Bob Christ's pro football preview, the NFC South

Aug 14, 2012 3:01 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth of eight Tuesday NFL previews examining the eight divisions. Today, the NFC South.

For five consecutive seasons in the mid-2000s, the formula for picking the NFC South winner was simple: Take the team that finished last the previous season. 

It worked first for Carolina in 2003 and then Atlanta (2004), Tampa Bay (2005), New Orleans (2006) and Tampa Bay again (2007). The other seven divisions combined had only four such worst-to-first turnarounds in that span. In 2009 the Saints leaped from last to first en route to its Super season.

So, is it Tampa Bay’s turn this year after its grisly 4-12 last-place finish in 2011? Well, not according to the Las Vegas Hotel Superbook, which has the Bucs at 200-1 to win the Super Bowl, matching the longest odds on the board. The Bucs are 12-1 to take the South.

On the top end, the Bounty Gate scandal in New Orleans no doubt will create hardships for the Saints, who won the division last year. Archrival Atlanta, which earned a wild card in 2011, appears primed to vault them.

And then there’s the buzz in Carolina over sophomore QB Cam Newton.

Anyway, here’s how the standings should look at the end of the season, with teams listed in order or predicted finish:

Atlanta Falcons

Owner Arthur Blank has gotten spoiled by his team’s recent success and is stressing the importance of winning playoff games instead of just being happy to qualify for the tournament.

Although Atlanta has had a franchise-record four straight winning years under HC Mike Smith, it is 0-3 in the playoffs, including last season’s 24-2 loss to the Giants. Thus, the Falcons and QB Matt Ryan should be playing with greater urgency than in the past.

Ryan again will benefit from the pass-catchers Roddy White and second-year man Julio Jones. White was second in the league with 100 receptions last season and had eight TDs. Jones had 54 catches, also for eight TDs, but his norm of 17.8 a reception was third best among receivers with 50-plus grabs.

Maybe the Falcons can help keep standout RB Michael Turner from having 300 carries for the fourth time in five years. 

Defensively, the good news is that coordinator Mike Nolan comes over from Miami, where his team ranked fourth in yards per rush allowed at 3.71 last season. And in the secondary, Pro Bowl regular Asante Samuel will join the mix. 

New Orleans Saints

In addition to losing suspended HC Sean Payton for the season and GM Mickey Loomis the first eight games, the Saints also are working against a powerful dual curse:

• Since 1962, when the Hall of Fame game was first played, no participant has won that season’s league title.

• New Orleans will be the site of this year’s Super Bowl. No host team has ever played in that game.

The positive news, though, is that QB Drew Brees got his mega-deal and says the Saints are championship timber despite the absence of key personnel (even interim HC Joe Vitt will be suspended the first six games) and the suspension of defensive leader Jonathan Vilma at linebacker.

Considering New Orleans set a league mark with 458.8 yards a game last year, Brees might be right. Plus, he has RB Darren Sproles, who had a league-record 2,969 all-purpose yards in 2011.

But we’ll see about that title. Last year, the Saints scuffled after Payton broke a leg and wasn’t able to coach from the sideline. Included were losses at Tampa Bay and one in St. Louis when the then-winless Rams won 31-21 in Week 8 as a 13½-point underdog. Just a coincidence?

One thing for sure, the defense will have a new look – at least at LB with three free-agent signings, including ex-Falcon Curtis Lofton, who’s expected to fill Vilma’s role.

Carolina Panthers

Carolina was one of the NFL darlings last year with the record-setting running/passing performance of Newton, who guided his team to a 6-10 mark after a 2-14 slate in 2010. HC Ron Rivera also deserves a tip of the helmet for doing a solid job in his rookie season.

Don’t get too excited about that 4-2 finish – or about any of their wins. Five were against teams 5-11 or worse. And although Carolina did beat AFC South champ Houston, it came while Texans defensive boss Wade Phillips was hospitalized and with a third-teamer at QB. 

Plus, it seemed defenses started to get a fix on Newton’s air game. Through four games, his passing norm was 347 yards a game. He never was better than 290 in his next 12 outings.

Reason for optimism defensively for a unit that ranked fifth worst in yards yielded is the return of several starters who were lost to injury early last season, including LB Jon Beason, who was hurt in Game 1. Plus, the Panthers added LB Luke Kuechly with the ninth overall draft selection.

Newton’s overall health is enormously important. Considering he rushed 126 times last year and was sacked 35 times, that’s a lot of hits for a QB. Carolina certainly doesn’t want backups Derek Anderson or Jimmy Clausen near the huddle. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay’s meltdown to close 2011 – a 10-game losing streak (1-9 ATS) – must have brought back memories for ex-Giants coach Jim Fassel, the honcho of the UFL’s Las Vegas Locomotives. His 2003 New York team not only lost its final eight games of the season after a 4-4 start, but was 0-8 ATS.

The Bucs’ overall ATS mark of 4-12 was their worst since the infamous inaugural season of 1976 when they went 0-14 SU and 2-10-2 ATS.

Thus, ex-Rutgers HC Greg Schiano, a former Bears assistant, comes to the rescue this season. But Schiano’s track record with the Scarlet Knights, although commendable, indicates a turnaround won’t occur instantly. He took over a 3-8 Rutgers team in 2001 and led it to a 2-9 mark his first year, including an 80-0 loss to West Virginia. The next year RU went 1-10.

His first order of business is to get QB Josh Freeman straightened out. As a rookie in 2010, Freeman was the sixth-rated passer with 25 TD throws and six INTs. Last year, he had a 16/22 ratio and was ranked 26.

To aid his cause, Freeman will have ex-Chargers WR Vincent Jackson to target. The 6-5 receiver averaged 18.4 yards on his 60 receptions last season.

Defensively, like Carolina, injuries tormented Tampa Bay. It has a current streak of yielding 20-plus points in 12 games, but at least the Bucs are still well off Green Bay’s record of 33 straight set from 1949-1952. 

(Next week: AFC South)