned with.
4. Panthers 6-10 - The Panthers will be a solid 6-10 team if there ever was one. However, until Carolina shores up their run game, receivers and defensive backfield, they will struggle against better teams and only win the games that they are favored to.
It doesn't look like anyone is expecting the return of Sean Payton to elevate New Orleans to the Super Bowl contender they were before last year. And it appears that almost no one believes the spend-happy Buccaneers have been able to buy themselves into relevance. This might be one of the most unpredictable divisions in the NFL. Should be fun to watch.
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