Welcome to Part 2 of our NFL Preview! Click here for Part 1, which covered the NFC East and North divisions….today we will cover the defending champs, and take a look at the worst division in football. Let’s start in the Big Easy.
2009 Record: 13-3 (1st, Super Bowl champ)
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 10-6
Key Additions: DE Alex Brown, CB Patrick Robinson
Outlook: The Eye got this division right a year ago – I correctly predicted the demise of the Bucs and Panthers, and the rise of the Saints (ok, so I didn’t see a title). The Saints continue to be very consistent on offense – 1st in points the last two seasons, as long as Drew Brees is healthy they are a great bet to lead the league again. The key to the offense is diversity – aside from Marques Colston (70 catches, 1000 yds) no receiver caught more than 51 balls – but six caught between 35 and 51. No player ran for even 800 yards, but the team rushed for over 2100. Despite being a pass-happy offense, the Saints suffered only 20 sacks and 11 interceptions. This is a very efficient, quick-strike unit that will keep the Saints in almost every game.
With an offense like that, once again this team will go as far as its defense takes them. Last season the defense went from bad to average, and was especially good at forcing turnovers (39, 2nd in the league). Turnovers are not generally repeatable events, especially fumbles, so figure the Saints to get a few less takeaways this season. The Saints have addressed the secondary with four draft picks over the last two seasons, but the real issue last season was the run defense – they allowed 4.5 yards per carry. Now, I understand a lot of that was playing pass defense with leads, but even in the playoffs they were gouged badly on the ground. The major threats within the division, Atlanta, and Carolina, will try to shorten the game by rushing on the Saints – New Orleans has to be able to at least contain opponents’ ground attacks or they will suffer a lot more losses than in 2009. Regression is almost inevitable; Brees won’t complete 70% of his passes again, the defense won’t force as many turnovers, and the first-place schedule will punish them a bit – but the Saints are good enough to win 10 or 11 games again. Let’s call it 11-5 and a good divisional race with the Falcons, with New Orleans likely coming out on top.
2009 Record: 9-7(2nd)
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 9-7
Key Additions: CB Dunta Robinson, LB Sean Witherspoon
Outlook: The ’09 Falcons were pretty easy to predict – overworked RB breaks down, 2nd-year QB has growing pains, harder schedule = less wins. Despite all that adversity, the Falcons posted consecutive winning seasons for the first time ever – a real credit to the coaching staff. Despite allowing exactly the same number of points in ’09 as in ’08 (325, an average figure), the Falcons drafted defense heavily this spring, clearly trying to win the old-fashioned way with tough ‘D’ and a stout running game. This was very much a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ team, especially on defense – they allowed 380+ yards eight times (and went 1-7 in those games), but also had some dominant defensive performances. Much like the Bears, the Falcons beat the bad teams but struggled against every good offense they faced – the only winning team they beat all year was the Jets. This tells me Atlanta was wise to try to fortify the defense and gain more consistency against those top offenses, especially their division-rival Saints.
With Michael Turner healthy again, the ground game should be very productive. Offensively there are plenty of weapons – Roddy White has become an elite receiver, and Tony Gonzalez continues to produce on his way to Canton. If Turner stays healthy, the offense boils down to Matt Ryan. As a 3rd-year QB, it’s his time to shine and take that next step if he is truly a top-tier QB. Last year he was good-not-great, he has to be great or at least very good for the Falcons to truly contend. I have to tell you, I’m not sold yet – I need to see more accuracy from him and a few less turnovers to be considered top-10 material. I think he and the team will progress, but the schedule isn’t easy and I think the growth will be slight. Call it 10-6 and wild-card contention for the Falcons.
2009 Record: 8-8 (3rd)
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 7-9
Key Additions: No immediate help (drafting QB Jimmy Clausen might be long-term help)
Outlook: The Panthers tried a lot of ‘addition by subtraction’ this offseason. Gone are turnover-prone QB Jake Delhomme and talented-but-streaky DE Julius Peppers. In are…no one but draftees, leaving Matt Moore and a rookie as the solution at QB. The QB situation defines the Panthers, because there’s a lot of intriguing talent here. Offensively they can run the ball at will, with the best RB duo in the NFL and a good run-blocking line. The receivers are above-average if not great (especially as Steve Smith ages), but if Moore can avoid turnovers this team SHOULD score some points.
Defensively, I was shocked to learn that Carolina was 2nd in the NFL against the pass last year – and it was no fluke, they faced some of the best passers in the league (Brees, Brady, Favre, E. Manning, McNabb, Romo, Warner) yet only allowed two teams to pass for 300 yards, and they recorded 22 INTs against only 14 TD passes allowed. They were less effective against the run, but the defense kept the team in a lot of games, some of which Delhomme single-handedly threw away. On the flip side, they were fortunate to face the Saints and Vikings late when both teams didn’t care about wins, and with some tape to study, Moore may well be less effective than he was last season. Carolina has talent, but in the NFL you HAVE to have a good QB to win consistently. Until Moore shows me he can do it over 16 games, in my mind he’s suspect. Like last year, the Panthers will win some games and be a matchup nightmare for any team that struggles to stop the run – but it’s just not enough in what has become a pretty tough division. 7-9 for the Panthers, with the caveat that if Moore really can protect the football, 9-7 is possible.
