NFC South Preview
NFC SOUTH PREVIEW: WHAT TO MAKE OF THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
This is going to be one incredible year for the New Orleans Saints. And, even though we saved the NFC South for our FINAL preview because Atlanta is on TV Thursday Night against Cincinnati, it's the dramatic battle between the Saints and the Commissioner that looms large over this division.
Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season. Payton was a hands on coach who played a big role in building and making weekly adjustments to one of the most potent offenses the sport has seen.
Assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games...meaning the guy best suited to show leadership on the sideline in the absence of Payton won't be allowed on the sideline for a month and a half.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was initially suspended for the full season along with Payton, but is using the courts to try and get that reduced. Defensive end Will Smith will miss a month.
General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games, which sends an additional message about how mad the league is at what New Orleans was allegedly doing. Fines and draft picks were also involved in the punishment.
It's easy to visualize two extreme scenarios coming out of this...and we fully expect one of the extremes to play out. Either the league's series of sledgehammer shots does significant damage, leading to a disastrous 2012 campaign that the team just kinds of plays through until they can come back strong in 2013. Or...it's take no prisoners as a team that went 13-3 last year and won a recent Super Bowl runs roughshod to send a message about how bullies who don't believe in due process aren't going to intimidate them.
The Saints could be the best team in the NFC this year...truly a team on a mission. They could drop to 5-11 or so if the cumulative short term damage is so much that the team's engine can't run on all cylinders. Handicappers need to get a read on their attitude...their ability to turn their anger into scoring margin...or their lack of fire if they just blow off the season.
Let's review how 2011 played out for the Saints, the Falcons, and the rest of the NFC South. There were a lot of interesting stories LAST year even before the offseason blockbusters.
2011 FINAL NFC SOUTH STANDINGS
New Orleans: 13-3 (-3 turnovers, 30th rated schedule)
Atlanta: 10-6 (+8 turnovers, 16th rated schedule)
Carolina: 6-10 (+1 turnovers, 27th rated schedule)
Tampa Bay: 4-12 (-16 turnovers, 8th rated schedule)
Notebook: That great record from the Saints has to be tempered by the fact that they played sloppy football against a very weak schedule. Then, they lost to San Francisco in the playoffs despite having a huge edge in quarterback experience...something that matters a lot in the postseason. Last year's team was a juggernaut at home...but probably not really as good as a record like 13-3 would suggest.
Atlanta looks like a solid 10-6. They played the risk/reward ratio well, and did it against a league average schedule. There are still concerns about executing late in close games in a way that can be replicated. And, the playoff loss at the NY Giants was pretty pathetic all things considered. It turns out they were losing to the eventual World Champs. They were invisible against the eventual World Champs, which is a big strike against them in terms of serious discussions about greatness in 2012.
Carolina started the year on fire offensively with Cam Newton making big plays in the air and on the ground. That stopped after a month...at least the crazy big volume. Defenses adjusted. Fatigue, bumps, and bruises took their toll. On the whole...we're looking at a team that went 6-10 against a crap schedule. It is a good sign that they didn't have turnover issues while breaking in a rookie quarterback. And, young signal callers often make a big step forward in their second year. Keep the Panthers on your list of potential breakthroughs this year...but don't let that great first month fool you.
Tampa Bay quit on their head coach halfway through the 2011 season...an issue which was exacerbated by having turnover troubles against a tough schedule. Greg Schiano was brought in from Rutgers at the college level to bring discipline to the program. Maybe that was needed. But, the track record of college coaches at the pro level isn't that great...and it's normally the most successful college coaches who even get a crack at it. Schiano was a big disappointment at Rutgers compared to the promises he was initially making. Tough to know how this will all play out. Can a team quit on two different coaches on back-to-back years?
Our key indicator stats from 2011...
New Orleans: 6.7
Tampa Bay: 5.3
Notebook: A huge number from the Saints. Great stuff from Carolina, though they weren't able to play at that level on a consistent basis all season long. That's the danger of big play offenses, you can't always make those on command. Atlanta was a disappointment by NFC standards...but consistently hanging around 5.6 will get the job done if you have a defense. We're saying they're a grinder you can respect with that number.
YARDS-PER-PLAY ALLOWED DEFENSIVELY
New Orleans: 5.8
Tampa Bay: 6.3
Notebook: Atlanta had the best defense in the division...and 5.5 is solid when you're playing four games against the likes of New Orleans and Carolina within the division. New Orleans was hurt statistically by playing in shootouts. They were +0.9 in differential, which is very strong. Just remember that playing a lot of shootouts can wear down your defense over a full season. Poor numbers for Carolina and Tampa Bay. The Bucs are very likely to improve because they should be trying all season. Carolina needs to pick up its pace defensively so they can take some of the burden off young Newton.
OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
New Orleans: 57%
Tampa Bay: 37%
Notebook: Remember that this was a down year in the NFL for this stat. Tampa Bay's not far from league average...and everyone else did well. New Orleans was AMAZING with a number that high. Drew Brees is a maestro, and that can't be forgotten as handicappers try to evaluate the unique dynamic in play this season. You can see what me mean about Atlanta being a grinder you can respect. They move the chains and get the job done. They're going to matter again this season because of how well they play the percentages. Good sign for Newton that he was at 40% as a rookie. Heck, that's a GREAT sign for the young quarterback's growth potential.
DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
New Orleans: 33%
Tampa Bay: 40%
Notebook: Wow...that's a surprise. New Orleans had a lousy yards-per-play number, but really jumped up and did a great job on third downs. That tells you something about how the team prioritizes key plays. Brees is FANTASTIC at moving the chains. The defense will risk giving up some big plays in the attempt to keep you from doing the same thing. The biggest strike against Atlanta in our view is that they gave up control of too many games in this one area. You're NOT a championship threat if you grind on offense, but can't stop other teams from grinding right back at you.
Let's see how the markets have outlined expectations for regular season victories...
NFC South Regular Season Win Projections
New Orleans 9.5
Atlanta 9 or 9.5
Tampa Bay 6
For the Saints, that splits the difference between glory and disaster. Take your shots! The NFC South faces the NFC East this year (tough) and the AFC West in interconference action (probably not tough but you never know). It's easy to see the Saints flying past 9.5 wins if the players can keep their heads on straight. For the other teams...it kind of depends on how the AFC West plays out. If Kansas City and Oakland struggle, that's two wins Atlanta and Carolina should be counting on in addition to what's available from the regular schedule.
It's likely that JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK will have several big plays involving this division in the first half of the season. Our on-site sources are going to prove very valuable in New Orleans and Tampa Bay. And, we believe we have a very strong read on likely developments in Atlanta and Carolina. Will there be a big play in Cincinnati/Atlanta tonight on FOX? Or, this weekend in Tennessee/Tampa Bay, Miami/Carolina, or Jacksonville/New Orleans (all Friday).
CHECK IN BEFORE KICKOFF TO FIND OUT!
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This concludes our eight divisional previews for the coming NFL season. Please check the archives if you missed the others (they ran on Monday-Thursday of this week and last). We're currently scheduled for a Showcase Series preview in MLB for the Friday edition of the NOTEBOOK (Pittsburgh/St. Louis, LA Dodgers/Atlanta, Baltimore/Detroit, or maybe even Boston/NY Yankees). Saturday brings the return of our summer series of college conference previews. This weekend it's the Pac 12 North and South.
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