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NFC South: As always, anything can happen

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  • NFC South: As always, anything can happen

    NFC South: As always, anything can happen


    Atlanta's first division title since 1998 and Carolina's fall from grace were the biggest NFC South stories in 2004. Carolina's second-half recovery from a 1-7 injury-plagued start and a 4-0 finish in New Orleans almost secured a wild-card berth. Atlanta continued to surprise in the playoffs, upsetting Green Bay before losing to Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. Tampa Bay never overcame an 0-4 start.

    Movers and Shakers
    Atlanta No. 1 pick Roddy White may find playing time sparse behind Peerless Price and Michael Jenkins. The Falcons expect former Ravens linebacker Edgerton Hartwell to provide more size and quickness in the middle. No. 2 pick Jonathan Babineaux was a sack specialist at Iowa.

    No. 2 pick Eric Shelton brings more talent to an already-deep group of running backs in Carolina. No. 3 pick Stefan LeFors set records at Louisville and should get along with fellow Cajun Jake Delhomme. The addition of free-agent cornerback Ken Lucas to the Panthers secondary means second-year man Chris Gamble will have to compete with Ricky Manning Jr. to start at the other corner.

    The Saints hope fifth-round pick Adrian McPherson can develop into Aaron Brooks ' eventual successor. Dwight Smith moves over from Tampa Bay to play strong safety and add consistency. Free agent Az-Zahir Hakim will bring speed to the No. 3 receiver slot. Free agent Jermane Mayberry hopes to put Philadelphia behind him and replace Montrae Holland at right guard. Antowain Smith brings his leadership and two Super Bowl rings from the Patriots.

    Free-agent find Anthony Becht is the kind of big, pass-catching tight end Jon Gruden loves in Tampa Bay, so is No. 3 draft pick Alex Smith of Stanford. Former Viking Chris Hovan will rotate in at nose tackle.

    What to Expect
    A healthier Carolina roster figures to be the only thing standing between Atlanta and a second NFC South title. Still, the division is known for producing surprises.

    The Falcons' 9-2 start a year ago left little suspense in the division race, but Carolina and New Orleans managed to put horrible starts behind them and make strong, if not successful, late-season runs at the playoffs.

    Michael Vick must prove that he can pass effectively when Atlanta's rushing game stalls. The Falcons overcame Vick's inconsistent arm in 2004, a luxury they may not enjoy this season. Coach Jim Mora continued to tinker with the Falcons defense in hopes of taking more pressure off Vick.

    With its running game decimated by injuries, Carolina's Jake Delhomme proved he could be effective passing the ball in 2004, giving opposing defenses more to think about this season. It remains to be seen if coach John Fox will let the quarterback turn it loose. Whether the Panthers can beat Vick will be the difference between a division title and a wild-card berth.

    New Orleans enters yet another season as a team that experts can't quite figure out. Perhaps the Saints' offensive arsenal can carry a leaky defense to a surprising year. Expect big numbers on both sides of the ball.

    Tampa Bay could be the team making the biggest jump in the division. Gruden finally got his go-to running back in Carnell Williams. Can Gruden ride him and an aging, but solid, defense to the playoffs after two seasons left out in the cold?
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  • #2
    [/url=]Adjustments needed by all NFC South teams[/url]

    (Aug. 25, 2005) -- No one can argue that the NFC South has produced some of the best football in the conference. Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, the Panthers almost beat the Patriots in the big game the following season, and the Falcons went to the NFC Championship Game last year.

    Many people who study the teams in the NFL feel the Panthers are positioned to make a return to the championship game this year, still others feel the Falcons are the team to beat. Tampa Bay is in a rebuilding phase, and, as always, no one gives much credence to the idea that the Saints are going anywhere. Before we get into an emotional argument about the NFC South, let's look at some of the recent history.

    Over the past three seasons, not one of these teams has dominated the division. The Falcons are 10-8 in division games, the Panthers and Saints are 9-9, and the Bucs are 8-10. The truth is not one team has run the table against division opponents in three years, and only once did a team win five of six. New Orleans may be perceived as the doormat of the division, but they haven't had a losing record in the division in three seasons, and last year they beat Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Carolina in the last three games of the season while holding all three teams to a combined 48 points. Did the light finally go on for the New Orleans Saints?

