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NFL Pro Football 2009 NFC South Preview

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Fearless Rick's 2009 NFL Preview - NFC SOUTH

Rick Gagliano | 8/5/2009

NFC SOUTH - Predicted order of finish and (predicted record)

Atlanta Falcons (10-6): Coming out of the division that put up the most wins in the league last season (40), in which the worst team - New Orleans - still finished a respectable 8-8, the Falcons were clearly the biggest surprise. Having lost QB Michael Vick following the 2006 season, the Falcons went 4-12 with Joey Harrington at the helm in 2007.

Enter Matt Ryan in 2008, fresh out of Boston College, to lead the Falcons to an 11-5 record, a playoff spot and a wild card loss to eventual Super Bowl participant Arizona, 30-24. Ryan's addition to the Falcon's backfield couldn't have come at a better time and the team seeks to improve both the offense and defense in 2009.

With hard-running Michael Turner getting the bulk of the carries, the Falcons have the luxury of being one of the most balanced offense units in the NFL. Turner finished the season just 61 yards shy of league leader Adrian Peterson in rushing, carring the ball 376 times for 1699 yards. With that kind of running attack, the field opens up for Ryan, who made Roddy white and Michael Jenkins his top receivers in 2008. Tony Gonzalez arrives in 2009 from Kansas City to give the Falcons a deadly third option and a great tight end who can make space for himself in the red zone.

The Falcons used the draft to shore up their defense, which was a little shaky at times but was jelling toward the end of the season when the Falcons won 7 of their last 9 games. Atlanta used its first four picks on defensive players, the most promising being William Moore, a safety out of Missouri and Chris Owens, who played cornerback at San Jose St.

Peria Jerry, a tackle from Mississippi, was drafted in the first round. He will likely take over at right tackle, alongside John Abraham who anchors the defensive line. The goal for Atlanta is to pressure quarterbacks with just their front four, allowing the safties to roam the field and help out corners Von Hutchins and Chris Houston, who were burned all-too frequently in 2008.

If the defense doesn't get the job done consistently, the Falcons can rely on the offense to produce more points than the opposition in most cases. Ryan and his teammates will be the key this season. If they make progress over last year, especially in a somewhat weakened division, they should take the title.

There aren't any gimmes in the schedule which opens with home games against Miami and Carolina before a trip to New England and a bye in Week 4. The lighter touches appear to be San Francisco (Week 5), Washington (Week 9) and the Jets and Buffalo in weeks 15 and 16. The Falcons close out at Tampa Bay, arguably the worst team in the division, so the final three games appear to offer a decisive route to the playoffs should the Falcons stay in contention.

After the success of 2008, this year will either be a breakthrough or breakdown for the Falcons, though the odds are that they will come through well.

New Orleans Saints (9-7): What's not to like about the New Orleans Saints and their all-world QB Drew Brees. In a word, defense. The inability to stop opponents was a major flaw for the Saints in '08 and steps must be taken to shore up a unit which allowed 29 points or more on eight different occasions. The best outings for the Saints' defense were against Okland and Detroit, two of the utmost patsies in 2008. They allowed 3 points to the Raiders and 7 to Detroit, but other than those games, their lowest point total was 17, when they beat the 49ers, 31-17, in Week 4.

The defensive deficiencies may not be all that glaring considering the potency of the New Orleans offense. Drew Brees came up just short of shattering Dan Marino's single-season passing record in 2008, and he did it without Reggie Bush or Deuce McAllister (and top target Marques Colston) much of the season. With both of his backs back and in good health, Brees may not put up the same numbers as last year, but he will certainly be one of the leading quarterbacks in the NFL.

Colston will again be Brees' go-to guy, along with Lance Moore, who emerged as a legitimate wideout in 2008. Question marks still surround tight end Jeremy Shockey, but if he re-dedicates himself to being the kind of player he was earlier in his career, the Saints will have little trouble finding open receivers.

It's the defense that still looks like a trouble spot for the Saints. They lack a great pass rusher and the secondary is weak, with Randall Gay and Tracy Porter at the corners. Roman Harper and strong safety Darren Sharper will have their hands full in coverage, and there isn't much help in the linebacking corps, although Scott Fujita and Jonathan Vilma are certainly more than adequate.

Getting Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, one of the best corners in college football, in the first round of the draft was a step in the right direction. He could step right in and take over one of the corner positions. Chip Vaughn, a safety out of Wake Forest might have been the steal of draft day. The Saints picked him up in the 4th round.

Former Bills head coach Gregg Williams will step in as the defensive coordinator. Having cut his NFL teeth in Houston under Buddy Ryan, Williams will use more blitzing schemes to shake up opposing offenses, taking some of the pressure off the secondary. Largely credited with turning Tennessee into a defensive powerhouse, Williams may be just what the doctor ordered to turn the tide in the Big Easy.

