In what should be among the best divisions in the NFL, many see Atlanta as the favorite to win the division. They made the playoffs in 2011. They have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in Matt Ryan, who was eighth in the league in yardage (4,177) and QB rating (92.2). They have a 1,300-yard rusher in Michael Turner. As a team, the Falcons finished the 2011 regular season with the No. 10 offense and No. 12 defense.
The New Orleans Saints are reeling from the Bounty-gate suspensions, which will force general manager Mickey Loomis, head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma to miss the season (Vilma’s pending appeal notwithstanding).
Atlanta should win the South, they say. I disagree.
The suspensions dropped on the Saints this off-season have certainly increased the pressure on that team and may hamper its ability to repeat as division champs. However, quarterback Drew Brees is healthy and happy, having signed a whopper of a new contract. He’s energized and more than capable of rallying his team against all odds.
The young Carolina Panthers may make some noise. They’re not ready, despite what Ryan Kalil’s full-page ad says about his Panthers winning the Super Bowl. Quarterback Cam Newton is ready to explode and Carolina fields a solid running game, but the defense is still a little suspect.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an improved offense and a new head coach in Greg Schiano, a taskmaster with a heavy hand. He will whip the young Bucs into shape, but not this season.
The Falcons still won’t win the South. Not that they are incapable of winning the division, but I don’t think they will.
The three reasons Atlanta will be outside looking in:
1. OFFENSIVE LINE
The offensive line is virtually identical to the one that collapsed against the New York Giants in the playoffs, the key factor in that 24-2 Wild Card loss. Aside from a few tweaks (Atlanta released free agent Vince Mauwai on Saturday), the only significant change was the selection of Wisconsin center/guard Peter Konz in the second round of the draft.
At center is longtime veteran Todd McClure, who is an anchor and the ultimate protector of “Matty Ice,” but the 14-year veteran could start to show signs of age, and if he misses time, the entire team will suffer that much more.
2. THE OFFENSIVE LINE & THE RUNNING GAME
If the O-line isn’t solid, the running game will suffer. Turner, now 30, was third in rushing yardage in 2011 (1,340) and second in carries (301) but can’t continue to take the pounding. Unfortunately, 30-year-old running backs face heavy odds of physicial breakdowns and injuries, but the Falcons didn’t really make any moves to compensate during the off-season. Jaquizz Rodgers, a fifth-round pick last season, is talented blindingly fast, but he’s not an every-down back. He’s more like a poor man’s Darren Sproles, who plays for the Saints. Third back Jason Snelling is a nice veteran backup and no more.
For all that Turner did for Atlanta in 2011, the team ranked 17th in total rushing offense despite a 4.0-yard per carry average.
3. THE SAINTS
Never, ever count out the Saints. The defending NFC South champions are energized and still wildly talented on offense, especially in the passing game, and the team overall will enter the season with a huge chip on its collective shoulders. Brees led the league in virtually every quarterback category and is the heart and soul of the team, if not the city itself.
One can argue that the Saints defense wasn’t all that great last season and was exposed in the playoffs. That may be true but the offensive firepower New Orleans has can compensate.
The key for New Orleans will be play calling in the absence of Payton. If successful, look out. New Orleans should not be — cannot be — overlooked, especially by the Falcons, who were swept by the Saints in 2011.
Atlanta may have to sweep its division opponents to win the South, and that “Ain’t” going to happen. Splits will do them no good; Carolina and Tampa Bay will be aiming to establish themselves in the South for the present as well as the future, and the Saints have plenty to prove.
Let the games begin.