At this time, I’d like to take a moment of silence. The football season is over. Please bow your heads.
Thank you. Now, let the 2013 season begin! And what better way to kick start the offseason than speculating about how the standings will look next January? I certainly can’t think of any. The NFC South is one of the toughest divisions in football, and at least one team from the division is always a contender come January.
Last season, Atlanta made it to the NFC Championship game for the second time since the 2002 realignment of the league. That is the seventh time in those ten years that a team from the NFC South made it to that stage. In fact, the NFC South is the only division in the NFL that has had all four of its teams make it to their conference’s championship game. And, this year, the Atlanta Falcons came just a few yards short of being the final team from the division to actually make a Super Bowl appearance.
On top of this, the South is the only division in the NFC to have crowned more than one team a Super Bowl Champion in that span: the Buccaneers in 2002 and the New Orleans Saints in 2009. In the AFC, Baltimore just joined Pittsburgh as title-winners in the North since the realignment.
The stats are there. It’s hard to deny the constant competition that the Bucs’ division puts forth every year, so I feel pretty safe in assuming that this trend will continue into 2013. But the real question is: Which teams will make their mark?
The Atlanta Falcons will be the likely favorites, having made the best run in 2012. The New Orleans Saints will be back at full strength after a season marred with, well, everything. The Carolina Panthers got hot at the end of the year, winning five of their last six. And the Buccaneers are turning some heads and fully expect to make a playoff run next fall.
So, in the road to Buccaneer redemption, a playoff berth and, hopefully, an extended chase of a second Lombardi Trophy, which NFC South team will be the Bucs’ toughest competition in 2013?
Scott Smith: I know what you’re doing here, Andrew. The obvious answer is the Atlanta Falcons, who won 13 games last fall, had the NFC’s top seed and, as you said, nearly made it all the way to the Super Bowl. You’re giving me first choice thinking I’m going to be contrarian just for the challenge, leaving you with the low-hanging fruit (specifically, a Georgia peach).
Well, nuh-uh. You can construct your own fancy arguments around the 7-9 Saints and their historically troubled defense or the 7-9 Panthers and their embattled head coach. I’m going with the sure thing.
Yes, I know there are no sure things in the NFL from season to season, as is reflected in the usual turnover of about half the playoff teams each year. Still, look at the Falcons since Mike Smith arrived in 2008 and rescued them from the Bobby Petrino fiasco: 11-5, 9-7, 13-3, 10-6, 13-3. That’s 56 wins in five years, the most in the NFC and bested in that time period only by the New England Patriots, who certainly know a thing or two about sustained success. It’s painful for me to say anything nice about the Falcons, but you’ve got to admit that Mike Smith and company have laid a foundation that is preventing the wild ups and downs for which that franchise used to be known. You know when the last time before this was that Atlanta had five straight winning seasons? That was just a little before never. Heck, the Falcons never had two straight winning seasons before the current run. I kid you not.
And what exactly is going to change in 2013? Well, Tony Gonzalez may retire, though the Falcons are doing their best to talk him into one more year. For argument’s sake, let’s say the greatest tight end in NFL history rides into the sunset…well, the cupboard is far from bare. The Falcons’ strength was their passing game this past fall, and it will still have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White. The offensive line helped keep Ryan clean – the Falcons were seventh in sacks allowed per pass play – and the only key member of that group who is a free agent is Sam Baker. The Falcons can make him a priority if they so choose.
Who else could possibly defect via free agency? Well, there’s standout cornerback Brent Grimes, who got the franchise tag last year but then missed the season due to injury. Grimes could get the tag again, but the Falcons also managed to develop a whole lot of secondary depth throughout an injury-plagued season, finding out good things about guys like Christopher Owens, Dominique Franks and Chris Hope. All those guys are potential free agents, too, as is safety William Moore, so there is work to be done by G.M. Thomas Dimitroff. Still, there’s enough depth there to believe that the Falcons will be able to bring back enough of it to field a strong defensive backfield again.
