NFL: NFC South season preview

We take a look at each division before the start of the 2014 season, with this feature examining the NFC South

New Orleans Saints

With the exception of one 7-9 season in 2012, the Saints have maintained their dominant style of football which has seen them lose no more than five games each year since 2008. This season looks set to be much like the others for the Saints as they stay true to their identity of an accurate passing game and dominant defence. Any team that starts the season with Drew Brees at the helm is in with a decent shot at making a run for the title. To help Brees, New Orleans were able to retain tight end Jimmy Graham and the rest of their receiving corps seems mostly intact, with veterans Marques Colston and Robert Meachem still reliable options. If New Orleans is a team capable of winning a second Super Bowl then they have to be more than a team that can only please its fans at the Superdome. In each of the last 17 regular season games that the Saints have lost, 13 of them were away from home, a pattern that was repeated when they took on the Seahawks at CenturyLink field in the postseason. The question is not necessarily whether New Orleans will make the playoffs this year, but whether they’ve won enough games to stay at home throughout the postseason as they remain a team constricted by its away form.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New head coach, new quarterback, even new uniforms. Change is in full force in Tampa, Florida after what can only be described as a disastrous campaign under Greg Schiano last season. Former Bears head coach Lovie Smith was one of the most sought after candidates this offseason. Smith is renowned for building top quality defences and after the Schiano tenure which included a quarterback, cornerback and MRSA scandal, Smith appears to have brought stability back to the franchise. New quarterback Josh McCown has now been given his shot to prove he’s starter after an impressive understudy performance in Chicago, however his success can largely depend on the offensive line in front of him. Throughout the preseason, the Bucs offensive line has been worryingly poor, something that will be hard to get away with through a 16 game season. Nevertheless, Vincent Jackson gives McCown a safe pair of hands should he be constantly under pressure often. With such a strong division however, Tampa Bay will find it tough to make a playoff spot even with Lovie Smith at the helm.

 

Carolina Panthers

Tampa Bay was not the only team in the NFC South to see change this offseason The Carolina Panthers were virtually forced by their salary cap situation to see a lot of players walk out the door. Nearly their entire receiving corps was let go, including Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell. Quarterback Cam Newton led his team to their first playoff appearance since 2008 and in doing so proved to the league that he is an up and coming talent. However this is likely to mean nothing should he not have an offensive line capable of blocking for him this season. Only one potentially starting offensive lineman was a starter last season and two undrafted free agents are likely to be the starting tackles for this year, one of whom is yet to play the position in the NFL. Newton is an athletic and nimble quarterback, but there is only so much that can be asked of him should his protection falter. Fortunately for Carolina, the backbone of the team last season was their defence, which has so far remained relatively unchanged. Their front seven appears to be stronger than ever with defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy returning. The hope for Carolina will be that their defence once again carries the team through the season.

 

Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons will be aiming to prove that last year’s 4-12 record was an anomaly that should be easily forgotten. Having lost as many games last year as they did in the three seasons before that combined, Atlanta having been fixing the positions they were not famous for over the last few years. Playmakers is not the issue, Matt Ryan leads an offence that contains both Julio Jones and Roddy White, arguably the best receiving duo in the league. Both players suffered injuries last season which undoubtedly contributed to the teams’ woes. However, Atlanta is not the team it was two years ago and they have attempted to address this with changes along both their defensive and offensive lines. Matt Ryan is not necessarily the be all and end all of the team, but if he gets sacked as many times as he was last year (44 ), then a place in the playoffs looks unlikely. The Falcons weren’t much better on the other side of the ball either, only sacking opponent quarterbacks 32 times. The Panthers in comparison recorded nearly double the amount of sacks Atlanta did. Competition within the divison still remains high so if the Falacons’ changes do pay off, they still have the necessary playmakers to win the divison.

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