Drew BreesBy Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts Mouth of the NFC South

Since the realignment, the NFC South has been football’s model of inconsistency. 

In 10 seasons, no team has boasted consecutive division titles.  All four squads have earned at least two division crowns, but none of them claim more than three. 

The turnover is unparalleled anywhere else in the league, and it’s because the losers don’t stay down for long—no team has suffered more than two consecutive losing seasons in the last decade.

In the South, the peaks are high and the valleys are shallow.  It makes the division near impossible to predict.

So here we go.

New Orleans (Over/under 10)

Last year: O/U 10 (OVER, 13-3)

THE CASE FOR OVER

They have the richest, most statistically dominant player in NFL history.

Sean Payton has been sidelined for bad behavior, but as long as his chant-leading, deep-throwing, laser-armed avatar lines up under center, the Saints have a legitimate shot at the division title. 

They offered Drew Brees $100 million to help keep the team together in the aftermath of Bountygate, and the record-shattering passer will aim to carry the Saints with more of his virtual reality passing numbers in 2012.

The defense is being rebuilt and redirected by newcomer Steve Spagnuolo.  Mild-mannered coach Aaron Kromer is on damage control for weeks one through six, while Payton and interim head coach Joe Vitt serve their suspensions.  All-pro Carl Nicks, deep threat Robert Meachem, and Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter all fled in free agency.

The Saints are a changed team heading into the new season, but since Brees arrived in 2006, the New Orleans offense has never fallen out of the top 10, and has rarely been out of contention.  With him entrenched in the offensive huddle, things don’t seem so different.

THE CASE FOR UNDER

The Saints face a gauntlet of top competition.

First-place schedules are like trophy wives -- you've worked hard to earn them, and you're proud to have them, but beneath the sense achievement and the bragging rights, they're a real pain in your ass.

Through the first nine games of the season, New Orleans faces off against Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, and Matt Ryan. 

They close against Ryan, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Newton through the last five weeks.  Only six of their opponents made the playoffs in 2011, but 11 of them finished with winning records.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Turmoil wrecks teams regardless of talent or potential, and the Saints suffered a ton of it over the offseason.  The public caught a brief glimpse of life without Payton when the head coach broke his leg midway through the last season; their point output sagged slightly during that stretch, but the results under Pete Carmichael weren’t discouraging. 

But the coming season is a different beast: the circumstances are rougher, the competition is tougher, and the Saints are caught mid-transition with fresh faces in a struggling defense and unoccupied vacancies in an evolving offense.  Maintaining their dominance through the smoke of chaos and scandal would be Drew Brees’s greatest accomplishment.  UNDER 10.

 

Atlanta (Over/under 9)

Last year: O/U 10.5 (UNDER, 10-6)

THE CASE FOR OVER

Atlanta’s offensive balance is near-indefensible.

Offensively, the Falcons do nothing poorly.  Matt Ryan is anamorphic – a capable gun slinger, game manager, and clutch performer wrapped in a tall, gangly package.  Michael Turner plays the workhorse better than any man in football, and backup Jacquizz Rodgers is poised to imbue Dirk Koetter’s offense with a dose of elusiveness in 2012.  Tony Gonzalez, fresh off a Pro Bowl in his 15th season, is still an all-time mismatch near the goal line, and wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones form the most diabolically balanced receiving duo in the NFC.

This season, they’ll play games against seven of the bottom-10 defenses in last year’s Bendability Index, and with a fresh offensive direction and maturing talent, they’ll likely be among the league leaders in offense in 2012.

THE CASE FOR UNDER

The lack of depth is troubling.

And management thinks so too.  Longtime backup Chris Redman lost his job near the end of the preseason, and the Falcons brought in Dirk Koetter disciple Luke McCown from Jacksonville, who’s in a better position to manage the offense should Ryan succumb to injury. 

McCown has proven himself a decent backup, but the Falcons are barren at several other positions.  Behind Jones, White, and Harry Douglas, Atlanta’s receivers combine for zero starts and zero receptions. 

Behind Gonzalez’s legendary production, the Falcons are deploying Michael Palmer – he of 15 catches and two years’ experience.  It’s shallow all over.

No team is ever absolutely prepared for the injury bug, but the Falcons face a long fall if it strikes.  If McCown is throwing passes to Kevin Cone and Drew Davis by season’s end, something has gone terribly wrong in Atlanta.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The regular season hasn’t proven much of an obstacle for Mike Smith’s Falcons, but whenever his squad treks into the NFL’s unforgiving postseason wasteland, Atlanta melts in the white heat of national attention. 

