A Totally Biased Way-Too-Big NFL Preview: The NFC South

The quarterbacks in the NFC South might just be the best group in the entire NFL, but which one will lead their respective team to a division title in 2013?

The NFC South is a division that is used to extreme parity. Since the division was founded in 2002, each of the team’s have at least 2 division titles under their belt. Something no other division can say. 

The love doesn’t stop there. 

Each team in the South has also made a Conference Championship appearance since 2002 [Tampa Bay (2002), Atlanta (2004 and 2012), Carolina (2003 and 2005), and New Orleans (2006 and 2009)].

The Falcons reigned supreme in 2013, and were arguably the leagues top team heading into the playoffs. The Buccaneers had big-plays-aplenty with their shiny new toy Doug Martin from Boise St. The Saints were a formidable opponent almost every week, even with Sean Payton nowhere to be found. Hell, even Carolina rebounded from a poor start to show what they could do when Cam Newton was locked in. 

This division will be close, with each team having a shot at the crown come week 17.

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Atlanta Falcons

2012 Recap: Boy oh boy did the Dirty Birds have a coming out party in 2012. Matty Ice and the Three Musketeers [Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez] were lighting up opposing defenses at an unbelievable clip. They crashed out of the gates with a blazing 11-1 record in their first 12 contests, with their only defeat coming at the hands of Drew Brees in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, which isn’t totally shocking. The Falcons locked up the #1 seed, and played two of the most exciting post-season games I’ve ever seen. They barely escaped a Russell Wilson comeback in the Divisional Round, edging the Hawks 30-28, but were ousted by Colin Kaepernick and the 49’ers in the NFC Championship game. 

Biggest Off-season Move: Signing Steven Jackson. The Falcons love to run the ball, and especially when they get close. Matthew Berry delivered a gem in his rankings discussion, that really sums it up best: Over the past three years, only two teams in the NFL have more rushing attempts inside an opponent’s 10-yard line than the Falcons. They had 136 such attempts, and the Rams over that same span had 61. Sixty. One. This is a win-win for both parties. Steven Jackson could easily peak over double-digit TD’s, and the birds replace Michael Turner, who had lost more than a step or two down the stretch last season. Jackson is a game-changer for an offense that is already full of explosive players.

Breakout Player: Sean Weatherspoon. The man is an absolute freak of nature who’s bound to put it all together this season. The defense is finally “his”, with the Falcons cutting ties with veteran defensive end John Abraham. Weatherspoon is coming off two successful seasons, playing all 32 games and bringing in 152 tackles. This season Weatherspoon will have the chance to get down and dirty, and if his stars align, a 125-tackle season isn’t out of the question. If he can anchor a strong Falcons defense, Atlanta will be near unstoppable.

Crucial Match-up: @ San Francisco, Monday, December 23rd. The Falcons will look to even the score with San Fran after their 2013 playoff defeat. Two days before Christmas, and under the lights of primetime, this isn’t only the Falcons biggest game, but it’s tops on the MNF slate for the upcoming season.

Carolina Panthers

2012 RecapTalk about a tale of two halves. The Panthers stumbled out of the gate in 2012, dropping six of their first seven games, and not in a particularly flattering fashion. A 36-7 defeat at the hands of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants on Thursday Night Football was an especially embarrassing defeat. However, there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, Carolina fans. Once Cam Newton righted the ship, the Panthers won their last four games, with big wins against the division rival Falcons and Saints. If the Panthers can keep the ball moving once preseason ends, they could have a hot start to the season. 

Biggest Off-season Move: Shoring up the secondary. The Panthers struggled to defend the pass last season, finishing in the middle of the pack in passing yards against. They were able to resign Captain Munnerlyn to a one-year deal and will likely rely on him to lock down the #1 CB slot, with new signees Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore battling to play opposite Munnerlyn. With a linebacker core that could border on elite, a strong secondary will go a long way to keeping the Cats in tight games.

Breakout Player: Jon Beason. Speaking of a scary linebacking core… Jon Beason has been riddled with injuries the last two season, playing only five games total, missing games with a torn ACL in 2011, and a torn labrum in 2012. Now, with an unreal 417 tackles in his first four seasons [2007-2010], it might not be fair to call Beason a breakout candidate, but if he returns to form, Luke Kuechly and JB could prove to be an absolutely frightening duo.

