By Tony McClean
Updated: September 5, 2006
NEW HAVEN, Ct.
— Six down and two to go as BASN continues to preview the 2006 NFL season in the both conferences leading up to Thursday’s Dolphins-Steelers opener. Today, we look at the NFC South.
While the Buccaneers rallied to win the division last year, it was the wild card Panthers that nearly duplicated the Steelers’ feat in reaching the Super Bowl with three straight road wins.
The Falcons had problems on both sides of the line last year while the Saints were force to basically play 16 “road” games all of 2005 due to the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.
John Fox’s crew was just a healthy running back away from another trip to the Super Bowl last year. Adding Keyshawn Johnson as Steve Smith’s new running partner could be just what the doctor ordered for an offense that despite its reputation was a woeful 22nd in the league. Keeping RB DeShawn Foster healthy also be a priority, however the drafting of Memphis’ DeAngelo Williams. But we all know that Carolina’s main strength is on defense. The fact that this team went so far even after losing Pro Bowl DT Kris Jenkins is a testament to the talent of this crew. Barring any other major ouches, this is a solid unit on both sides of the line.
What To Look For: Carolina will be thrown into the fire very early as they’ll play division opponents in three of their first four games of the season. They’ll open the season at home against Michael Vick and the Falcons. Following a trip to the Metrodome, the Panthers then visit Tampa and come back home to host the Saints. Another stretch in late November through early December includes three straight games against NFC East opponents Washington, Philly, and New York. The first two games will be on the road.
Outlook: There’s no doubt that this is a Super Bowl contending team. But they can’t get caught reading their headlines. You can rest assure that Fox will be on them day and night. Then again, all they have to do is see the three other teams in this division that want to knock them off. As we mentioned earlier about the early season schedule, we’ll see if they’re kittens or kings of the division very soon.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
A funny thing happened along the way to a division crown for Tampa last year. It suddenly appears that the Bucs may have finally developed an offense that doesn’t place as much pressure on its always stalwart defense. Despite some growing pains from QB Chris Simms, the Tampa offense is now at least more than respectable. Rookie RB “Cadillac” Williams gave a Rolls Royce performance and looks to improve on last year’s production. He also worked on his conditioning during the off season in hopes of avoiding nagging injuries and another late-season drop in production. Defensively, they won’t miss a beat especially with the addition of ex-Jaguar LB Jamie Winborn to the mix.
What To Watch For: Among the many new faces to the Bucs’ offense in 2006 will be the much traveled TE David Boston. The eight pick overall by the Cardinals in the 1999 NFL Draft, Boston will be playing for his third team in the last four seasons. After catching 70 balls in 2003 for the Chargers, the ex-Ohio State standout spent two injury-plagued seasons in Miami. He missed all of 2004 with a knee injury and played in only five games for the Fish when he was placed on IR for the remainder of the year. If he can stay health and regain a bit of his old form (a career-high 98 catches and 8 TDs with Arizona in 2001), Chris Simms will have another weapon to play with.
Outlook: The fight between the Bucs and Panthers for the division crown arguably be one of the best races in the NFC this season. The only reason I have Tampa behind Carolina as of now is experience. Yes, they got a good lesson in their playoff loss to the Redskins. Much like the previous regime under Tony Dungy, this team will have to lose a few to get back to winning another Super Bowl title.
There’s no way around it, Michael Vick and the Atlanta offense as a whole were just mediocre at best last year. No. 7′s passer rating of just 73.1 was 25th among NFL quarterbacks, while throwing 13 interceptions along with 15 touchdowns. The offense as a whole was 12th overall and 27th overall in passing. For this team to contend, the offense must get back to its better days and old No. 7 must re-emerge. Adding WR Ashley Lelie from Denver should help the loss of Brian Finneran. Also rookie RB Jerious Norwood will give the offense a much-needed spark to offset the trading of T.J. Duckett. But it will all come back to Vick and he’ll be more than up for the challenge.
What To Watch For: While many focused on No. 7′s numbers as a cause for Atlanta missing the playoffs, one should also take the other side of the line to task as well. After leading the league in sacks two seasons ago, the Falcons dropped to 22nd in total defense and 26th against the run last season, and allowed opponents to score 30 or more points in five games. Getting ex-Jet DE John Abraham for literally nothing should definitely help as well as adding ex-Bill and Patriot Lawyer Milloy.
Outlook: As we said a while back about the AFC North, this division could also yield three playoff teams this season. Atlanta is too good of a team to be left home around playoff time again. We’re betting that the Dirty Birds will be in the mix for not only a postseason berth, but a possible division crown as well. It may not be the most popular pick, but I feel that they’ll be back as among the NFC’s elite.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
It just wasn’t about football in 2005 for this franchise and the city they represented. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is something that the Bayou and their native sons will have endure for many years to come. As for on the field, the 2006 Saints hired coach Sean Payton was hired to adjust the Saints’ attitude and transform the team’s offense. Adding a Heisman Trophy winner (Reggie Bush) and a Pro Bowl QB (Drew Brees) are definitely a step in the right direction. With an already potent arsenal of RB Deuce McAllister and WR Joe Horn, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for this team. With a little luck, this team could scare some folks if the defense can hold up their end of the bargain.
What To Watch For: The Saints defense took a beating against the run last season, ranking 27th while allowing an average of 134 yards per game. Even in the bad ol’ days of the ‘Aints, New Orleans always had a solid defense. While adding Brees and Bush will make the offense more explosive, if they’re going to seriously contend the defense has to be something to write home about.
Outlook: In a perfect world, the Saints make an incredible run to the Super Bowl and bring home the Vince Lombardi to the Bayou. As much as we’d all like to see that happen, it probably won’t. In this already tough division, someone has to finish last. But I could very easily see them as a major spoiler late in the year. They’ll end the season at home against the Panthers in a game that should likely have major playoff implications.
Predictions 1. Panthers 2. Bucs 3. Falcons 4. Saints Tommorrow: The NFC West.