NFC South Preview

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

SAINTS LOOK TO REPEAT...
FALCONS, PANTHERS LEGITIMATE DARKHORSES

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

We continue our gauntlet of NFL Divisional previews today with the NFC South. You probably watched defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans last night in their Preseason debut against the New England Patriots. Tonight, popular darkhorse pick Atlanta makes its debut at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. Sneaky dangerous Carolina debuted last night in Baltimore.

Note that we've already run previews for the NFC East (this past Sunday), and the AFC East (yesterday). We'll continue to work our way across the landscape the next several days.

Does New Orleans have what it takes to make it back to the Super Bowl and win again? So few teams are even repeating as conference champions of late that it seems unlikely anyone could win two Super Bowls in a row. New Orleans is obviously a handful to do deal with when healthy. Can they stay healthy? Lest we not forget that a horrible pass from Brett Favre may be all that kept New Orleans from falling short of their dreams last year.

We want to pay special attention to the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers today. Atlanta has become a popular darkhorse pick amongst the media this summer. You'll see why as we run through the key indicator numbers. We don't like standing shoulder to shoulder with pundits as a general rule. This time around, our numbers are suggesting we should!

Carolina, on the other hand, isn't getting much run from anybody. You're about to read that they were virtual CLONES of the New York Jets in 2009, a team that made it all the way to a conference final.

We start by looking at last year's main fundamentals...won-lost record, turnover differential, and strength of schedule.

2009 FINAL NFC SOUTH STANDINGS
New Orleans...13-3...+11 turnover differential....15th ranked schedule
Atlanta...........9-7...+3 turnover differential.......7th ranked schedule
Carolina..........8-8...+6 turnover differential.......3rd ranked schedule
Tampa Bay......3-13...-5 turnover differential........1st ranked schedule

New Orleans was clearly a legitimate power. They went 13-3 while playing a league average schedule, and they made turnover differential a point of emphasis. An aggressive defense forced them. A very smart quarterback avoided them. Sometimes a champion has a 'hollowness' to their achievement because they played a weak schedule, or got overly lucky with turnovers The Saints were legitimate, and deserve to be considered the NFC favorite (not just the South, but the WHOLE conference) in that light.

Note the tough schedule here though for the division overall. Carolina made it to .500 with a shaky QB situation despite playing a brutal schedule. Atlanta posted a winning record with the seventh rated schedule. That's a very good indicator for success this year because the schedule is likely to get a little easier.

Let's start the Carolina/Jets comparison right here. Carolina was one-game worse in the regular season (the Jets finished 9-7), enjoyed a better turnover differential, and played a very similar schedule (Jets ranked 4th).

We have a slight preference ourselves for Atlanta because we put so much weight on the quarterback position. Defense gives you a chance to win every week though, which is why Carolina should be on your radar too.

You regulars know we like to look at Drive Point data (points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more) and Third Down conversion rates to evaluate offenses and defenses. We'll use that same format all through these previews this summer. Let's start on offense, where the Saints were an unstoppable machine.

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
New Orleans 19.4
Atlanta 12.0
Carolina 11.8
Tampa Bay 6.4
NOTEBOOK: We've mentioned already that anything at 14 or more was very good, and anything at 17 or higher was GREAT. New Orleans made a run at 20 points per game on long drives. Some offenses struggled to reach 20 consistently from anywhere on the field. The Saints were doing that just on long drives! That 19.4 mark was the best in pro football, and is a representation of what a high octane offense can do in the era of legalized holding.

Atlanta is a bit of a disappointment. But, they did play a tough schedule with just a second-year quarterback. Plus, their only two points away from that coveted goal of 14 Drive Points per game. We think they've got a shot vs. a friendlier schedule, particularly with the growth potential Ryan has shown thus far

Carolina obviously has a chance to get better too. Note that the Panthers dumped quarterback Jake Delhomme and went with Matt Moore last year. The Jets were using rookie Mark Sanchez. Both struggled at that position. Yet, Carolina registered 11.8 Drive Points to 10.5 for the Jets. Tampa Bay was WAY below those teams to give you some context.

We haven't talked much about Tampa Bay yet. There's not much to say because the Bucs are very green at head coach and at quarterback. They've got a long way to go, and a road map that they haven't even figured out how to read. If you pencil in improvement, it's still difficult to get them up to a place that matters in 2010. We're going to focus on the big three today. If Tampa Bay hits the ground running in September, we'll be sure to make note of that for you in our weekly regular season previews.

The Hurley Network cashed in the Patriots (-1.5) in their 27-24 win over the Saints, and we've got a big two-team parlay set for Friday. Click here to learn more!

