Atlanta Falcons– The Falcons have emerged as one of the best and most consistent teams in the NFL under head coach Mike Smith and ambitious, enterprising GM Thomas Dimitroff. 57 wins in the last five years, 37 in the last three is a staggering effort. Their postseason improvement has been steady, last year they came up agonisingly short of the Superbowl, in 2013 anything but a trip to the New York showpiece will be a disappointment. The Falcons have the talent, experience, hunger and leadership to be a major contender again, the AFC South looks stronger but so do Atlanta.
The Falcons have no obvious weaknesses on offense. They overhauled a decent offensive line; decent doesn’t cut it in Atlanta. Second year center Peter Konz and fellow sophomore Lamar Holmes move into starting spots as does right guard Garrett Reynolds, a fifth year pro. Sam Baker and Justin Blalock the only two remaining starters on the line are both gritty blue collar blockers. The infusion of new talent brings more size and athleticism to the line and this is the area the Falcons have looked too to bring improvement to their offense. The skill positions could hardly be improved, quarterback Matt Ryan is a calm, composed pocket passer who makes all the throws and is no longer questioned for lack of playoff success. Wide receiving duo Julio Jones and Roddy White are similar, big physical presences and both are threats on any down and distance. They may be the best receiving duo in football but future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is just as important, his return after planned retirement avoids a hole on the roster and expect another productive year from a man desperate for a shot at the Lombardi trophy. The Falcons expect veteran Steven Jackson, coming off a ninth straight 1000 yard season to upgrade Michael Turner who never seemed to have a run of over 10 yards last season. Jackson is a powerful runner but has excellent vision and is a better receiver than Michael Turner. Veteran Jason Snelling and small but powerful Jacquizz Rodgers are both capable players who will get touches of the ball. This is an offense that is destined for success once more; if they get better play from the young line as expected they could easily be a top 5 offense and be even better than the 26.2 points per game they averaged last year.
Defensively the Falcons surrendered yards to team’s chasing the game but not points, the sign of a good defense. Veteran John Abraham left, he is no longer an elite end, Osi Umenyiora takes his place but he isn’t the force of old either, the fact that both Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann can be pushed around in the run game is a worry. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux wears down offensive linemen with his relentless style; he plays bigger than his size and is the Falcons best lineman. Alongside him Corey Peters and underachiever Peria Jerry will split time. Linebackers Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas are reliable players but Sean Weatherspoon is one of the leagues very best. Weatherspoon has the speed to chase down plays all over the field and can take over a game at times. The Falcons couldn’t afford to re-sign corners Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson but drafted rookies in the first two rounds to compensate. First rounder Desmond Trufant is a big powerful corner expected to start alongside veteran Asante Samuel. Samuel gives up big plays and makes big plays, he is a gambler by nature but the Falcons believe that they are good enough offensively to take a few chances on defense. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore are both underrated, they form a fine partnership, both have range and hit hard. The defense isn’t as strong as the offense but perhaps it won’t need to be. In Weatherspoon and Babineaux the Falcons have two excellent players but there are question marks over the defensive ends and corners. They will struggle to match just 18.7 points per game allowed with a tough schedule but this is a well coached, disciplined unit that rarely give up big plays.
2013 Predicted wins– 12-13
Playoff Prediction– Atlanta will surely return for a fourth straight season, they may now be ready to go all the way as they expect too.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers– The Buccaneers haven’t been to the playoffs in five years. The Glazer family got the chequebook out in the offseason to try and Holt that run. A 1-5 collapse saw the Bucs unable to stop anyone down the stretch, only the resting Falcons failed to score over 20 on the Bucs in the last 10 games. Signing the league’s best corner Darrelle Revis and pro bowl safety Dashon Goldson is expected to put a stop to such free for alls at Tampa’s expense and instead it will be on the offense to take the Buccaneers back to the postseason.
Quarterback Josh Freeman had a career year but major doubts still surround him and in a contract year he must play well or second round pick Mike Glennon could get a look. Centerpiece of coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offense is running back Doug Martin who had almost 2000 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns in a fantastic rookie year. Martin is small but stocky and powerful, he showed explosiveness, vision and consistency and his pass catching ability gives him the potential to join the elite very quickly. Vincent Jackson was a huge success and the tall receiver was Freeman’s favourite target en route to a 1300 yard, 8 touchdown season. Mike Williams was a catch shy of 1000 yards himself and hauled in 9 scores, the size of this duo causes team’s real matchup problems. Depth at receiver is an issue and tight end Luke Stocker looks little more than a stop gap. The line was hampered by Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph both sustaining injuries last year, unfortunately for Tampa, Nicks, the highest paid guard in football and one of the best will miss the start of the season again. Giant tackles Donald Penn and Demar Dotson and center Jeremy Zuttah complete a line that was significantly better when it had two healthy guards last year. With two big skilled playmakers on the outside and the outstanding Doug Martin in the backfield offensive success is dependent on Freeman. He led the Bucs to top 10 finishes in passing and overall yards last year and has the talent around him to repeat. He must improve on the 17 picks he threw a year ago to keep his team from facing an uphill battle.