Crucial Match-up: @ Tampa Bay, Thursday, Oct. 24th. When the Panthers travel to Tampa Bay in week 8, it will be the first game of four in a brutal stretch for Carolina. There following three contests come against the Falcons in Bank of American Stadium, at San Fran, and back home for a MNF contest with the New England Patriots. It’s very important for the blue and black to get started on the right foot with a commanding win over the Buccaneers.

New Orleans Saints

2012 RecapThe Saints came to a fork in the road prior to the start of last season. Losing Coach Payton would be difficult, no question, but could the Saints still be as dynamic? Could they reach the post-season for the 4th straight season? Would their defense hold up against the dynamic NFC South offenses? The answer to those questions, and I’m sure a few more New Orleans had, is no. New Orleans stumbled out of the gate, losing their first four games before going 7-5 to finish the season sub-.500 with only 7 W’s. Fear not New Orleans, with Marques Colston healthy [for now], the leagues best TE in Jimmy Graham, and some young talent on the outside [Kenny Stills and Preston Parker], this offense will return to the promise land, especially with…

Biggest Off-season Move: The return of Sean Payton. I’ll be the first to admit, although I had a good hunch that New Orleans wouldn’t be the same kind of squad without the play-caller sidelined for the 2012-13 season because of his involvement in “Bounty Gate”, I didn’t think that N’awlins would struggle as much as they did. The defense was absolutely painful to watch, and the offense had a few more hiccups than they might be used to. Payton will man the sidelines once again in 2013, and no addition could be nearly as big as that.

Breakout Player: Kenny Vaccaro. The Saints drafted the free safety out of Texas in the 1st round of April’s draft, and he’s already been making splashes in training camp. Vaccaro gives the Saints defense an edge that it desperately needs. With a defense ranked 31st against the pass, it’s not crazy to think that Vaccaro could be one of the top two or three most important pieces on that side of the ball in 2013.

Crucial Match-up: @ Atlanta, Thanksgiving, Nov. 21st. What better way to wash down all that turkey and stuffing than with a game that no-matter-WHAT will be more exciting to watch than the Jets-Pats contest from the same time slot last season? I mean, we probably won’t get another “Butt Fumble”, but we’ll get plenty of scoring, and tons of offense. If Brees can down Ryan in his house, the Saints will be in great shape as the season nears it’s final turn.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2012 Recap: Recap? See the picture above, of the “Muscle Hamster” himself Doug Martin, running away from everyone. Yup. That pretty much sums up the Bucs 2012 season. Martin burst onto the season in ridiculous fashion, cruising towards some great numbers: 319 carries, 1454 yards, and 11 TD’s. Martin will once again be the face of the offense in 2013. The South is going to be a tough division this year, and Josh Freeman will have to continue his ascent [4056 yards-27 TD’s-17 INT-54.8% in 2012] if Tampa wants to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007.

Biggest Off-season Move: Signing Carl Nicks. No question about it, the Bucs loved stealing the All-Pro guard from the Saints in free agency. The Bucs now have one of the top offensive lines in the NFL [on paper, at least], which should bode well for both Martin and Freeman. The toe injury that sidelined Nicks in 2012 is something he’ll have to deal with however, and it will be an interesting thing to note just how much it affects his play. Tampa Bay can’t afford to lose Nicks, especially with the hefty contract he inked in March.

Breakout Player: Gerald McCoy. The Crimson and Cream love might be clouding my vision, but the Oklahoma product is fully over his torn biceps from 2011, and he’s shed about 20 pounds this off-season in an effort to get quicker. McCoy has always been a scary player, but was finally able to show it on the field last season, getting three sacks from the DT position. If McCoy can lose the weight, and still be just as dominant, he could become a freak of nature. Look for GMC to do big things in Tampa Bay this year.

Crucial Match-up: @ New England, Sunday, September 22nd. The Bucs don’t have an easy schedule by any means, but aside from divisional match-ups, traveling to New England might be Tampa’s most difficult game. After an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Tom Brady and Danny Amendola in their second pre-season game, Tampa Bay will be out for some redemption in what will be a tough contest.

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