It’s that time. The time of year where I stake my reputation, my credibility — I love that one — gets called into question, and take heat from anyone who disagrees with me. Not that I mind, because in the end, it’s a matter of opinion. And we all know what “they” say about opinions. With about 69 days remaining until training camp, I decided to make these predictions a little earlier than last year.
Unlike last year, I’m going to look at both sides of the coin, being both conservative with teams’ outcomes and liberal — I promise that in no way is this piece political, outside of the realm of football. I don’t get into the over-analytical, dissecting, chemical tests, and whatnot that real writers and such get involved with.
Instead, I’ll be going with the logical, not-so-factual approach — still reserved — which I used last year.
Last season, the division noticed a change, which once again was a worst-to-first as it’s been in years past. In 2008/2009, the division wrapped up with the Carolina Panthers on top, the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers sandwiched in the middle, while the New Orleans Saints brought up the rear in the division.
So which team, by the past trend should have finished atop the division in 2009? The Saints, of course — if you’re a bigger believer in trends and stuff that really has no bearing on how athletes play, coaches coach, and what events transpire during the offseason, but the Saints were the clear-cut winner of the division, and went on to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
The Falcons finished with their first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history, while Carolina broke the trend of a losing season after a winning one, scraping by with mediocrity at 8-8.
The Bucs simply had a rough season. I won’t open old wounds.
Once again, this year looks to be different in the NFC South. The playing field has been leveled in a sense. The Saints lost some players to free agency, thus by statistics, should take them down a peg or two in terms of being a force of reckoning. Don’t get upset Saints fans, I’m not saying New Orleans is going to stink it up this year. No team can maintain a dominant force on a yearly basis. Too much changes in the NFL landscape during the offseason.
The Atlanta Falcons didn’t do much to improve it’s defensive secondary, but it maintains a stout offense with a healthy Michael Turner returning to the field for the 2010 campaign. The “Dirty Birds” drafted probably the most exciting linebacker of the draft in Sean Weatherspoon.
I really don’t know what the Buccaneers did during the draft. Prior to the draft, they decided to let wide receiver Antonio Bryant leave, later replacing him with an unproven rookie in Illinois’ Arrelious Benn. The Bucs still have a ways to go before they become serious contenders. Perhaps not as long as some might think; barring multiple miracles, I say on the outside of two years.
Which brings me to our Carolina Panthers. There’s a lot hanging in the balance of this delicate system. Depending on whose story you believe; John Fox‘s future or lack thereof, a very young team where the average age dropped from 30’s-ish to like 25, uncertainty at quarterback, multiple unknowns beyond wide receiver Steve Smith, no bonafide run-stopper at the defensive tackle position, new Sam and Will linebackers, and semi-big shoes to fill at defensive end, where once stood Julius Peppers. But given the team’s offseason free agent moves, Carolina should have one heck of a return game on special teams. Oh yeah, and that “wasteland” at the tight end position. I know Carolina doesn’t have a Jeremy Shockey or Tony Gonzalez at tight end, but that was a low-blow dealt by Yahoo’s Jason Cole.
Now to the part that gets me in trouble every year: End-of-season predictions.
I’ll go from worst-to-first. Otherwise you won’t read which team finishes last if I go in the opposite order. I know I never do.
The Bucs will have an improved season over last year. They obviously won’t win the division, but they have the potential to surprise any unsuspecting team as they do every year.
Barring significant injury to their division rivals, I predict Tampa Bay wins two games against division oppponents. There’s potential for the Bucs to beat the Panthers in one game, and the Falcons in another. I can’t see them beating the Saints once.
Now for the liberal prediction, the Bucs win three inner-division games, splitting games with Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans, finishing 3-3 in the division.
For it’s season-long record, Tampa Bay goes 5-11 conservatively; 6-10 liberally.
3. Carolina Panthers / Atlanta Falcons
Rather than have a list a mile long, I’ll condense.
I do believe the Panthers have the potential to finish as low as third in the division, but they could also finish second, and maybe contend for first, but considering the tangibles, first place is a long-shot at best at this point. But to keep it real, I’ll stick with second or third in the division.
As I stated earlier, there are many unknowns on this now young Panthers’ squad. Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore will compete for the starting job at quarterback, though most fans — myself included — feel strongly that Moore is “the guy” in Week One, and barring injury, Clausen will be relegated to the bench.
There is a huge amount of unproven depth at the receiver position beyond Steve Smith. However, there are 10 candidates with the potential to land one-of-four receiver jobs.
About the only two areas I have unquestioned confidence in at this point, are the offensive line and “Double Trouble;” DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
The Panthers have the potential to win four division games: Sweeping the Buccaneers, and splitting between Atlanta and New Orleans.
Carolina also has the potential to split the division and go 3-3.
As for it’s season-ending record, the Panthers have the potential to finish 10-6 liberally, or repeat last year’s performance of 8-8 conservatively.
2. AtlantaFalcons / Carolina Panthers / New Orleans Saints
It looks confusing, I know. Imagine how I feel navigating through this — my own thoughts, even!
But this is where and how the division has become more of an even playing field than it was six months ago.
As stated earlier, Atlanta did very little to address it’s needs to solidify — even improve — it’s defensive secondary in the draft. It made a solid pick in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, but defensive secondary was a bigger need than defensive line — much like the Panthers’ biggest need was at receiver than quarterback.
On the conservative side, I can see the Falcons finishing with four wins in the division: twice against the Bucs, once against Carolina, and once against the Saints. Liberally, the Falcons could win five: two against the Bucs, two against Carolina, and one against the Saints.
For it’s overall record, the Falcons could finish as low as 9-7 — a repeat of last year, or as strongly as 12-4. Some pundits have the Falcons as a 13-win team. While it’s not impossible, even that is a little too liberal for me.
1. New Orleans Saints / Atlanta Falcons
Which brings us to the “last-but-not-least” segment. The argument of which team wins the division?
Despite it’s player-personnel losses, the Saints are still a very strong team. However, injury is every team’s biggest foe.
Barring significant injury to important players, the Saints can win the division with a 6-0 sweep. How’s that for liberal? Conservatively, the Saints might only win four: two against the Bucs, one against Atlanta, and one against the Panthers.
For it’s season-long record, the Saints could go 11-5, yet they could also have a strong season and finish with a 13-3 record.
So there you have it. Agree or disagree — I’ll keep my finger on the pulse of the comments section — please give me your thoughts of where you believe your team will finish within the division.