A bigger contrast you could hardly find than Tampa’s defense in 2012. They were excellent against the run, ranking top overall but woeful against the pass, ranking last overall. They gave up nearly 25 points per game and got worse as confidence evaporated after a narrow home defeat to Atlanta in November. Signing Darrelle Revis was a huge move, if he returns at 100% they can forget about Julio Jones and Marques Colston for years to come, they like many before will become stranded on Revis Island. The other big move was of course for Goldson the instinctive, playmaking free safety who will make chancers pay for errant passes. Mark Barron, Tampa’s first round pick a year ago had rave reports coming out of college; he could form a formidable duo with Goldson. Second corner Eric Wright has had off the field issues and the Bucs will hope rookie Johnthan Banks can beat him to a starting role sooner rather than later. Third year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are the starting defensive ends, both have upside and the defense needs more from each. Gerald McCoy was healthy for a full season for the first team and went to his first pro bowl after a season where he was easily the Bucs best defender. Rookie Akeem Spence should start with McCoy but he is purely a run stuffer. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster each had over 100 tackles last year as part of the Bucs successful run defense, Jonathan Casillas is favourite to step in and round out the starters. There is reason for hope on a defense that was woeful late last year, with the two big name defensive backs coming in and two more young talented players in the secondary they should be a different proposition this year. Getting more from ends Bowers and Clayborn is very important, if they do the Bucs could climb from 29th overall to a top 16 finish.
2013 Predicted wins- 8-9 wins
Playoff Prediction– Hard to see anyone living with the Falcons in the South but the race for second is wide open, the Bucs will hope to win it and sneak into a wildcard spot.
New Orleans Saints– The Saints offensive juggernaut wasn’t enough to offset a historically bad defense last year. Losing one of the game’s best head coaches, assistants and players to the bounty scandal wreaked havoc on the Saints last offseason. Brees still led the Saints to the second most yards and third most points in the league but the defense gave up the most yards all time in a single season, no team can surrender 440 yards per game and have success. In 2012 new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will try and make this defense competitive but while his record is poor it would be hard for him to not improve this unit.
Drew Brees returns for his seventh year in Louisiana and is the leader of this team in every sense. He continues to play at elite level, rarely has he had much help on defense in his time in New Orleans but he still has a Superbowl ring and can look forward to joining the hall of fame one day. With Brees the Saints are never beaten, his ability to tear even the best defenses apart makes him one of the most feared players in the league. Brees top receivers are tight end Jimmy Graham, 6 feet 7 tall and with wide receiver speed and Marques Colston, a tall if slow receiver who is one of the league’s best catchers. Lance Moore will move into a starting spot opposite Colston and he is at his best in the red zone. Brees like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can transform ordinary receivers into playmakers so expect more from speedster Joe Morgan and big target Nick Toon and don’t discount Ben Watson from seeing success as the second tight end. The Saints always have been and always will be a pass first offense with Brees at the helm but Sean Payton realises he has a talented trio of running backs and wants much more from them. Former first round pick Mark Ingram hasn’t made a real impact yet but this could be his year, his powerful style could help wear down pass rushers and he will split time with Pierre Thomas who like Ingram is tough to bring down. Darren Sproles is the x-factor on this offense, equally dangerous carrying or catching the ball, once he has the ball in his hands the opposing defensive coordinators heart stops. Losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod to free agency was an expected blow but this team is used to losing starting linemen, Charles Brown takes Bushrod’s place on an always impressive line. Teams are too scared to blitz Brees on a regular basis so they will hold up fine regardless of who is in the lineup. An offense that has been in the top 2 overall in five of the last 7 seasons is a lock for a top 5 ranking and certainly amongst the favourites to be the best offense in the NFL again.
