The NFC South doesn't believe in consistency. It is not interested in remaining uniform. It wants to shake things up. Using the four NFC South teams as dice in their own game of division Yahtzee, the Football Gods have relished randomness.
Back in 2002, our most recent palindrome year, the NFL realigned the divisions to accommodate the Houston Texans - giving birth to the NFC South. Here's where it gets weird. Since that time, no NFC South team that made the playoffs in the previous season has repeated that feat in the next.
That's right. If you make the playoffs in the NFC South one year, feel free to book your vacation early the next year because you will not be returning. It's happened for seven consecutive seasons and in the soothing narrative words of Charlton Heston from the often-overlooked classic, Armageddon, "It will happen again."
Armed with trends, statistics, opinion and an overt Atlanta-bias, we examine how the NFC South will surprise us again.
Atlanta Falcons (2009 Record: 9-7)
Let’s be honest. We expect big things from the Falcons this year. Hosting the NFC Championship game and playing in Arlington on February 6 type of big things. Offensively, this team has the talent but I would like to see Matt Ryan connect on a few more passes. Of the 16 quarterbacks who’ve started 30 or more games the past two seasons, Ryan ranks 15th in completion percentage at 59.7%. If that number is around 65% this season, the Falcons offense could score 400+ points. On the defensive side of the ball, the call for help was answered by Dunta Robinson. Robinson, the big-money free agent from the Texans, was brought in to shore up a pass defense that ranked 28th in the league. I know it’s only exhibition games but the Falcons gave up the 4th-fewest passing yards during the preseason. Hey, when you’re ranked 4th-to-last the previous year, you take what you can get. I predict the Falcons will have a top six offense and a top 12 defense.
Carolina Panthers (2009 Record: 8-8)
The Panthers have always played the Falcons tough. Since 2008, the average score in their four meetings is 25-25, with the home team winning each game. The Panthers’ ground game is the biggest concern for Falcon fans. In those four games, Carolina has averaged 29.5 carries for 142.5 yards and 1.5 touchdowns. That’s 4.8 yards per carry and a lot of sleepless night for Falcons’ defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder. A healthy Peria Jerry and new addition, Corey Peters, should help keep those numbers under control this season. The Panthers allowed the fewest points in the division last season so there’s room for optimism if the offense can rally around Matt Moore. Individually, the games vs. Carolina will be a challenge for Atlanta but over the course of the season, the Panthers’ weaknesses at quarterback and defensive line will prevent them from becoming much of a threat to Atlanta’s Super Bowl aspirations.
New Orleans Saints (2009 Record: 16-3)
In 2009, the Saints became the third NFC South team to play in the Super Bowl and the second to win it. They did so with the No. 1 offense in the league carrying a below-average defense. That’s become the norm in recent years. Back in the 1970s and through the 1990s, teams needed an offense and a defense usually ranked in or around the top five in the league. Now, teams have been able to win championships with only one side of the ball dominating (see Colts 2006, Steelers 2008, Saints 2009). The Falcons will look to improve their 1-7 record against the Fleur-de-lis since 2006. A visit to the Superdome in Week 3 precedes a Monday-nighter in Week 16 that could be the biggest game in Atlanta since the Falcons beat down the Rams in the 2005 divisional playoffs. Throw in the fact that the Saints haven’t had back-to-back winning season since 1992 and a Drew Brees injury (Madden Curse!) coupled with an 8-8 record feels about right.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2009 Record: 3-13)
If we follow the history of the NFC South, Raheem Morris has to feel pretty good. The linked article dissects what has become a spooky trend – the team that has finished in last place the previous season has made the playoffs the following season. Without fail. Think about that for a moment. Two years is an accident. Even three years could be considered coincidence. But seven years? That’s beyond our control. The Buccaneers have an inexperienced quarterback, a running back whose knees could explode at any time and a defense that ranked 27th in the NFL last season. That sounds like a 5-11 team but I am not about to mess with the cosmic energy surrounding this upside-down division. 10-6 and a wild card berth for the Buccaneers whose team name, according to Wikipedia, "is derived from the French "boucanier", which roughly translates as "someone who smokes meat." I can’t make this stuff up.
The NFC South Standings
Atlanta Falcons (13-3) – What’d ya expect? The Falcons have top-tier talent at every offensive skill position and an offensive line that has been together going on three seasons. The defense will be improved with reinforcements in Robinson and Sean Weatherspoon and bolstered further with the return of a healthy Jerry.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6) – If you skipped to the end, save your laughter and get caught up on the crazy NFC South trends. I don’t know HOW it will happen; I only know that it WILL happen. The Bucs earn a playoff berth.
New Orleans Saints (8-8) – After being knocked out of the third game of the season, Brees misses eight games. The Saints turn to Patrick Ramsey who leads them to a 2-6 record. Brees returns in Week 13 but it’s not enough to salvage this lost season as they limp to an 8-8 record.
Carolina Panthers (6-10) – Steve Smith scores three touchdowns in the opener but breaks his arm while high-fiving Matt Moore and misses two months. A tough schedule and a quarterback carousel deliver the Panthers a 6-10 finish.