Thursday, August 16, 2007

2007 Sports As Life NFL Preview - NFC South

Don't look now, there might actually be a quality football team or two in this division. Today we delve into the Dirty South.

Atlanta Falcons

With the dog fighting circus (doesn't that sound like a good time) that has been plaguing the Falcons most of the off-season, this year could go one of two ways. Either the Falcons will rally around their fallen leader, Michael Vick, and do better than people expect. Or they will fold like a cheap suit. It might be a tough call until you realize that without Vick, the Falcons' starting quarterback is Joey Harrington - don't send in that deposit for playoff tickets just yet. The Falcons should still be able to run the ball this year, as they've been at or near the top of the league in rushing the past few seasons. Last year's starter Warrick Dunn is now expected to be back from injury in time for the regular season and last year's back up, Jerious Norwood will probably split carries with Dunn. Sounds like a good start - but wait, the Falcons quarterback is still Joey Harrington. Unless new head coach Bobby Petrino can somehow turn Harrington into the quarterback he was supposed to be - it's going to be a long season in Atlanta. And even if Harrington could throw the ball, who does he throw it to? Joe Horn as a #1 wide receiver? Horn was washed up 3 years ago and now he's supposed to be Atlanta's go-to guy. The only solid receiving option the Falcons have had in the last 5 years has been tight end Alge Crumpler - and he's got injury problems right now and might not be 100% by the start of the regular season. The Falcons have been pretty solid on defence the past few seasons and should be alright again. They did lose defensive end Patrick Kerney and need other defensive end John Abraham to actually play a couple games this season. The Falcons don't really have a difficult schedule this year but they don't have an easy schedule either - it's somewhere in the middle, which is exactly where the Falcons will be, or even a little bit below that.

2007 Prediction: 6-10. That's one game down from last season and in the end it might end up being a lot more than one game. Thankfully the Falcons should still be able to run the ball or their record might be a lot worse. Some people think the Falcons are going to be much better off without Vick but Harrington was so bad that Detroit didn't even want him as their starting quarterback.

Carolina Panthers

It just doesn't pay to be the pre-season Super Bowl darling these days - so watch out New England. Picked by many people to win the Super Bowl before last season, the Panthers ended up going 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Mostly due to the fact that they were terrible on offence, which meant the defence was on the field way too much. This year the Panthers are going to use one of those Fantasy Football killing running back tandems that seems to be so popular these days - with DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams probably splitting time, at least to start the year. Neither one is a superstar but both should be effective on the ground. The real question mark is at quarterback - can Jake Delhomme bounce back after a terrible season last year? If he can and he returns to the way the form he showed a couple years ago the Panters could be the team to beat in this division. Honestly, I'm not convinced - and apparently neither are the Panters as they brought in high-priced David Carr to be Delhomme's back-up. If one of the Panthers' quarterbacks can get the ball to the receivers, Carolina has the talent to do some damage. They still have Steve Smith, who I think is the most exciting receiver in the league. The Panthers did let Keyshawn Johnson go, but drafted Dwayne Jarrett in the 2nd Round to replace him. The Carolina defence should be strong - they'll hopefully be on the field less than they were last year. Plus they have one of the premier pass-rushers in the league in Julius Peppers. The Panthers has also been blessed with a very easy schedule this year. They don't really have any difficult road games, besides having to play in New Orleans, as two of their toughest games - against Indianapolis and Dallas - are at home.

2007 Prediction: 9-7. That's one game better than last season. However, if Delhomme can turn his play around or if Carr comes in and plays well, the Panthers could be a couple games better than that. If they can beat New Orleans once this year and win in Tampa Bay in their last game of the season, Carolina could be 11-5.

New Orleans Saints

Because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, you were not allowed to cheer against the Saints last year as they made their return to New Orleans - in the United States it was considered an act of treason. But this year I think you can go back to cheering against them without being labelled a bad person. Not that there's any particular reason to root against them - but if you feel the need, go right ahead. It's probably no big surprise that the Saints use the tandem running back approach that is sweeping the league and putting most Fantasy owners on suicide watch. What sets the Saints apart is that both of their running back are potential Pro Bowlers - Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Bush doesn't actually get all that many carries but he catches a lot of balls out of the back field and even lines up outside as a receiver. This could be his breakout year. At quarterback the Saints have Drew Brees, who everybody wrote off before the beginning of last season when he was coming off shoulder surgery (and didn't have a strong arm to begin with). But Brees ended up leading the Saints to the NFC Championship game and made the Pro Bowl - I wouldn't expect anything less this year. If you count Reggie Bush as a receiver, the Saints have a pretty dynamic duo - in Bush and Marques Colston, the guy who probably should have been the Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. The problem with New Orleans is defence - mainly the fact that they don't have one. If the Saints' defence can even be average and not lose many games for them, they have a chance to be really good this year. And for a team that went to the NFC Championship last year, by my estimation the Saints have a schedule that is below-average in difficulty.

2007 Prediction: 11-5. The Saints have a few winnable games on the road (at San Francisco, at Carolina) and a home game in December against Philadelphia. If New Orleans can win one or more of those games they could be 12-4 or 13-3.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Thus begins the tale of the most overrated coach in the NFL today - Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden. Gruden inherited an immensely talented team from Tony Dungy in 2002 and promptly won the Super Bowl. In the 4 seasons since 2002, Tampa's record is 27 wins and 37 losses - not exactly what you would call a stellar record from a coach dubbed, "The Boy Genius" - I don't actually know if that's his nickname or not, but I'm sure I've heard him referred to as that. Anyway... Tampa is going to have basically the same running game they've had for the last two years. It remains to be seen whether Cadillac Williams will be in his Rookie of the Year form or last year's less than impressive form, in which defenses only had to stop him in order to beat Tampa. Mike Alstott is injured once again and done for the year - and probably for life, which is a real shame because watching him bust skulls was always great fun. This year Tampa boasts Jeff Garcia at quarterback, which normally wouldn't be something to boast about until you remember that Tampa's quarterback's last year were Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski. So while that's an upgrade - it's not by much. There is also the problem of who Garcia is going to throw the ball to. Michael Clayton has been a big time bust since his rookie season and Joey Galloway isn't much to write home about anymore. The Buccaneer's strength has long been on defence. But they have done little, if nothing, in recent years to upgrade a defence that has gotten very old, very fast. They are a shadow of the monster defences that Tampa used to have in the early 2000's. About the only thing working in Tampa Bay's favour this year is their easy schedule. It is one of the easiest in the league and they'll get some wins just because of it's weakness.

2007 Prediction: 6-10. Up two wins from last year's 4-12. They're still a one trick pony with the running game, although Garcia is an upgrade compared to what they had last year. Their defence scares nobody anymore.

Well things got a little bit better for the NFC in this division but it looks to be shaping up as the weaker conference again this year - by a wide margin. New Orleans, if they can get a little bit of defence and stay healthy, has a good chance of getting back to the NFC title game and going a step further this year. Carolina might not have the talent to get quite that far but there should be some improvement there this year.

NFC South

New Orleans.....11-5
Tampa Bay.......6-10

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