Rob Ryan has his hands full taking over a unit devoid of talent. Upfront injuries have already bitten and there is a heavy responsibility on former first round pick Cameron Jordan to excel at defensive end. Enormous rookie John Jenkins could win the nose job, his size will cause opposing linemen all sorts of problems and he will clog up running lanes. Veterans Jonathan Vilma and Curtis Lofton are the Saints most reliable players at inside linebacker but finding anyone likely to rush the passer in New Orleans is hard. Unproven duo Martez Wilson and Junior Galette are favourites to play the key outside linebacker spots but it is likely to be Rob Ryan’s complex, blitz heavy scheme rather than their talent that gets the Saints pressures. Former Steeler Keenan Lewis can help at corner; he will replace Patrick Robinson who was dire in 2012. Jabari Greer was little better but will retain his place; he at least has past form as a productive starter. Rookie Kenny Vaccaro should take Roman Harper’s place at safety next to Malcolm Jenkins. Vaccaro is an athletic playmaker charged with cutting down some of the big plays the Saints give up. The defense Ryan inherits are low on talent and confidence, he is an inspirational if close to insane leader and must repair all sorts of issues. You can only go one way from last but don’t expect this Saints defense to be outside the bottom five at year’s end.
2013 Predicted wins– 7-8
Playoff Prediction– Overcoming this defense will be tough for Brees and his offense but if anyone can it’s him. If the Saints were to sneak in as wildcards nobody would want them in the first round of the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers– After a dazzling rookie season the time is now for Cam Newton to take the next step. Likewise head coach Ron Rivera, an average coordinator in San Diego who is 13-19 after two full seasons in charge. A strong finish to 2012 and a linebacker who could become the leagues best however offer Rivera hope. For Rivera to survive the Panthers probably have to make the playoffs but they face an uphill battle to do so.
Leadership and team ethic are the question marks surrounding Newton, nobody doubts his talent. Newton passed for almost 4000 yards last year and accounted for 700 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground, he is learning to be more patient when dropping back to pass and the less he runs it the less he is at risk. Newton shouldn’t lead the offense in rushing again this year, a three headed monster of speedy DeAngelo Williams, abrasive Jonathan Stewart and goal line specialist Mike Tolbert should all get yards and realistically they should be a top 5 rushing unit with Newton’s additional yards thrown in. Carolina’s best receiver by a mile is still Steve Smith who has reinvented himself as he has lost a step at age 34. Tight end Greg Olsen is almost exclusively a receiver and an effective one at that, he is Newton’s only other viable target on a team which has no young talent coming through at the receiver positions. Journeymen Ted Ginn Jr and Domenik Hixon will challenge uninspiring Brandon LaFell for playing time but none will worry opposition. Protecting Newton and allowing this talented stable of backs to flourish has been beyond the Panthers in the last couple of years. Ryan Kalil is one of the league’s best centers and crafty veteran Jordan Gross is still a capable left tackle but beyond them there is plenty to worry about for Panthers fans. Right tackle Byron Bell has slow feet and gets beaten at the snap and there are a whole host of players competing for the guard spots. Second year pro Amini Silatolu should win one job; rookie Edmund Kugbila will have every chance to win the other. Newton led Carolina to a respectable 12th overall last year but to continue to progress this offense needs improved play upfront and a viable third target to emerge in the passing game.
The Panthers front seven looks amongst the league’s best, rookie nose tackle Star Lotulelei will start with Dwan Edwards and second round pick Kawann Short will get plenty of time as a better pass rusher than either starter also. Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson both had double digit sacks last year and should be helped by the improvements inside them. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since Patrick Willis in 2007. Willis has long been considered the league’s best linebacker but that is another title Kuechly can take from him. The defensive rookie of the year’s speed, instincts and tackling ability stopped rushing attacks in their tracks and adding Jon Beason back into the mix after injury gives Carolina another fast, productive linebacker. Eight year vet Thomas Davis completes the group and had over 100 tackles himself last year. What will likely cost the Panthers and Rivera this year will be a shaky secondary, with the passing talent in the NFC South they will surely be found out. 11TH year career backup Drayton Florence arrives ready to start opposite Josh Norman who started ten games as a rookie at corner while former Raider Mike Mitchell arrives to play safety along with Charles Godfrey, the Panthers best defensive back. A dynamic pass rushing unit can help the secondary but the likes of Brees and Ryan will quickly find ways to attack this unit and a defense that ranked 10th overall last year are likely to level out somewhere between that finish and their 28th overall in 2011.
2013 Predicted wins– 4-5
Playoff Prediction– There is no let-up in the schedule for Carolina and while making the playoffs may be Ron Rivera’s target for survival his team has too many holes to expect a serious challenge.