They’ve been mowed down by the eventual Super Bowl champions in each of their last two playoff appearances and need a little work on their post-December play, but getting there was never the issue. OVER 9.

 

Carolina (Over/under 7.5)

Last year: O/U 4.5 (OVER, 6-10)

THE CASE FOR OVER

Carolina’s hydra backfield—Newton, Stewart, Williams—is the most dangerous and versatile in football.

A year ago, the Cam Newton and his backfield redefined the modern running game.  The Panthers ran for 2408 yards on a league-leading 5.41 yards per attempt. 

Their 26 touchdowns on the ground was the sixth-best mark of this century, and with the addition of Mike Tolbert, Carolina will look to top last season’s productivity and ride the running game into the NFL postseason.

And they might succeed.  Newton’s deep ball spreads defenses like butter over biscuits, and his strides in the passing game only aid the Carolina rushing attack. 

Considering the damage he wrought under a locked-out offseason – with a new coach and team, and no prior professional knowledge or experience – it’s not unreasonable to envision and improved ground game in 2012.  And that type of running will make the Panthers exceptionally competitive.

THE CASE FOR UNDER

The defense can’t hold a lead.

Unfortunately for Rob Chudzinski, Carolina’s defense wasn’t much of a compliment to last season’s innovative and explosive offense.  The Panthers might’ve fielded the most completely futile defense
in the league in 2011, ranking 28th or worse in every major Quality Stat.

They need help on all three levels.  Drafting linebacker Luke Keuchly and rehabilitating Jon Beason certainly helps an ailing cause, but the line and backfield demand urgent attention. 

Up front, in his 12th season, Ron Edwards is more meat than man, and behind Keuchly is the same pair of safeties who surrendered a franchise-worst 3,494 passing yards a season ago.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Asking Cam Newton to build on one of the most legendary seasons in league history isn’t a fair request. Carolina struggled to a 1-7 record versus Quality Opponents in 2011, but played close games against powerhouses Green Bay and New Orleans, and a fully-loaded Chicago Bears squad. 

If Newton can polish his rookie season – fewer turnovers, poor reads, and errant throws – then Carolina can stand against anyone, regardless of the defense they field.  If Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott can inspire the unit to a happy mediocrity, then the Panthers become immediate contenders.  OVER 7.5.

 

Tampa Bay (Over/under 6)

Last year: O/U 8 (UNDER, 4-12)

THE CASE FOR OVER

New blood, old talent.

The Buccaneers are nine months removed from one of the most statistically devastating collapses of the modern era.  After starting 4-2, Tampa Bay hoisted the white flag and lost their remaining 10 contests by an average of 17.5 points. 

They finished in the bottom half of 19 of 20 quality stats, and by season’s end, were easily the league’s worst-performing team.

But their foundation is built with young potential – players like Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, and Gerald McCoy.  This group won 10 games in 2010 and briefly held the division lead midway through 2011. 

If their talent survived last season’s nuclear-sized self-destruction, then new coach and taskmaster Greg Schiano – and a slew of promising free agents – has a chance to pull them from the fallout and refocus the franchise in 2012.

THE CASE FOR UNDER

We don’t know the real Josh Freeman.

Two seasons ago, Tampa’s then-22-year-old quarterback put the finishing touches on a masterwork of professional quarterbacking: over the last eight games of 2010, Freeman threw for 15 touchdowns, one interception, and posted a 106.7 passer rating. 

That same season, he led the league with five fourth-quarter comebacks and looked like the league’s next clutch quarterback.

Fast-forward a season.  It was the greatest offensive year in the history of the NFL, but the Buccaneers were stuck in neutral.  Freeman looked timid and awkward in the pocket.  Passes that won games a year ago sailed wide in 2011; they missed, fell short, or found the eager hands of an opportunistic defender. 

The 21.3-point swing in his passer rating was the widest downturn of any starter in franchise history, besting Vinnie Testaverde’s 16.6-point descent from 1990 to 1991.

We have two full seasons of footage on Freeman, and each volume showcases completely different quarterbacks.  Whichever passer shows his face in 2012 will dictate the course of the season.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Buccaneers aren’t devoid of talent.  They recorded Quality Wins over both the Saints and Falcons in early 2011, but lacked the fortitude and maturity to finish the season.  Greg Schiano’s roughshod personality – and a little help from Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, and a horde of encouraging rookies – will hoist Tampa Bay out of the gutter and into contention. 

It depends on how quickly the players absorb new offensive and defensive schemes, and how thoroughly they invest in Schiano’s philosophy.  And that’s a lot to ask in a single season.  UNDER 6.