Saints Crush Hapless Division
New Orleans Saints (14-2)
Yeah, even picking New Orleans to lose the first game of the season, I slotted them for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. (I also have them losing the final game of the season at Chicago.) The Saints should have no problem winning the division title. The offense may not repeat last year's feat as the league's top offense, but they probably won't be far off. Drew Brees is one of the best quarterback's in the league, and Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush make as good a 1-2 punch as any backfield in the NFL. A good crop of receivers and a solid offensive line puts New Orleans in good shape to win most games.
Then there's the defense. Definitely serviceable, but they're not going to scare anyone. They're pretty solid, and they have depth, but they're far from overpowering. The secondary is suspect, and Mike McKenzie isn't getting any younger. But if they can avoid giving up huge play after huge play like they did last year, the Saints should have no trouble securing a top seed.
That said, Sean Payton is going to have to do a much better job coaching than he did Thursday. He held a mock funeral reminiscent of other coaches who bury games and seasons, good and bad, to reinforce the concept that past success doesn't guarantee future success. According to Sports Illustrated, one of the items buried was a replica of his coach of the year award. If he continues coaching like he did Thursday, it's going to stay buried.
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Atlanta Falcons (6-10)
Despite the rest of the world predicting Atlanta being one of the worst team's in the league, I (for some reason) believe that Joey Harrington will actually have a decent year under rookie head coach Bobby Petrino. Of course, I predict that only the Saints in this division will have a winning record. Harrington has a couple receivers, plus tight end Alge Crumpler, the offensive line is decent, and if Warrick Dunn is healthy, they still have a pretty good tandem with Jerious Norwood.
The Falcons are mediocre defensively, but it could be enough to secure second place in the division, for what that's worth.
After a tough start opening the season at Minnesota and at Jacksonville, the Falcons should get even again with home wins over Carolina and Houston. Then it gets dicey. A Week 8 bye might help Petrino and staff re-evaluate their standing for a second-half test.
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Carolina Panthers (3-13)
Last year's chic Super Bowl pick finished 8-8, and I don't think they've reached bottom. Quarterback Jake Delhomme's only legitimate weapon is Steve Smith, and every team is going to be blanketing him. A new offensive coordinator is changing the offensive line's blocking scheme, and while that's supposed to help DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, but I'll believe it when I see it.
The Panthers are still good defensively, but who's afraid of the big, bad wolf? Both safeties are new, and rookie Jon Beason could end up starting at middle linebacker. Julius Peppers is the only real concern for opponents, and a double team should contain him.
Carolina will have to win a couple on the road early, or they'll be in trouble. If they do, they could finish considerably better than I predict here. If they're not a playoff contender, this could be John Fox's last season.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)
Tampa Bay could push for a winning season if you believe that the Bucs problem the last few years has been the quarterback and a rejuvenated Jeff Garcia is the missing link. I don't. Tampa has been in transition (steady decline) since the second season after Super Bowl XXXVII. There's not much further to fall.
The offensive line is questionable. Last year, head coach Jon Gruden, who will probably be the first coach to lose his job this season (or post-season), insisted on plowing running back Carnell Williams into walls all season. If the Bucs can't run, Garcia will have a hard time finding aging Joey Galloway receivers and tight ends who seem to have been drinking a lot lately.
The defensive front is pedestrian. Generally, the players don't seem very interested in playing for Gruden, who's great fodder for color commentating buffoons but not much else. But there's still hope for Tampa. They play in the NFC.
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Who will win the NFC South?
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New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers