2011 NFC South Division Preview and Predictions ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic
One down, five more days of previews to go. Welcome to day two of the Ultimate Capper NFL preview, where today we take a look at both the AFC and NFC South division, where two years ago the Super Bowl featured teams from both of those divisions. Can the Saints and Colts make it back to that level, or will they both fall short again this season? I have my thoughts, and thatâs why this column exists, so letâs get to it.
1) New Orleans Saints
The Saints will get out of September without playing a division opponent, and the first one they will see on October 9 is Carolina, the middle game of a three-game road trip. Like the Texans, Colts, and Steelers, the Saints also draw that late, week 11 bye week, and come out of that week with four of their final six games at home and just one of those six against a 2011 playoff team. That would be the Monday nighter on December 26 against Atlanta, a game in the Superdome that could likely decide the division. Factor into the equation as well that the Saints draw Carolina as their week 17 opponent in the second year of the NFL’s “all division games in the final week” schedule, while Atlanta faces the tougher draw in Tampa Bay, and all signs point to a division championship for the second time in three seasons for New Orleans. As for home field advantage in the playoffsâ¦ well, that’s what week one is for, and we’ll get to THAT on Thursday.
2) Atlanta Falcons
All of that said, Atlanta won’t fall off the map. They will waltz into the five seed much like New Orleans did a year ago â with the seed locked up sometime before Christmas, leaving only the aforementioned week 16 contest in New Orleans to determine the division champ. The addition of Julio Jones will make this offense even more prolific, but it’s hard to see where the front office addressed the weaknesses in the secondary that were exposed by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last January. With both games against the Saints likely to be more shootouts than shutouts, the edge has to shift to New Orleans because of their significantly better pass defense. Plus, the Falcons have to travel to Houston and Indianapolis in the cross-over games, but the Saints get both of those teams at home. A pretty stiff start awaits Atlanta (at Chicago, Philadelphia, at Tampa Bay, at Seattle, Green Bay) so even assuming a 3-2 start might be a bit much for the defending top seed in the NFC. They’ll still be playing postseason football, but this year they’ll be doing it in opposing teams’ stadiums as opposed to the Georgia Dome.
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The interesting part of the schedule is that Tampa is paired up with Dallas, both teams finishing their in their respective divisions last season. Most pundits don’t seem to know what to expect from the Cowboys, but there’s a very high likelihood that their meeting in Tampa on December 17 will go a long way towards deciding if one or both of these teams will be playing postseason football. The Bucs open with five of seven at home, including both visits from the division frontrunners and a game against Indianapolis, but subsequently finish with five of their last seven on the road, wrapping up the year in Atlanta. If the Bucs can at least get to that game with a chance at the playoffs, especially if catching the Falcons is a possibility, then perhaps the pressure will once again shift to the Atlanta sidelines and in the Bucs favor. All told, though, 9-7, third place, and no postseason is the probable outcome for one of the league’s more promising teams.
4) Carolina Panthers
On the bright side, Newton actually has someone to block for him, which means he’ll have a better first season than Andy Dalton and the Panthers will be better than the Bengals. Notice I didn’t say win more games, I just said better. Aside from the six division games, the Panthers will get Tennessee, Jacksonville, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Washington at home, along with trips to Houston, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, and Arizona. Carolina will be underdogs in every game, and while there are certainly potential wins to be had (home games against the Jaguars and Redskins jump out first) I wouldn’t expect more than a one game improvement at most from last year, nor would I be surprised if Cam Newton isn’t the only number one overall pick on the roster when the team assembles for training camp in 2012.
Monday, September 5: AFC North
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