The Saints may have benefitted a little from their 8-8 2008 campaign with some breaks in the schedule. Weeks 1, 3 and 4 will be against Detroit, Buffalo and the Jets, with Philly the only real scare, in Week 2. The Saints also have games at St. Louis and Washington, later in the season, and close out home against the Bucs and at Carolina.

An improved defense and probably one of the top two or three offenses in the league point the Saints towards challenging for the division crown, or maybe a wild card slot. They will be a tough bunch to keep out of the end zone, so 9-7 or better could be in the offing.

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Carolina Panthers (7-9)Carolina Panthers (7-9): After winning the NFC South with an 11-5 mark, the Panthers appeared poised to make another Super Bowl run, but QB Jake Delhomme fell apart in the divisional round, tossing five interceptions and fumbling once against the Cardinals in a 33-13 embarrassment.

Delhomme returns as the starter for Carolina in 2009, but there are questions as to how long he'll remain in that position. A couple of losses or bad performances by the aging QB could revive calls for a replacement, with 4th year pro Josh McCown and Matt Moore waiting in the wings and rumors about Michael Vick already circulating around Charlotte.

Despite his horrible playoff performance, the Panthers gave Delhomme a big contract in the off-season, and don't appear to be looking over his shoulder, so he's the starter for the foreseeable future.

He'll have all the help he needs on offense, with Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad on the periphery and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. Being that the Panthers are one of the better defensive units around, Delhomme may not be under pressure to do the impossible, but this kind of grinding offense may not have the same success it did in 2008.

If the offense doesn't click with Delhomme under center, it will be worth noting that 5 of Carolina's 12 wins last season came by 4 points or less and that their two worst losses came on the road against divisional opponents (27-3 at Tampa Bay and 45-28 at Atlanta). With the Saints looking to re-emerge into the playoff hunt and Atlanta playing for keeps, the Panthers may be hard pressed early on, especially early on (Philadelphia, Atlanta and Dallas to open the season) and down the stretch, when they play at New England, home against the Vikings, at the Giants and home for New Orleans to close out the 2009 campaign.

The secondary could emerge as a trouble spot on defense, as the Panthers drafted Sherrod Martin in the 2nd round to help out at the corners, where Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall have played well in coverage but get little help from the safeties or linebackers. The heart of the defense is still up front, lead by defensive ends Julius Peppers and Tyler Brayton and linebacker Na'll Diggs. Florida State defensive end Everette Brown - acquired in a draft day deal with the 49ers - adds to the upfront heft. It's on the edges and in thrid down situations where this usually-good defense breaks down and that could prove to be a problem, especially with high-fliers Atlanta and New Orleans in the same division.

Many Panthers fans believe this team could reach playoff heights in 2009, but their hopes rest largely on the defense and steady play from Delhomme. As the NFC South is as wide open as usual, it's unlikely the Panthers will win it again, and with the rough late-season schedule working to their disadvantage, a good bet they'll miss the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Life has not be so good in Tampa since winning the Super Bowl in January, 2003 over one of the most overrated favorties ever, the Oakland Raiders. In retrospect, the Buccaneers got an easy win over a disposable product and the veterans quickly dispersed for free agency. Tampa Bay has been trying to rebuild ever since, without much success.

Finishing last season with a 9-7 record was just short of miraculous, and a testament to the coaching brilliance of now-departed Jon Gruden. With him gone, and now the departure of Derrick Brooks, the Bucs look like a team heading in the wrong direction.

The offense consists largely of off-casts from other teams. QB Byron Leftwich, running back Derrick Ward and wideout Antonio Bryant most notable. The defense continues to age poorly and even the usually-reliable Ronde Barber was caught napping at times last season.

The Bucs don't score many points offensively, and without the arm and scrambling ability of Jeff Garcia, are likely to put up even fewer than the 361 they did in 2008. Losing their last four games of 2008, especially the season-ending 31-24 home loss to the Raiders, the handwriting for changes was on the wall.

But hope springs eternal, and the Bucs hope that new head coach Raheem Morris can turn things around quickly. He'd better because the front half of the 2009 schedule is brutal with Dallas, Buffalo, the Giants, Washington, Philadelphia, Carolina and New England on tap for the first seven weeks before the bye. It's conceivable that the Bucs could be 0-7 or 1-6 by then, and, if so, things may go downhill the rest of the way.

Don't look for many surprises from this bunch, except on the scoreboard in some ugly blowout losses. Tampa Bay may challenge to be one of the league's worst teams in 2009.

Copyright 2008, 2009, 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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