Thursday, September 07, 2006

2006 NFL preview: NFC South

If the AFC North isn't the best division in football, this sure as heck is. Like the AFC North, the NFC South has three legit playoff teams in Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Like Cleveland in the AFC North, New Orleans is the worst team in the division and still isn't all that bad.
Carolina is hands down the top dog here, but don't underestimate the bite of the Falcons and Buccaneers if they stay healthy and motivated.

1. Carolina Panthers (13-3)
The operative word here is "balanced." The Panthers are deep at running back, which is good considering the injury history of DeShaun Foster. They are stacked at wide receiver with Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson. They have a cagey veteran quarterback in Jake Delhomme. And that's just the offense.
The defense is anchored by scary pass rusher Julius Peppers. Mike Rucker and Maake Kemoeatu help round out the league's best defensive front.
I could go on, but I'll spare my fingers the typing. The Panthers are the deepest team in the league.
The x-factor: health. If the Panthers stay relatively healthy, there is no reason why they shouldn't be hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy this winter.

2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Michael Vick was supposed to be a can't-miss prospect when he came out of Virginia Tech in 2001. He has certainly helped lead the Falcons to respectability, but he can never seem to put it together.
This year, Atlanta needs Vick to step up and be a leader, not just an athletic specimen. The offense is somewhat depleted with the losses of T.J. Duckett (trade) and Brian Finneran (season-ending knee injury). Michael Jenkins will likely be the team's top receiver, and the undersized Warrick Dunn will continue to have to churn out difficult yards against the likes of Carolina and Tampa Bay.
Georgia Tech product LB Keith Brooking continues to anchor the defense, but with nine years under his belt, he's no longer young.
The x-factor: Vick. Obviously, he has the talent to lead the Falcons to great things. But "lead" is the operative word.

3. Tampa bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Who knew that four years after defense carried the Bucs to a Super Bowl win, the team would re-emerge as a playoff threat with offense as the main course?
Maybe it didn't happen by design, but the Bucs have amassed some real talent on offense. All that's waiting is for QB Chris Simms to prove he's capable of leading it.
The receiver corps includes Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway. Michael Pittman has performed admirably as the feature back, and even the old bruiser, Mike Alstott, is still hanging around.
The Bucs are some missing pieces away from reclaiming their glory days, but they are on the right track.
The x-factor: Simms. He could make the whole offense come together.

4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)
With Drew Brees, the Saints have the most stability they've had at the quarterback position since Bobby Hebert in the early '90s. The question is, who will he be able to throw to? Joe Horn, 34, is still the team's best receiver.
The meat and potatoes of the offense is the two-headed monster of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. If the offensive line can give those two any room to wiggle, the possibilities are mouth-watering.
The x-factor: Bush. If the Saints do right by him (read: protect him), he has a few rushing titles in his future.

Up next: the NFC West

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