Ah the NFC South, the only division where you can make the playoffs without a winning record. It was a wacky scene last year, and I don’t see it getting any less wacky with a young Saints crew deep in reconstruction, a Falcons team with a potentially explosive offense (which they’ll need considering their defense), a tantalizingly improved Buccaneers gang, and a Panthers team flirting with a serious drop in production.
Listen up you weisenheimer, the ball’s got some crass opinions to share…
I’ve got a lot of affection for the Saints, but the team has changed so drastically in such a short amount of time that they’re nearly unrecognizable. The Junior Galette debacle was a costly embarrassment, and I’m not fully convinced that C.J. Spiller will be successful even if he seems like a great fit in Nola’s offensive system. It’s not all bad news of course. Having a young team means that some guys are going to inevitably crawl out of the woodwork and become big playmakers. Drew Brees still has some great options to throw to: Marques Colston will remain a solid end-zone threat and will be perfect for those third-and-short surprise pass plays. I also love how Brandin Cooks has emerged as Drew’s go-to receiver. I expect great things from him this season.
From the coaching perspective, I think Sean Peyton is one of the best in the league, even if that signature visor makes him look like a white-boy rave DJ from the Wisconsin suburbs of the late 90’s. This is also going to be a terribly important season for Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. All the wild, free flowing, blonde hair isn’t going to help him keep his job if the Saints defense crumbles under injuries and inexperience.
The crystal ball says:
Rebuilding. Rebuilding. Rebuilding. Even if a passel of these young players emerge as studs, it’s still going to take a bit of work getting everyone on the same page. Jimmy Graham’s loss is definitely going to hurt, as is the absence of some of the defensive vets (due to injury), like Jairus Byrd. The Saints don’t make the playoffs this year, but Rob Ryan keeps his job and lives to fight another day.
Deflategate was an interesting litmus test for a league that sometimes struggles with its successes in the face of scandal. I was a little shocked that more attention wasn’t paid to the story of the Atlanta Falcons pumping extra volume into their arena to mess with the other team. In my mind this is way more egregious than the PSI of a football in terms of actual game outcome, so I’m quite comfortable labeling the Falcons as cheaters right from the get-go.
What happened to Atlanta anyway? Seems like just a couple years ago they were poised to make a serious Super Bowl run. Certainly a decaying running game and the retirement of Tony Gonzalez were big factors, but this is also a team that’s had some defensive deficiencies for some time now. Maybe that changes with Vic Beasley starting the season as a rookie DE, but I’m not holding my breath. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are definitely going to create some offensive fireworks together along with Roddy White thrown in for good measure, but like many other middling teams, there’s only so much you can hope for with this current group.
The crystal ball says:
Dan Quinn is coming into a tough situation as a first time head coach, and while I respect his WWE wrestler look, I don’t think we can expect a whole lot outta Hotlanta this season. On the plus side, it’s a very weak division with a once dominant Saints team regrouping. So the Falcons have a shot at doing well within the NFC South, but personally, I still like the Panthers for the division, making a wild card slot highly unlikely for the dirty birds. We’re going to see plenty of beautiful highlights from Matt Ryan and company in game recaps next to losing scores.
Lovie Smith is not to be trifled with even if he does have a habit of making willfully bad decisions and betting on the wrong horse. I like his reworking of the Bucs and with Jameis Winston we might finally have a team on our hands. Vincent Jackson is a mammoth-sized receiver, and the perfect type of guy for a talented young QB to pitch to. There is this nagging sense however that Mike Glennon wasn’t exactly the worst QB ever, so really how much better can Jameis Winston make this team?
As far as Winston is concerned, he could be golden in the NFL as long as he can keep his off-field extracurriculars in check. We’ve seen plenty of dudes who are prone to bad behavior wreck themselves in the NFL. Hell, guys who aren’t prone to bad behavior land in hot water too. The Winston pick was a hopeful gamble and I hope he keeps it together long enough to play. On the other side of the ball, Tampa Bay does have a pretty solid defense despite what last year’s stats might suggest. That D is only going to get better with the addition of George Johnson who had a great last season with the Lions. Like the Falcons, this is another club that has problems with the run game, but I’m not totally ready to give up on Doug Martin. Sure, he’s not going to light up your fantasy scoreboard, but I think the muscle hamster (worst nickname ever) can provide an adequate run game to bolster Winston’s arm.
The crystal ball says:
It’s so tempting to imagine the Buccaneers popping off. I do think they make some huge strides. Winston will behave, at least for his rookie year, but watch out for the offseason and the following one. I see steady improvement all around as Lovie Smith gets his hooks deeper in the team and Winston settles in. At first the crystal ball was telling me that the Bucs had a good chance to make the playoffs but then she admitted that she had been drinking too much white zin the night before. The Bucs have a good shot at a .500 season, and at this point, that’s almost as good as making the playoffs.
No Kelvin Benjamin. Yeah, Aaron Rodgers can survive without Jordy Nelson, no sweat, but Cam Newton is going to have a really hard time without his number one receiver. Greg Olson can only catch so many; and how much can really be expected from Ted Ginn Jr. and Stephen Hill? There’s a lot of talk about the Panthers running the ball more, but if they don’t throw it enough that will prevent Cam from running, which is arguably his greatest asset. Look, Superman ain’t exactly known for his arm accuracy. I think Jonathan Stewart has some promise in the backfield, old as he is, and let’s not forget that Carolina has a strong defense. I can’t pronounce the dude’s name right but I can’t wait to see some of those big tackles Luke Kuechly is bound to make. Say it with me now… “Keek-Ly.”
He obviously doesn’t see it this way but I think this will be a great chance for Ron Rivera to show off his chops as head coach. “Riverboat Ron” is working in a division that will be up for grabs all season, and will likely be emboldened to make some risky player decisions based on that. He’s shown in the past that he has the balls to go for it on fourth and short, and he’s going to need all that chutzpah with a diminished offense and a quarterback just starting to show signs of decline.
The crystal ball says:
This is Carolina’s division to lose. The Falcons will do well statistically but aren’t a major contender. The Saints are sidelined in rebuilding, and the Bucs might just be nipping at their heels. My sweetly murky crystal ball still sees Carolina as the strongest group in the bunch mostly thanks to a stout defensive backbone and an offense that’s not afraid to be unorthodox. I think they make the playoffs and are once again promptly eliminated in the first round.