Michael Turner was given a lighter load throughout the 2012 regular season and thus was still effective in January. With the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers as a very different sort of complement to the bruising Turner, Atlanta’s running game was better at the end of the year than the beginning, and should be able to carry that development over into 2013. And, even though the names you’ll think of first on Atlanta’s defense – John Abraham, Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson – are older players and free agency imports, the strength of the Falcon D is really in its rising young players. Moore, Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Thomas DeCoud and Peria Jerry are just starting to come into their own. Unfortunately, while I hate to say it, the best days for the Atlanta defense may lie ahead.
Uggh. I can’t believe I just spent seven paragraphs arguing that the Falcons are built for sustained success. I feel a little ill. Hopefully, some of that unexpected change that dots the NFL landscape every year – think of the Seahawks’ rise and the Lions’ collapse last season – is in store for Atlanta, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I certainly think the situations in Carolina and New Orleans leave more room for the possibility of a further downturn.
Andrew Norton: Quite the bold assumption there Scott. While you can go ahead and run with the Falcons, I’m going to look back to a little over a month ago to when the Buccaneers handled Atlanta in Week 17. A Falcon team that went full strength trying to build playoff momentum, I’ll remind you. Not to mention giving them a run for their money in Week 12 where we fell by just one point to the one-loss Atlanta team.
So, I’m going to focus my attention to the New Orleans Saints, the toughest 2013 matchup.
The Saints are no slouches either. You mentioned the five-year numbers for Mike Smith. In that same time span, the New Orleans Saints had 52 wins, four shy of your Falcon “dynasty.” Three of those five years they were number one in yardage in the NFL. They have been in the top six in total yardage for seven straight seasons.
The lowest win total for the Saints in that span was this previous season, where they finished 7-9. You may recall that this season they were without their quite successful head coach and instead were coached by Joe Vitt (former linebacker coach with 11 games experience as a head coach) and Aaron Kromer (former offensive line coach with no previous head coach experience).
But enough about their one bad year, let’s get to why they could spell trouble. It all starts with Drew Brees. You may recognize him as a seven-time Pro Bowler, the all-time single-season NFL yardage leader, who is coming off two straight years with more than 5,100+ yards passing and 40+ touchdowns.
His targets: Marques Colston, who has broken 1,000 receiving yards in six of his seven NFL seasons. Jimmy Graham, the All-Pro tight end with the second most receiving yards for a TE in a single season. Darren Sproles, who, in 2011, put up the most all-purpose yards in NFL history. This is not even mentioning Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Mark Ingram or Pierre Thomas.
While I give the Falcons and edge for having one of the top WR tandems in the NFL (I say “one of” because I must include the Bucs’ Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams as one of the dynamic NFL duos), I think the Saints have cornered the market at all other offensive positions. Brees over Ryan, check. Graham over possibly-retiring Gonzalez, check. Thomas/Ingram/Sproles over Turner/Rodgers, check.
Now I’ll get to the part that I know you’re just champing at the bit to counter me for, the Saints defense. 454 points allowed was second-highest in the league. And, yes, their 7,041 total yards allowed was the worst in the NFL… of all time.
But let’s realize that they were without a head coach. And they were without their defensive captain and Pro Bowl LB Jonathan Vilma, who led the team in tackles from 2008-2010. Sure, there are a lot of holes there, but there is still promise on the team. Will Smith is a force in the middle, they have a talented LB corps with Vilma, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and promise with rookie Akiem Hicks and DE Cameron Jordan.
And they still finished 7-9 with this sieve of a defense. The Saints have the 15th pick in the draft, just one year removed from having their first pick fall in Round 3. They have room to grow on defense and an offense that has proven time and time again that they can largely make up for any mistakes the defense throws at them.
The NFC South is going to be serious, but the Saints are going to be serious-est.
Scott Smith: Well, there’s an awful lot going on there, and I may not be able to get to all of it, but I’m definitely going to start with your leadoff argument. Your rationale for knocking the Falcons down was that they went 1-1 against the 7-9 Buccaneers in 2012. By that logic, we should also discount the 49ers, who went 0-1-1 against the 7-8-1 Rams; the Ravens, who went 1-1 against the 8-8 Steelers; the Saints, who went 0-2 against the 7-9 Panthers; the Redskins, who lost to 7-8-1 St. Louis and 7-9 Carolina; the Patriots, who lost to 5-11 Arizona (simultaneously destroying about a million knockout pools); and so on. I could do this all day. You know what? I don’t think the Bucs have to worry about ANYBODY next year.
