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Fearless Rick's NFL Preview - NFC South

Rick Gagliano | July 17, 2010

NFC South

New Orleans Saints 2009 record: (13-3) Projected 2010 record: (12-4)

Predicted finish: 1st, NFC South, Advancing to Super Bowl

Head Coach: Sean Peyton

Departed: DE Bobby McCray; MLB Mark Simoneau; DE Charles Grant; RB Mike Bell; LB Scott Fujita; LT Jammal Brown; FB Kyle Eckel

Incoming: OG Terrence Metcalf; FB Zak Keasey; DE Alex Brown; DE Jimmy Wilkerson

Strengths: Offense. The Saints led the regular season with 501 points, so, with QB Drew Brees, RB Reggie Bush, wideouts Devery Henderson and Marques Colston returning along with a healthy-again Jeremy Shockey, New Orleans looms as the tteam to beat following their Super Bowl conquest. Some questions as to how well LT Jermon Bushrod (4th round, 2007) will perform should be answered during preseason. Defensive line. Additions of Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson solidifies an impressive group up front.

Weaknesses: None to speak of. While the offense sputtered in the final three games of the regular season (all losses), the defense was improving. In the playoffs, they mauled the Cardinals 45-14, then held Minnesota in OT, 31-28. Their 31-17 win over the Colts in the Super Bowl was largely a result of key stops and disruptions by a defensive unit cut loose and able to take chances, resulting in big plays.

Key Games: 9/9 vs. Minnesota, a rematch of the NFC Championship; 11/25 at Dallas; 12/27 @ Atlanta.

What if?: The Saints are 8-1 or 7-2 by their week 10 bye week? Nothing's assured, as the Saints face a rough final six weeks of the season, with four road games at Dallas, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Altanta, all playoff contenders.

Atlanta Falcons 2009 record: (9-7) Projected 2010 record: (10-6)

Predicted finish: 2nd, NFC South, wild card, advancing to divisional round

Head Coach: Mike Smith

Departed: CB Chris Houston; CB Tye Hill; S Eric Brock; FS Charlie Peprah

Incoming: rookie C Joe Hawley, rookie OG Mike Johnson; rookie DT Corey Peters; CB Dunta Robinson; S Matt Giordano

Strengths: Offensive line. Returning all five starters from 2009. The group kept opponents off QB Matt Ryan for the most part, allowing just 19 sacks in Ryan's 14 games, while making holes for RB Michael Turner. Versatility. Atlanta can run a very balanced offensive attack with Michael Jenkins and Roddy White on the outside, Tony Gonzalez at tight end and Turner in the backfield. The potential for flea-flickers and a form of the wildcat offense emerges whenever Jerious Norwood steps onto the field. Front seven. The D-line and linebacking corps are about the best in the league, especially on the right side with DE John Abraham, DT Jonathan Babineaux and linebacker Mike Peterson.

Weaknesses: Secondary. The unit is being rebuilt after allowing 223 yards per game passing in 2009 and positions will be weighed during preseason.

Key Games: 9/12 @ Pittsburgh; 9/26 @ New Orleans. With two of their first three games on the road, the Falcons better be ready when the season opens. 12/27 vs. New Orleans; 1/2 vs. Carolina. If Atlanta needs wins after playing three straight road games down the stretch (at Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle), playing at home will be a bonus.

What if?: They can't catch the Saints? Not a problem. The Falcons finished at 9-7 last season, the best record by a team not making the playoffs (tied with Houston and Pittsburgh). That mark might be good enough to reach this season, with some watering down in the NFC East, but the Falcons should get to double-digits in wins.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2009 record: (3-13) Projected 2010 record: (6-10)

Predicted finish: 3rd, NFC South

Head Coach: Raheem Morris

Departed: S Will Allen; P Josh Bidwell; DT Chris Hovan; DE Jimmy Wilkerson; WR Antonio Bryant; LB Angelo Crowell; QB Byron Leftwich; WR Brian Clark

Incoming: LB Jon Alston; WR Reggie Brown; S Sean Jones; rookie WR Mike Williams; CB Myron Lewis; LB Dekoda Watson

Strengths: Youth. The Buccaneers are in year two of a reorganization, so improvement is expected with some players filling specific roles. Schedule. There are some winnable games, beginning with their season opener, at home vs. Cleveland. Other games against the dregs of the league include St. Louis, Carolina, Detroit and Seattle.

Weaknesses: Offense. The Bucs scored 10 points or fewer six times in 2009. QB Josh Freeman is going to have to improve, but the need for a consistent ground game is also evident. Defensive secondary. Lots of moving parts centering on corners Aquib Talib and aging Ronde Barber.

Key Games: 9/12 vs. Cleveland, season opener; 9/19 @ Carolina; 10/24 vs. St. Louis; 12/19 vs. Detroit; 12/26 vs. Seattle - back-to-back home games prior to closing out the regular season at New Orleans, 1/2.

What if?: Josh Freeman doesn't improve? They're completely sunk. As it now stands, beating Carolina for 3rd place in the division seems a reasonable goal. Freeman and the secondary must improve if the Bucs hold any hopes for 2011 and beyond.

Carolina Panthers 2009 record: (8-8) Projected 2010 record: (5-11)

Predicted finish: 4th, NFC South

Head Coach: John Fox

Departed: LB Na'il Diggs; QB Jake Delhomme; DT Maake Kemoeatu; WR Muhsin Muhammad; CB Dante Wesley; DE Julius Peppers

Incoming: rookie QB Jimmy Clausen; rookie LB Eric Norwood; rookie WR Armanti Edwards; rookie WR David Gettis; QB Tony Pike; DT Ed Johnson; CB Brian Witherspoon; LB Jamar Williams

Strengths: Defense. The Panthers won four of their final five games in 2009, limiting opponents to 52 points overall and 32 in the wins. Of course, they were playing some less-than-inspired teams in the final two games - the Giants and Saints - but they have something on which they can build. Losing Julius Peppers and CB Dante Wesley to free agency is going to hurt, but not much. Running game. DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart are a solid 1-2 combo in the backfield.

Weaknesses: Passing. Matt Moore isn't exactly what anyone would call a pocket passer, though his leadership skills are great. Getting the ball into the hands of Steve Smith should be a priority, so it bears watching just how the Panthers figure out ways to get the play-maker the ball. Or, will Jimmy Clausen progress quickly enough to earn a starting job.

Key Games: 9/12 @ NY Giants; 9/19 Tampa Bay; 9/26 Cincinnati. The first three games of the season, with two at home, should indicate where this team is headed. They could win all three prior to meeting the Saints in New Orleans in week 4, or fall flat with losses in two of them. A 2-1 split would be just fine. 12/23 @ Pittsburgh; 1/2 @ Atlanta. Closing out on the road doesn't offer a rosy scenario.

What if?: Clausen starts by week 7? That's the week after the bye, and the Panthers could be anywhere from 1-4 to 4-1, so it all depends on how they're doing. If they're on the downside, Clausen should be ready to come in and start against the 49ers, no easy task.

Copyright 2010, 2011, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.


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