    The Falcons won the division last year and rolled through their three main foes the first time they played, but in all three rematches they gave up more points. Did the other teams in the NFC South catch on to the Falcons defense? Carolina was hit hard by injuries last year, and at one point was only a shell of the team that went to the Super Bowl the year before. But after a 1-7 start coach John Fox rallied his team back with a 6-2 finish. The problem is those two loses down the stretch were to New Orleans and Atlanta. In fact, Carolina -- healthy or not -- has just not figured out how to beat Michael Vick and the Falcons. Tampa Bay dropped three of its last four division games last year and gave up 82 points, which is not the Bucs' way of playing football.

    Here are the critical questions about the NFC South as we prepare for the 2005 season.

    1. Can Vick be contained and be beaten at home? It looks like a tough question to answer yes to. His home record is 14-4 in regular-season play, and 9-1 in the past two years. As for containing Vick, it is hard because Vick as a runner in divisional games over the past three seasons is tremendous. He has 779 yards in 102 attempts with eight touchdowns. He's getting more dangerous each season.

    2. Can the Panthers rebound in 2005? Sure they can, but they must stay healthy. Last year 14 players were injured and lost valuable playing time. The loss of wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad can't be taken lightly. Ninety-three receptions and 16 touchdowns are not easily replaced, even if Steve Smith is completely back from injury. Until the Panthers figure out a way to beat Vick, it may not happen. Julius Peppers is considered the top defensive player in the league by some so-called experts, but he can't do it alone. Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker need to return to their form of 2003.

    3. Will New Orleans Saints ever put it all together? First thing's first: They have to learn to win at home. In the past four years they have a 15-17 record. If they would just go 6-2 at home and combine that with the above-average road record they produce (13-11 over the past three seasons), then they have a chance. The Saints have the best running back and wide receiver in the division, but their QB, Aaron Brooks, needs to be more consistent.

    4. How long will the Tampa Bay rebuilding process take? The Bucs should have started the tear-down program right after they won the Super Bowl, but they didn't have enough draft picks or the salary-cap space to do it back in 2003. Now they are headed in the right direction, and by 2006 the Buccaneers will be back on their feet again. Look for Brian Griese to rise from being the 21st-ranked quarterback in 2004 to something closer to 12-15th in efficiency, and young stars like WR Michael Clayton and RB Carnell Williams to take ownership of this team.

    Finally, every team in this division plays a similar variation of the 4-3 defense. Saints head man Jim Haslett and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell in Atlanta both worked under Tampa Bay's Monte Kiffin at one time or another, so there is great familiarity about what they do on defense.

    All of the quarterbacks in this division -- Vick, Brooks, Griese and Jake Delhomme -- combined to throw 45 interceptions. The man who reduces that number the most will create the biggest advantage for his team. Atlanta will be challenged by the Panthers, but the unconventional Vick, along with a solid running game led by Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, should prevail.

    I believe two teams from this division go to the playoffs. Wouldn't be ironic if no one believes the Saints could make the playoffs but they surprise everyone and earn a postseason ticket?
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    • #3
      The Saints have lost "Boo" Williams, TE for the entire season.
      Make America Great For Once.


      • #4
        Originally posted by The Kev@Aug 27 2005, 04:38 PM
        The Saints have lost "Boo" Williams, TE for the entire season.

        I heard that they were going to end up cutting him anyway.
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        • #5
          Who do they have to replace him?
          Make America Great For Once.


          • #6
            Ernie Conwell.
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            • #7
              I like Carolina with everyone healthy.

              They have the best defense in the division (if not the conference, along with Philly) and their offense is the most consistent.

              I think Atlanta's a mirage -- just good enough to disappoint -- while the Bucs are treading water.

              And the Saints suck.
              His mind is not for rent, to any god or government.
              Pointless debate is what we do here -- lvr