The Falcons are the only team in their division that won’t be substantially better this season. Of course, it’s hard to improve on 13-3, but instead of making improvements or even holding steady, the Falcons took steps back this off-season while their division foes got stronger. John Abraham and Dunta Robinson are gone and in to replace them are Osi Umenyiora and rookie Desmond Trufant, a fairly large dropoff at least in the first year of the transition. Right tackle Mike Johnson is also gone, as he’s done for the year with a fractured fibula. The only upgrade the the Falcons made this off-season was signing Steven Jackson to takeover as the primary back, filling the void of Michael Turner. Jackson is a better player, but the reason Turner lost effectiveness was because the miles on his legs piled up, and Jackson is not exactly a spring chicken.
Atlanta still has the makings of a tremendous passing offense, as Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez combine to give Matt Ryan a ton of options allover the field. That said, the offensive line is going to be a question mark this season, and may impede Ryan’s ability to get the ball downfield to his receivers on a frequent basis. Center Todd McClure retired, Tyson Clabo is gone and Sam Baker is an iffy left tackle and most of their replacements are either new or unproven. The Falcons will still put up points, but against teams with good passrushes, Ryan is going to be under a lot more pressure than he was last season, and, according to ProFootballFocus, Ryan only completed 55% of his passes when under pressure last season.
The Falcons don’t have a cupcake schedule this season, either. Along with every team in their division being better than last season, they also play the loaded NFC West, host the Redskins and Patriots and go to Green Bay to face the Packers. Going up against so many teams that can air it out with a poor secondary will also hurt the Falcons, and despite having one of the best seasons in their franchise’s history last year, I see the Falcons taking a step backwards this season.
Best-case scenario: 10-6 and another disappointing post-season
Worst-case scenario: 7-9 as they lose all of the close games that they managed to win last season
Prediction: 8-8 and a long look in the rearview mirror at their missed opportunities
The Panthers were incredibly unlucky last season, losing a string of close games, mostly due to the incompetence of head coach Ron Rivera. While Rivera is still in town, one possession loses tend to even out over time, and the Panthers are 2-12 in such games since Cam Newton came to town. If the ball bounced differently in a few of those close games, the Panthers could have made a push for the wild card. They finished the season 5-1 and showed a lot of promise on both sides of the field, setting the stage for a big year in 2013.
The only thing that has me holding back on my excitement for the Panthers this season is the idea that new offensive coordinator Mike Shula may be limiting or completely removing the read-option from the playbook. I’d guess that the basis of this decision is wanting to keep Newton healthy, because there’s no other logical reason to abolish what was a productive part of the playbook last season. And even then, wanting to preserve the franchise quarterback’s health is not going to prevent San Fransisco, Seattle and even Washington from running the read-option a ton this season, so it would behoove the Panthers to reconsider if they do indeed plan on eliminating the read-option from the playsheet.
Outside of that, the Panthers have constructed an interesting roster with a ton of prowess in the running game and some solid options on the outside. Steve Smith has lacked a star complement for the majority of his career, but the trio of Brandon LaFell, tight end Greg Olsen and off-season addition Domenik Hixon should give Newton a few solid options that manage to open up the field a bit for Smith to find space. The Panthers may have one of the worst secondaries in football, but they have assembled a monster passrush headed by Charles Johnson, and their defense is anchored by stud Luke Kuechly, who may be the best middle linebacker in football. They’ll give up a lot of points, but they have an offense that can survive in shootouts and they should have better luck in games that come down to the wire.
Best-case scenario: 11-5, A savior emerges in the secondary and the Panthers ride Cam Newton into the post-season
Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Newton doesn’t evolve and the defense gets lit up
Prediction: 10-6, Newton has a career year and Kuechly wins Defensive Player of the Year
New Orleans Saints
I’m not sure there’s an easier bet for a rebound season than the New Orleans Saints. With Sean Payton returning from his one year suspension, Drew Brees should return to form after having a bit of a down year last season and when Brees is on his game, he’s right there in that elite group of quarterbacks with Rodgers, Brady and Manning that can lift their teams to new heights even if there are some deficiencies with the roster. That said, of those four guys, Brees is easily the one that will have the toughest job to do as he’ll have to score enough points to make up for what will likely be the worst defense in football. Most quarterbacks would be condemned by having such a horrible unit as their counterpart, but Brees is good enough to make a post-season birth for the Saints a possibility regardless.
Rob Ryan is the third most important man in the building for the Saints. With Will Smith out for the season and Jonathan Vilma expected to miss at least half of the season, Ryan’s schemes will have to make up for a dearth of talent. While he has a reputation for having a great defensive mind, his schemes produced an average defense in Dallas despite having a ton of talent to work with, so who knows how well his journey with this underwhelming bunch will go. At the end of the day, if Ryan can manufacture some kind of a passrush on third down and put his defensive backs in positions to produce turnovers, it will be enough. Giving up a ton of points isn’t the biggest problem in the world with Brees on your side.
At Brees’ side is a familiar cast of playmakers. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are the primary receivers on the outside and Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in football given what has transpired in New England over the past few months. Two new wideouts could burst onto the scene this season as well. Second year player Nick Toon, a 6’4″ receiver with great ball skills, and rookie Kenny Stills, a speedster that could become the new Devery Henderson this season, figure to get a lot of looks in New Orleans’ pass-happy offense. Supplementing Brees’ arm will be a trio of backs: Darren Sproles (the pass threat), Mark Ingram (the power runner) and Pierre Thomas (a little bit of both). It will be a tough task, but if there is any team that can score enough to make up for a horrid defense, it’s this team.
Best-case scenario: 11-5, The offense explodes and Ryan uses illusions to create a successful defense
Worst-case scenario: 7-9, The defense is too much to overcome
Prediction: 10-6 and a trip back to the post-season for Brees and the Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are a popular sleeper team this season and for good reason. They have built a very good defensive unit and have found some foundational pieces on the offensive side of the ball that have them ready to compete in one of the tougher divisions in football.
It may have been a bit risky to shell out so much for a player coming off of an ACL injury, but if Darrelle Revis comes back and is 75% of his former self, he’ll be able to shut down a side of the field each and every Sunday for the Bucs. Behind Revis is one of the best safety duos in football with strong safety Mark Barron and new free safety Dashon Goldson taking the place of Ronde Barber. Barron is tremendous against the run and has shown some fashes of being a solid pass defender and Goldson had a career year against the pass last year. On the line, Tampa Bay has one of the most disruptive forces in football: nose tackle Gerald McCoy. A monster against the run, if he can get more pressure on the QB this season, Tampa will be a force to be reckoned with defensively.
Running back Doug Martin, coming off of an incredible rookie season that gets overlooked, as it should, because of the unfathomable success of Luck, RGIII and Wilson, will be the linchpin of Tampa’s offense this season. A solid passing attack should complement him with Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Kevin Ogletree on the outside for Josh Freeman to throw the ball to. Jackson and Williams were a tremendous duo last season and they are both able to stretch the field vertically, giving the offense a pair of homerun threats.
The reason the Bucs won’t be able to make the post-season? In a loaded conference in which each team has a franchise quarterback in place, Freeman acts as a microcosm for the Bucs. They are teedling in the middle between a playoff team and below average just as Freeman hangs in the balance between being a solid starting quarterback and out of a job next season.
Best-case scenario: 10-6, Freeman comes through and the defense raises to an elite level
Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Freeman is outed as a bust and Mike Glennon gets snaps late in the season
Prediction: 9-7, Competition for a wild card spot falls just short, but the path to the post-season is discovered