So, how will this all fall out to end the season in 2013?
Atlanta Falcons: 11-5
QB “Matty Ice” will be running the best offense in the NFC South this season – not Drew Brees. Steven Jackson is going to be the difference as he still has a year or two left and is a complete back who can pass-protect, power run, or catch passes. They hit the CB position hard in the draft, so they’ll have a nice infusion of young talent there to assist in shootouts they’ll likely get into with a questionable pass rush and rush defense and it’s going to be hard to keep their offense from putting 25+ points per game on the scoreboard. I think the law of averages will catch up with them this season as the past two, they’ve seemed to win every close contest and gotten the bounces they needed for a win – just ask Cam about his fumble in their first match-up last season.
…Pleasant Surprise: DE Malliciah Goodman
…Limiting Factors: anemic pass rush, youth at corner, run defense
…HOW TO BEAT THEM: Establish the run, keep the score down and possessions limited. Atlanta is more finesse than physical in general and will have trouble handling the more physical teams on their schedule in 2013.
…best NFC South match-up: Tampa Bay Buccaneers – On paper, the Bucs’ revamped defensive backfield matches up well with the Falcons’ attack, but that won’t be the case. Ryan will pick on rookie CB Jonathan Banks, who is more of a zone-cover corner than a island guy – that’s why they got Revis. Banks doesn’t have the speed to cover Julio Jones and lacks the experience to cover wily veteran Roddy White. Nobody can cover Tony Gonzalez, and the Falcons will line up to stop the Muscle Hamster, daring the Bucs to “air their grievances” with Josh Freeman.
New Orleans Saints: 10-6
All offense, no defense was how this team rolled in ’12, but the defense won’t be quite as bad as last season. They’ll still be a bottom-third unit, but the Drew Brees-led offense will be a top-five group. Mad Genius Sean Payton is the X-factor, coming off suspension from Bountygate last year. I think he’s worth at least 3 more wins, but their injection of talent on defense won’t be apparent until the second half of the season at best due to youth. The offense does need help on the O-line, so they still have too many weak areas to be a truly dominant team in 2013.
…Pleasant Surprise: DT John Jenkins
…Limiting Factors: Porous defense, weak offensive line
…HOT TO BEAT THEM: Pressure Brees up the middle and force mistakes. Double cover TE Jimmy Graham inside the red zone. If your defense can simply delay Brees from lighting you up in the first quarter, the Saints’ defense should give you the lead heading into the second. Maximize every possession and don’t turn it over to give Brees any extra drives.
…best NFC South match-up: Carolina Panthers – Drew Brees’ offense has him release passes very quickly, largely nullifying the monstrous DE rotation the Panthers can throw at him. If his interior OL can handle the Panthers’ rookie DTs in the passing game, the Saints have the quick-strike ability to score in bunches while the Panthers’ weakness is going to be their ability to overcome 2- or 3-score deficits. If the Saints can get up early on the Panthers and force Cam Newton to beat them in the air, Cam’s limited choices of weapons are going to struggle to get the job done.
Carolina Panthers: 10-6
I think 10-6 from 7-9 with a strong finish would probably be about the ceiling on this squad, this season. This team will win with defense and the running game – Cam’s arm, not so much, but should be an opportunistic squad in the passing game for balance. With a few holes still left in the interior OL, WR and TE depth, Cam’s choices are limited in the vertical passing game as Ted Ginn, jr. hasn’t shown he’s a consistent threat as a WR in his 6 seasons. Should be a ground-and-pound team using play-action to go deep. They’ll lean heavily on their ramped-up defense now but will struggle to come from behind if facing a double-digit deficit – the team isn’t built for shootouts but slugfests.
…Pleasant Surprise: SS Mike Mitchell
…Limiting Factors: Production at WR overall, TE depth, OL depth, RT Byron Bell, no playmaking safety – yet (watch Mitchell)
…HOW TO BEAT THEM: Stop the run/8 in the box at times, make Cam Newton beat you through the air with his limited outside weapons. Don’t kick to Ted Ginn, Jr. on special teams. This defense can be vulnerable against a well-executed West Coast offense.
…best NFC South match-up: Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons have a very polished and efficient offense with Steven Jackson’s 3-down ability, but the O-line is only about average. They lack a pass rusher behind Osi Umenyiora, and just had no answer for Cam Newton last season. If they can’t solve Cam, he’ll abuse them again in 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 9-7
the Bucs seemed to take huge leaps in the offseason and either they or the Panthers will make a “leap up” in the division this year. This team has every bit the talent of any team in the entire league now but they’re still very, very young, new additions take time to gel, and Greg Schiano may be off to another slow start for 2013 and that’s going to make all the difference in the world. He’ll be looking to upgrade at QB after this season as I just don’t think Josh Freeman will ever be a franchise QB, and will be exposed this year.
…Pleasant Surprise: QB Mike Glennon
…Limiting Factors: Youth, QB Josh Freeman can’t carry the team if RB Martin gets injured or bottled up, new additions may take time to gel and team chemistry is a bit of a question with a squad this young and with so many offseason changes. The Muscle Hamster is their most indispensable player and if he gets injured, this team will struggle to score points.
…HOW TO BEAT THEM: This team is dangerous on the ground with a top-5 offensive line and the Muscle Hamster scurrying through the holes they make. Play 8 in the box, force Josh Freeman into a shootout-style game, and take away the deep ball on 2nd- and 3rd-and-long. Offensively, mix short, high-percentage passes with misdirection runs, taking advantage of the Bucs’ young, fast OLBs and possible over-pursuit to hit that cutback lane for big gains on the ground.
…best NFC South match-up: New Orleans Saints – With the Bucs adding safety Dashon Goldson from the 49’ers, Darrelle Revis from the Jets, and drafting CB Jonathan Banks, Drew Brees will find those gaping holes to throw in 2012 to be more like cracked windows in 2013. The Muscle Hamster shouldn’t find running overly difficult against the Saints defense, allowing coach Schiano to keep scoring down and games close. With proper clock management and establishing the run, Josh Freeman’s questionable ability will be maximized vs. a defense looking to stop the run first, and targets like V-Jax can take a short toss for 6 points on any given play.
The NFC West may be the only division in the NFL that rivals the NFC South top-to-bottom in terms of talent and the road to the playoffs won’t be easy.