The Division of Champions. Well, the Champion. The New Orleans Saints did what seemed the improbable in 2009. They won the Super Bowl. The "Aints" managed to work it's way up from disaster to to the top. You've heard that story, though. What you might not of heard is the season that could of been in Atlanta. The Quarterback that can be in Carolina. The team that might be in Tampa. They all fit in with the Who Dat Nation to form the NFC South.
The NFC South
2009 Record: 9-7
First the first time in club history, since it's founding in 1966, the Atlanta Falcons managed to finish with a winning record in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately the Playoffs just barely eluded their grasps. But it could have been different. It could have been much different. If only Michael Turner's legs hadn't felled him for five games. If only he could have repeated the near 1700 yard performance of 2008. If only the running game hadn't suffered such a loss, the Falcons would likely have been back into the NFL Playoffs for a second straight year.
The loss of Turner just was not enough for the Falcons offense. While second year quarterback Matt Ryan had proven himself able to play with the big boys in 2008, he showed he still needed some sort of crutch in 2009. He had respectable numbers, barely missing 3,000 yards in the air to go with 22 touch downs. The only blunder was the 14 interceptions. He made the best he could out of Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, both going over 1,000 yards receiving. However, the supporting cast behind the two sets of hands just was not there. It led to a lack luster offense, which finished in the middle of the pack.
The biggest positive for the Falcons in 2009 was the run defense. Ranking 10th overall in the league, it held opponents to just over 100 yards rushing per game. It was helpful because when teams too to the air, they had success. A defensive hole lie within the secondary, which was an unfortunate 28th in the NFL. The Falcons made moves to correct this, however. The tabbed Missouri Linebacker Sean Witherspoon as their first round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and signed Pro Bowl Cornerback Dunta Robinson from the Houston Texans in the off season, both of which should boost their defense and boost them right back into the post season.
2010 Prediction: 10-6
2009 Record: 8-8
He fell. And he fell. And he continued to fall. It was like a bad dream for Jimmy Clausen, but this falling isn't one you wake up from. Finally in the second round, well after he was slotted to be nabbed, the Carolina Panthers selected their new franchise Quarterback after cutting Jack Delhomme. While Matt Moore currently has control of the franchise, it's a short leash he walks on. Clausen was thought to be the most NFL ready and it's likely he'll be getting ample time to prove it in 2010.
While Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen aren't battling for reps, another interesting battle is going on: #2 Receiver. Steve Smith currently has the #1 slot locked up, as he should. However, the 2010 NFL draft saw two receivers taken by the Panthers: LSU's Brandon LaFell and converted QB from Appalachian State Armanti Edwards. None of this sits well with former draft pick and current Wide Receiver Dwayne Jarrett. They intend to rumble for #2 while the 3rd ranked rushing attack of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams carry the load.
With the departure of Julius Peppers, a lot of room has opened up for the Carolina defense's youth to shine through. The front line is where the shine needs to be brightest as NFL run games feasted on the Panthers, averaging 124 yards per game. It's likely what allowed the passing game to allow so few yards (ranked 4th overall in 2009). If Peppers can be replaced and the youth can step up for the Panthers defense, they'll have a fighting shot at a winning record. Since it looks to be another rebuilding year, however, they'll likely enjoy another big piece of the puzzle come next year's draft.
2010 Prediction: 6-10
New Orleans Saints
2009 Record: 13-3
It's hard to say which was heavier to hold, his young child or the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It's not hard to guess that both felt weightless in his arms, especially the golden right arm. The one that not only signed the contract to play in New Orleans when no one else wanted to be there, but the right arm that threw for over 4300 yards every year since, including 5069 in 2008. As Drew Brees lifted that trophy and made the city of New Orleans a Champion, he knew this was why he signed when no one else wanted to.
For a change, however, it wasn't the golden arm that led them to the promised land. While the threat of Brees and his cannon kept defenses honest, the Saints only had one 1,000 yard receiver in Marques Colston. While Brees would spread the offense around (three other receivers had at least 500 yards), it was the surprising run game which turned out to be the perfect compliment. Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell combined for over 1400 yards and the threat of Reggie Bush and his near 400 yards on the ground made for a deadly Saints offense which looks to continue with only the loss of Mike Bell setting them back.
The biggest question in whether the Saints can repeat or not lies within the defense. Sporting an unreal 26 interceptions and 15 forced fumbles, as well as scoring 5 touchdowns of their own, they were a bend but don't break defense in every sense of the word. Ranking in the 20s in pass defending (26th) and rush defending (21st), they always did enough to make sure all the offense needed was to score a couple more points and things were fine. With the offense almost completely returned but a few losses on D, including Scott Fujita who accounted for 43 solo tackles of his own in 2009, will they be able to continue to bend?
2010 Prediction: 11-5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2009 Record: 3-13
For some Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans, the highlight of the season was the 35-7 drubbing by the Patriots mid season in London, England. Maybe others stated that their biggest memory of the 2009 season, which only featured three wins, was the over time victory in the next to final week over the eventual champion New Orleans Saints. For others who follow closely, it was the emergence of rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.
Freeman started the final 10 games of the 2009 season. While his numbers weren't stellar (1,855 yards, 10 TDs, 18 INTs), in his 10 games and as the season wore on he was able to show flashes of his potential. His legs are as big a weapon as his arm, making him a complimentary QB in the likes of Vince Young with a game breaking ability beyond hucking the ball up. While 2010 will likely be another year for "Cadillac" Williams to eat up ground, it'll also be an important year for the growth and development of Josh Freeman if the Bucs intend to turn him into a franchise Quarterback to grow their team around.
The defense, especially the run game, was a huge factor in many of the 13 losses for the Bucs in 2009. It ranked dead last, allowing over 150 yards per game. Tampa looked to correct this with their first two picks in the 2010 NFL draft, taking Oklahoma tackle Gerald McCoy and tackle from UCLA Brian Price. Both look to be big run stoppers up the middle for Tampa going into the future, which looks to have another rough year ahead of it. Given the potential growth of Josh Freeman and the improvement of the defense, it won't be quite as painful of last year.
2010 Prediction: 4-12
NFC North Final Projected Standings-
New Orleans Saints- 11-5
Atlanta Falcons- 10-6
Carolina Panthers- 6-10
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- 4-12
Bold= Division Winner
Italics= Wild Card team
Coming Friday: NFC West