 

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Carolina 6.1
Atlanta 12.2
New Orleans 12.8
Tampa Bay 12.9
NOTEBOOK: Great defensive numbers for the Panthers. We pointed this out to you regularly last year. It was one of the great unreported stories from the mainstream media. In an era where holding was basically legal except on pulldowns...in a year where teams were flying all over the field scoring points...the Carolina Panthers were BETTER than the NEW YORK JETS at preventing points on long drives! You didn't hear about it from anyone besides us. Maybe Carolina needs a blowhard head coach and a quarterback who dates models.

The other three teams were in the same general area. New Orleans didn't sparkle on this side of the ball...but they did play a lot of shootouts where opponents were in desperation mode and had to pass all day. Plus, they had a little 'rope-a-dope' to them in that they'd give up yardage in an attempt to force turnovers. Then they'd force the turnover.

OFFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
New Orleans 45%
Atlanta 42%
Carolina 37%
Tampa Bay 33%
NOTEBOOK: This is where Atlanta jumps out at us as a great darkhorse. We mentioned earlier in the series that 40% is basically the cut-off for 'knowing what you're doing' in terms of moving the ball consistently. Atlanta is on the right side of that already with a young quarterback who's getting smarter and better. Carolina is on the wrong side of that with a guy who's hard to trust longterm as a starter (Matt Moore), and rookie Jimmy Clausen waiting in the wings. That doesn't suggest a big move THIS year.

Or...in short...Atlanta has a good chance to jump up to at least 14 Drive Points per game and 45% on third down conversions. Carolina has to win the way the Jets did last year...turning every game into a wrestling match and hoping some coin flips go your way.

DEFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Carolina 36%
New Orleans 38%
Tampa Bay 40%
Atlanta 45%
NOTEBOOK: The strike against Atlanta as a 'surprise' team in 2010 is right here. They didn't do a very good job on big plays defensively in 2009. They obviously need to pick up the pace. Note that there are some good teams who can get away with this if they drive the field well themselves, or if their defense forces turnovers. Atlanta needs to pick a defensive style and stick with it aggressively.

Great performance here for the Saints considering the number of shootouts they played. Tired defenses usually struggle in this stat. In a year of shootouts, the Saints still came up big when it was time to force a stop.

Carolina is still the Jets. We don't want to reach overkill. Maybe we'll address that in a separate article closer to the season. You know the Jets won with rushing and defense. Carolina ranked 1st in the NFC in rushing, 3rd in the whole league. Carolina is the Jets!

Let's say something nice about Tampa Bay. Posting a 40% mark in 2009 on third down defense does give them hope for being competitive in 2010. It's hard to win with inexperience and shakiness at quarterback and head coach. If the defense hurts people, they can score some upsets.

2010 NFC SOUTH OUTLOOK:

Clearly we're very optimistic about the NFC South this year. New Orleans is a legitimate 12-13 win team if Drew Brees doesn't get hurt. Unless they got fat from celebrating too much in the offseason, you have to assume they're going to be a consistent force in the NFC.

Atlanta and Carolina each have a chance to get to 10-11 wins in their own way with just mild improvement. Actually, they can get there standing pat just by facing a softer schedule. The games within the division will be tough. Outside the division, keep an eye on both the Falcons and Panthers at value prices.

The media is very likely to focus on the NFC East this year. Dallas is America's Team, New York is in a media center. Philadelphia traded its quarterback to Washington, and the Redskins brought in a big name head coach. This is very likely to allow you to profit from Atlanta and Carolina if they play anywhere near the expectations projected by our indicator stats. They weren't on your radar last year even at 8-8 and 9-7 vs. tough schedules. Ignore them at your peril this year!

That wraps up our look at the NFC South. Tomorrow we'll study the NFC North, with the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, and Detroit Lions all on the Saturday Night schedule...it's the ideal time to crunch those numbers. There's not a national TV game tonight or tomorrow. Do what you can to check out the Falcons this evening, and those four NFC North teams Saturday night.

Be sure you're with us every day over the next week for intense NFL coverage. The Preseason has finally arrived, and it's time for you to make some money! Sign up for our BLUE RIBBON club or purchase game day selections online. You can also call JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK at 1-800-323-4453 to get on board. Be sure to check on baseball when you call. We're winning in that sport nightly even if we don't have time to talk about it in the NOTEBOOK!

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We've finished our preview if defending World Champion New Orleans. Now it's time for you to call the undisputed WORLD CHAMPION OF SPORTS HANDICAPPING...JIM HURLEY!

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