No division in league annals has had as topsy-turvy a history as this one.
Six times over the past 10 seasons the team that finished last in the NFC South the previous season went on to win it the next year. Included was an incredible stretch from 2003-06 in which each of the four clubs took turns going from worst to first.
Thus, it probably wouldn’t be a colossal surprise if the Saints, Panthers or Bucs rebound from 7-9 in 2012 to overcome defending champ Atlanta. Last season, the Falcons finally got a playoff win in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era, but suffered an agonizing football death blowing a 17-0 lead at home to San Francisco in the NFC title game en route to a 28-24 loss. That surely left a mark.
New Orleans, meanwhile, gets back coach Sean Payton, who spent last year in exile thanks to Bountygate. But can he help a team that gave up the second most yards per game in league history (440.1)?
Carolina came on strong late, winning its final four games in 2012 with three coming as an underdog. But the Panthers’ schedule this year is brutal.
And in Tampa Bay, second-year boss Greg Schiano will be looking to see if he can steer clear of the rocks. After a 6-4 start last season, the Buccaneers lost their final six games, including a gruesome 41-0 defeat at New Orleans.
Here’s how the division figures to shape up in 2013, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. The odds are provided by the Las Vegas Hotel SuperBook.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (2-1 division; 18-1 Super Bowl): QB Drew Brees will be reunited with Payton after last year’s plunge from 13-3 to irrelevance at 7-9. That six-game drop matched the greatest in the league last year.
With just a little jolt to the running game, which was eighth worst in the league, the Saints’ top-rated pass offense could conceivably get even better. But RBs Pierre Thomas and/or Mark Ingram have to step up.
A more significant assignment will be to make the Saints’ defense less horrible. The unit yielded more than 500 yards four times last season, twice as many as any other team. Its rush defense was particularly bad, giving up 5.2 yards a carry, the worst for any team the past six years. But top draft choice Kenny Vaccaro, a safety from Texas, should help the process along. And if nothing else, new coordinator Rob Ryan will bring some high energy.
Also helping the Saints get an edge on Atlanta is a third-place schedule. The Saints will face the Bears and Cowboys from the NFC North and East, whereas the Falcons get the division-winning Packers and Redskins.
ATLANTA FALCONS (5-4 division; 18-1 SB): Only a month ago, the Falcons’ Super Bowl odds were 12-1. Their move to 18-1 is the most significant negative change for any team in the league in that span.
Part of it could be fielding the oldest team in the league last year and having a troublesome schedule in 2013. Atlanta will face three teams coming off Thursday night games, tied for the most in the league – and all three are on the road, including Week 14 in Green Bay. Last year, teams in this spot were 2-7 SU, but 4-4-1 ATS.
The Falcons did add bulldozing RB Steven Jackson after eight 1,000-yard seasons in St. Louis. He should be a solid complement to the receiving tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White, who had the most combined receiving yards in the league last year. But the offensive line doesn’t seem championship-worthy after veteran center Todd McClure retired and Tyson Clabo, a starter since 2008, was released.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-1 division; 40-1 SB): The Panthers’ closing kick has given the fans hope. But for the second time in three seasons, Carolina faces the hardest schedule in the league (based on last year’s records), with foes having a cumulative .543 winning percentage.
In 2011, QB Cam Newton’s rookie year, his squad faced an even tougher go (.545), yet still finished 6-10 after the previous year’s 2-14. Making matters worse, Carolina is tied for the league-high by playing three games against teams coming off byes. Maybe it’s payback for having been in that situation a total of only three times the previous eight seasons.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-1 division; 50-1 SB): It appears the Bucs have closed the gap between themselves and the division’s kingpins, for last year they were 15-1 to win the division.
But it’s hard to get excited about an offense that was shut out in Week 14 by New Orleans, which had the league’s leakiest defense.
QB Josh Freeman’s 18 INTs in enemy territory the past two seasons makes him a loose cannon. And he’s been erratic. For instance, he had a four-game stretch at midseason last year with 10 TDs and no INTs, but in his final three starts had two scoring throws and 9 INTs as the Bucs went into a freefall.
And defensively, their yield of 297.4 a game through the air canceled out their league-best marks of 82.4 yards allowed per game on the ground, with a norm of 3.5 a carry. There are too many good QBs in this division to survive this way.
NEXT WEEK: AFC South
“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting Professional Sports games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].