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The Road To The Super Bowl, NFC South

   by Wayne Root - 08/09/2012



This is a continuing series of Conference Previews as the 2012 NFL Season is just one week away from the start of NFL Preseason 2012. As the season progresses, I will be updating these predictions- as upsets and "key" injuries can change the course of action in a nano-second. There have been some off-season trades and the chemistry and the locker-room antics will be closely monitored during the two-a-day practices in the heat of August. This early season guide will allow you to stay updated on last season's strengths and weakness, and what lies ahead for each team this season.

NFC SOUTH:

Atlanta needs to step it up if they want to make a run for the big money. And by that, they need to become "road warriors". Matt Ryan can play at home BUT...it's the road that has their number. Bountygate may be a distraction as the Saints continually go thru different coaches and players on given weeks based on the suspensions. I think they may be somewhat unsure about tackling a QB with the replays focused on those "hits". Tampa Bay and Josh Freeman may be the most disciplined team in the Division and will take a few prisoners. The Panthers will never be out of the game with 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter....(maybe) BUT, some of those games will turn ugly and some will pay at the cash window. It's an interesting Division with parity pulling these four teams closer and closer.

Atlanta Falcons---basically went all-in with the NFL Draft, moving way up to take WR Julio Jones to complement WR Roddy White in a very talented offense. WR Roddy White and WR Julio Jones were both awesome last year, and they are going to be one of the most feared tandems in the league. QB Matt Ryan had a great year and should be able to move to the next level. That being said, the defense just wasn’t good enough, and the pieces to the puzzle weren’t added to make this team a legit Super Bowl contender in our eyes. Defensively, there are still issues to work out, but those issues are there for the rest of this division as well. It will be interesting to see if they can get a good enough pass-rush to help the secondary out. This is still quite a good team though, and this is a deserving team to be in the playoffs. We just don’t think that there is a deep run to the Super Bowl coming, and we aren’t so sure that Atlanta should be the favorite on the odds to win the NFC South. What concerned me the most about Atlanta in 2011 was its lackluster playoff showing. Two points in a playoff game against the 25th-ranked scoring defense is utterly disappointing. The Falcons weren't rewarded with any games in the Georgia Dome on consecutive weeks, but I don't see that being a problem since their last nine games of the season will either be played indoors or in warm-weather climates. Expect Atlanta to take the NFC South crown this season.

New Orleans Saints---had an incredible off-season and we can definitely sympathize with NFL betting fans that just don’t want to take their chances on a team that has had so much going on. Missing out on LB Jonathan Vilma for the year will hurt, as will not having DE Will Smith for a month. However, we think that the rest of the punishments for New Orleans, including the year-long suspension for Head Coach Sean Peyton are overblown. Interim Head Coach Joe Vitt is out for the first eight games of the season as well. Losing OL Carl Nicks is going to hurt somewhat. Still, New Orleans’ offense is out of this world, and it isn’t going to take Peyton for that to keep up. TE Jimmy Graham should be in for another record-breaking type of season in 2012, and Brees should once again at least flirt with the idea of getting to 5,000 passing yards. The talent is there though, for the Saints to be superb in 2012 after setting all sorts of offensive records a season ago with Brees and TE Jimmy Graham leading the way for a unit that averaged 467.1 yards per game. Bountygate will prove to be a distraction, and not having Payton might affect the win-loss column, but the Saints should still make the playoffs, even if they don't win the NFC South. Like New England, the Saints finish the season out with five of their last eight games at home. They have a couple sets of road trips that will see them away from home in back-to-back weeks. Finally, I think it will be shown that Sean Peyton was the master-mind that helped Drew Brees be the QB he is today.

Carolina Panthers--- Is the up and coming team in the division this year. The offense clearly came together with QB Cam Newton calling the shots. Newton had the best statistical season that a rookie quarterback has ever assembled. The oddsmakers still really don't quite believe in Carolina yet, lining them at +600, but Head Coach Ron Rivera knows that his team has come a long, long way from a team that was just 1-15 and a wreck going into last year. QB Cam Newton broke virtually every rookie record in the book, and he is one of the three rushers on this team that have the potential to go off for 100 yards in a game if given the chance. We expect to see more advancement out of Newton this year, and that could make the Panthers scary to say the least. WR Steve Smith once again looks like one of the top speed burning receivers in the league. The pressure came off of both RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Neither had a great year, but combined, they had a fantastic campaign. Now, the next task for Head Coach Ron Rivera is to build up a defense that was the Achilles heel of the team. The biggest thing that held the Panthers back was their poor play on defense; they had trouble stopping the run and covering the pass. Its defense needs to step up to allow it to hang with some very good offenses in the first half of the season. With one of the best backfields in football and an ever-improving Cam Newton, the Panthers will make a case for most improved team in 2012.Can Carolina get there? Probably not quite yet, but this is definitely a team that is going to be a pain for the rest of the league when it can get its act together on both sides of the ball. How Carolina starts the season will be crucial, as the first four games of the season are tough. Facing Tampa Bay, New Orleans, the New York Giants and Atlanta isn't the way anyone wants to open the season. If it can open the season 1-3, it will be lucky.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers---could be good enough to get the job done. Remember that this was a team that just two years ago finished with 10 wins and just missed the playoffs. Tampa Bay has a new head coach in Greg Schiano, and he is going to bring a level of toughness that just wasn’t there with the youthful and exuberant Raheem Morris. There is a lot of confidence in the acquisitions of WR Vincent Jackson and OL Carl Nicks, especially when parlayed with the up and coming QB Josh Freeman. Josh Freeman is spending extra time on his mechanics to get back to that upper echelon of quarterbacks. They drafted a true winner in S Mark Barron and a tough, hard-nosed runner in RB Doug Martin. The Buccaneers need their new draft pics to make an immediate impact, and Gerald McCoy needs to stay healthy. This isn’t a team that is going to lose 10 games in a row like it did to end last season. The defensive unit as a whole plays much better when McCoy is anchoring the defensive line. Tampa Bay can be a legitimate winner this season, and we expect to see good things from the up and coming QB Josh Freeman. If he can limit turnovers and Schiano can get a good, solid rushing attack, whether it be from Martin or RB LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay will have the defensive intensity to be a pain to the rest of the NFC South. An early Week 5 bye is surrounded with a run of three straight home games—two fall before the bye week and one after. Tampa Bay won't quite get back to the playoffs, but it will be improved. A few major upsets and a third-place finish seems about right.

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WARs PREDICTIONS:

Tampa Bay is a scary team when you think about it at +1600. This was a club that was in the thick of the playoff chase through the first half of the season before falling apart, and now, it has great odds in a division that could be turning upside down in a hurry. The Falcons may be somewhat overrated because of poor road play and defense, and we still think that the Saints are going to be in the playoffs. Don't be shocked if the Bucs sneak into the playoff or at least the playoff picture. The Panthers are coming up the rear and are quickly becoming a popular betting team so watch for "true betting numbers" when jumping on their bandwagon. The odds makers will be gunning for the average player at times to keep this division off balance.

1st---Atlanta

2nd---New Orleans

3rd---Tampa Bay

4th---Carolina

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