by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

NEW ORLEANS (13-3 in 2011; lost 36-32 to San Francisco in Divisional Round)...The way the Saints finished last season (losing in the last nine seconds of their amazing Candlestick Park playoff game, one that included four TDs in the last four minutes), one would figure it would be hard to pick against the Saints to win the NFC South in 2012. Especially considering that QB Drew Brees established a new NFL record of 5476 yards passing, connecting for 46 TDs.

But there are two major considerations going into 2012. First, the infamous bounty scandal threatens to haunt the Saints all season, with so-sharp head coach Sean Payton suspended for the season and interim head coach Joe Vitt facing a suspension for the first six games. GM Mickey Loomis has been ousted for the first eight games, while MLB Jonathan Vilma is seeking an alteration of his one-year suspension. DE Will Smith got four games. Second, no team has ever repeated as NFC South champion in the ten-year history of the division.

The NFL season is fast approaching! For the best weekly inside scoop and analysis on the NFL and college football, click here to subscribe to the online version of THE GOLD SHEET now!

So we’ll pick the upset, which--in this case--is for the suspension-ridden defending champ of the NFC South to defend its title!!!! No, it won’t be easy, as the division has that definitive history of being extremely competitive. And each of New Orleans’ division mates has a QB that is bigger, stronger and younger than the 33-year-old Brees. But we’ve said it before, even back when Brees was in his senior year at Purdue. When Brees is at the top of his game, few have played the QB position better. And Brees still has a plethora of weapons despite the loss deep receiver Robert Meacham and bull-dozing G Carl Nicks. Athletic TE Jimmy Graham had a stunning 99 recs. last season, Darren Sproles is a nightmare specialty back, and promising RB Mark Ingram appears recovered from last season’s toe and foot injuries.

The defense remains a bit problematic, but the addition of proven LBs Curtis Lofton, & David Hawthorne will not only fill the void left by Vilma’s absence, but will also give new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo more ways to pressure opposing QBs. Yes, the suspension-plagued Saints are vulnerable. But not so much with a leader such as Brees at his peak and with defenses of their South foes vulnerable.

CAROLINA (6-10 in 2011)...Carolina went with talent over experience at QB last season, and improved from 2-14 in 2010 to 6-10 in 2011. Most encouraging, however, was the steady growth of QB Cam Newton, the 6-5 mobile monster who passed for a rookie record of 4051 yards. Newton often struggled early in the season, and he finished with a 21-to-17 TD-to-int. ratio. However, after a 2-8 start to the campaign, the Panthers finished 4-2, which has the Carolina faithful fired up for 2012, especially considering that the Panther defense is expected to be improved.

Newton also rushed for 706 yards. But coaches would like to see their valuable commodity reduce his forays into the bailiwicks of dangerous NFL LBs and safeties, save for critical situations. That should be possible, as the Panthers figure to have one of the stronger overland games in the NFL, thanks to the RB trio of DeAngelo Williams (836 yards rushing last season), Jonathan Stewart (761), and former Charger Tim Tolbert (played at Coastal Carolina), the 5-9, 245 FB who thinks he’s a TB.

As for the aforementioned defense, LB Jon Beason (Achilles) returns. And LB Thomas Davis will try to do so despite his third ACL tear. But there’s now better depth, thanks to impressive top draft pick Luke Kuechly, the tackling machine from Boston College. And HC Ron Rivera believes that his secondary (added depth this season) will have an easier time of it because the Panthers will be playing from behind on the scoreboard less frequently this season.

Too bad the “Panthas” must still get past the Saints in order to win the division. In last season’s finale in the Big Easy, the Saints were more than feeling their gumbo in laying a 45-17 beating on Carolina, gaining 617 yards, with Drew Brees passing for five TDs. However, with WR Brandon LaFell and TE Greg Olsen taking pressure off pugnacious key Carolina WR Steve Smith, expect to see the Panthers in the wildcard battle this season.

ATLANTA (10-6 in 2011; lost 24-2 at New York Giants in Wildcard Round)...The facts are there for the Falcons. For a team that couldn’t string together back-to-back winning seasons for four decades, the Mike-Smith/Matt Ryan head-coach QB combination has produced four straight. And this season’s passing attack of Ryan running an uptempo attack and firing to WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones, plus TE Tony Gonzalez, figures to be among the more prolific in the league once again.

However, there are several areas of concern that have ominous implications in the very competitive NFC South. First, the Smith/Ryan combination is 0-3 in the playoffs. Second, the Falcs failed so often last year in clutch situations, including that controversial fourth-down play in their own territory in OT against the Saints (bullish RB Michael Turner didn’t make it, and N.O. quickly won). Third, the once so-solid Atlanta OL has not only lost some of its past oomph, but also goes into the season with depth concerns. The Falcon defense still has some quickness issues, and this season it has lost stalwart MLB Curtis Lofton (167 tackles) to the Saints. And CB Asante Samuel, acquired from the Eagles, has to lose his battles on the edge more frequently.

Without much young blood that excites in Atlanta, it will be up to the Ryan-White-Jones trio to excel in order to keep the pressure of coach Smith. With Carolina on the ascent, the Falcs might be in for a step back in 2012.

TAMPA BAY (4-12 in 2011)...Just one year before, the Buccaneers had seemed on their way under coach Raheem Morris. Tampa Bay was 10-6 in 2010, and went into last season with the league’s youngest team. Morris tabbed the Bucs as a “youngry” team--one that is young and hungry. But the promise of 2010 vaporized in the 2011, with Morris’ youngsters ending the campaign with ten straight losses, buried in sea of turnovers (40, most in the league), a barrage of opponents’ points (494, the most in the league), and a passive pass rush (23 sacks, the fewest in the league).

Goodbye Morris, a too-young coach to revive a too-young, too-problem-ridden team.

Hello Greg Schiano, the fiery college coach who turned Rutgers from a Big East laughingstock into regular contender that won its last five bowl games. A stern taskmaster and proven motivator in the college ranks, Schiano is not new to the pros, having spent three years as an assistant with the Bears. The transition from college to the NFL is not always so easy. Just ask Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and many others.

But we have faith in Schiano in both the short run and long run. He has shown he can build an OL, find a pass rush, and develop a positive energy where there might have been none. His interception-plagued QB (Josh Freeman had 22 ints. last year) lost 20 pounds prior to camp. RBs LaGarrette Blount and rookie Doug Martin figure to give the offense some teeth. And 6-5 wideout Vincent Jackson from the Chargers should help an under-par WR corps.

The Bucs might still end up last in the South. But, with the hard-driving Schiano, expect more surprises, fewer losses, and more fight than in 2011.


Return To Home Page