After that, you essentially spend five paragraphs trying to convince me that the Saints’ offense is like, really really super-duper good. You might as well have saved your breath. Your honor, the defense will concede this point if the preening DA would just shut up for a second.
Yep, the Saints offense has been nothing short of amazing since the arrival of Brees, and I’ll even concede that they’re likely to be a little better with Sean Payton back next year. They ranked second in the NFL this past year in what sorta felt like a down year for them. Wow.
Oh, hey, I was just looking at that ranking list. You know who finished third, right behind New Orleans? Detroit. 4-12 Detroit. You know who finished sixth? Dallas. 8-8 Dallas. The Bucs were ninth, and we finished 7-9. You know why I bring all of this up? It’s all about BALANCE.
You cannot simply defuse the New Orleans-has-a-historically-bad-defense argument by bringing it up first. Even if one concedes all of your points about why they should be better (and I DO NOT), it’s still a stretch to believe they will improve enough from THE WORST EVER to be even passable. Vilma actually played 11 games this past year, so I’m not sure what magic elixir they’re going to get from his “return.” We don’t even know who the DC is going to be yet (Rob Ryan?). And give me any team and I can list a handful of young players who “might” be better in 2013, as you did with Hicks and Jordan and company. Oh wait, I forgot. They also have a first-round draft pick this year. Well, I take it all back. When the Saints draft Reggiedeion ButkusTaylorLott in the first round this year, all their problems will be solved! Whee!
None of which is to say New Orleans is going to be a bad team in 2013. Like you, I think they will be more of a threat than they were in 2012 (when they beat us twice). But we’re comparing threats here, and the Falcons seem like the more complete one. Atlanta’s offense wasn’t that much behind the Saints’ last year (they both scored over 400 points), and their defense was considerably better. I consider it almost morally wrong to say something nice about the Falcons, but I still believe they are the highest hurdle the Buccaneers will have to clear in 2013.
Andrew Norton: First of all, we all know that Reggiedeion ButkusTaylorLott declared that he is not coming out in the draft this year. Secondly, I highly doubt he’d fall to spot 15 where the Saints will be selecting. Let’s be realistic.
Anyways, I get it. Parity. Thanks for pointing that out. Yes, any schlub of a team (a la Jacksonville) can put up a W against a true contender (see Week 3 vs. Indianapolis). But those are flukes. And as I apparently didn’t point out obviously enough, this Saints team going 7-9 was a fluke. They had everything in the world working against them and the worst media scrutiny of perhaps any professional sports team ever this season. And the offense was still obscene.
So, let’s play this game. The Saints were far beyond last place in defense in 2012. But in 2011, they were just the ninth worst. Still not good. Still over 365 yards per game allowed. They also forced the second fewest turnovers in the NFL. I feel that we can agree that was not exactly a stellar defense. Outcome of 2011: 13-3 record.
Need I remind you that defense most certainly does NOT win championships?
As for your Falcons, they are in a bit of a struggle without Tony Gonzalez if he does not come back. Michael Turner is on the decline (and not even expected to be a Falcon next year) and while Jacquizz Rodgers is a brilliant change of pace back, he is by no means a workhorse.
Their defensive line was an absolute mess. And they lack any sort of depth at linebacker. In their first six games of the season, they averaged 144 rushing yards allowed per game. In the regular season, they had six games allowing more than 140 rushing yards. They surrendered 123 and 149 in their two playoff games.
Add to that the host of free agents, and they will be looking to fill a lot of holes. LT Sam Baker; C Todd McClure; DT Vance Walker; DBs William Moore, Chris Owens, Brent Grimes, Chris Hope. That is a lot of empty spots that you can’t easily fill. So yes, I’ll say that the record-breaking offense of the Saints is the biggest challenge for us.
But since you are such a negative Nancy, I’ll take it upon myself to bring in the silver lining here and say that the Buccaneers are no slouches either and realistically should not be counted out of the NFC South race. We saw flashes of brilliance in 2012. With another round of free agency, another draft class, and one more year to gel under the new coaching staff, this team is looking like something special and should continue to turn a lot of heads in 2013.