2009 Record: 3-13
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 4-12
Key Additions: Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price
Outlook: This team was an utter disaster last year. The offense failed to gain 250 yards in seven games, and the defense allowed 400 points. With young, not-so-talented QBs and a porous defense, there’s simply not much to see here. Tampa will be fortunate to win even one divisional game. Drafting two stud DTs is a great start at the rebuild, but this is at LEAST a 2-3 year process for the Bucs – 2010 looks to be a total wipeout, and contention for the #1 pick is likely. As a rule I don’t pick teams to win or lose less than three games, but the only reason I think Tampa can MAYBE win four is because they play the NFC West, and they might sneak a couple wins out of that division. 3-13 for the Bucs, but one win is a lot more likely than seven.
2009 Record: 10-6 (1st; lost in NFC semis)
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 8-8
Key Additions: QB Derek Anderson, DT Dan Williams
Outlook: Arizona followed up a surprising Super Bowl appearance with another division title, due in large part to Kurt Warner’s surprising health. Warner’s late-career resurgence continued throughout 2009, but he decided to retire and left the Cards in a very precarious position. Heir apparent Matt Leinart has been so inept that Derek Anderson is poised to start ahead of him, while AZ is apparently taking offers for Leinart. Again, you CANNOT win in the NFL without good QB play, and AZ lost other talent as well – WR Anquan Boldin, S Antrelle Rolle, and K Neil Rackers also left Phoenix after 2009. There are still a few weapons on offense – I like Beanie Wells’ chances to become a top RB, and WR Larry Fitzgerald can make any QB look good – but this team was only 11th in scoring last year and seem almost certain to drop in 2010.
If the Cards are to compete, the defense will have to step up. Despite playing in a division starved for offense, the Cards finished with average defensive stats – and got absolutely TORCHED by several of the better teams last year. They went defense-heavy in the draft, trying to shore up a front seven weak against the rush – but half of their secondary is gone, and I’m not sold on their ability to stop good passing teams.
The only thing in the Cards’ favor is the schedule – Seattle and St. Louis should be three or four wins, and playing the AFC West gives AZ a good chance at two more wins. However, without Warner I think the Cards will lose to just about every decent team they face – including the 49ers. Until and unless the Cards can solve their QB problems, the window of opportunity has shut in Arizona. 7-9 for the Cards.
2009 Record: 8-8 (2nd)
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 9-7
Key Additions: 2 rookie O-linemen
Outlook: Talk about a coach building a team in his own image…the 49ers want to run, play stout defense, and use the QB as a caretaker rather than the focus of an offense. The team invested TWO 1st-rd draft picks on offensive linemen, and spent the next two picks on defense – with a questionable QB and a good (if fragile) RB, it seems like a wise plan, especially with a division title seemingly within easy reach. Offensively, the team has good weapons – besides Frank Gore, there’s TE Vernon Davis, coming off a breakout 78-catch, 13 TD campaign, and WR Michael Crabtree, who caught 48 passes despite missing the first five games. With the new talent up front, QB Alex Smith has to show he can deliver – he showed real progress last year with 18 TDs and only 12 INTs, but only completed 60% of his passes. He was only sacked 22 times in 11 games, and the key for Smith is to keep those sacks and INTs down – he won’t have to win many games himself, but the team cannot afford having him give games away.
Defensively, Mike Singletary has built a stout unit, led by LB Patrick Willis, already one of the game’s best. SF only allowed 281 points last year (4th best in the league), and with a relatively weak schedule look for them to be a top-5 defense again. Every team in the division has QB questions, but the 49ers have the best core talent, and EASILY the best defense…that’s why I think they will ride that defense to an 11-5 record in the NFL’s worst division.
2009 Record: 5-11 (3rd)
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 6-10
Key Additions: Rookies…OT Russell Okung, SS Earl Thomas, WR Golden Tate
Outlook: Not going to spend much time on the Seahawks or the Rams, folks…there’s just not much to see here. In Seattle the offense was pathetically bad despite having Matt Hasselbeck start 14 games. The defense wasn’t any better – by both points scored and allowed, Seattle was 25th of 32 teams DESPITE three games against the Rams and Lions. Somehow they also beat Jacksonville 41-0, but in their other 12 games they went 1-11 and were rarely competitive. No good RBs, and an aging QB, a rebuilding line – the offense is a wasteland. There are some pieces in place on defense, but I worry that many of them will be past their prime by the time the offense is good again. Overall Seattle looks like a very boring, rebuilding team that will beat the worst teams they play and no one else. Call it 4-12 for the Seahawks.
2009 Record: 1-15
2009 Glass Eye Prediction: 5-11
Key Additions: QB Sam Bradford, OT Rodger Saffold
Outlook: Just a bad, bad team. At least they are rebuilding the right way, from the ground up…Bradford has the makings of a good one, and retaining Steve Spagnuolo as coach will help create stability. In 2010, however, there’s Steven Jackson and a whole lot of growing pains. With nowhere to go but up, they might improve by a win or two…but I’d say any more than four wins is unlikely. Let’s call it 3-13 for the Rams.
Next week: The AFC in 2 parts, starting with the East and West divisions.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.