NFC South Preview

NFC SOUTH SHAPING UP AS FASCINATING BATTLE, IS CAROLINA READY TO MAKE A RUN?

The Carolina Panthers visit the Philadelphia Eagles in a Thursday Night game that will draw a lot of media attention with Cam Newton facing Michael Vick in a battle of multi-threat quarterbacks. They're hoping this year to chase down the Atlanta Falcons, who are also playing on the road Thursday at Baltimore.

That makes this the ideal time to preview the NFC South with our key indicator stats from last season. This is a fascinating division in 2013. Carolina was one of THREE teams in the NFC South to finish 7-9 last year, trailing #1 conference seed Atlanta at 13-3. That sets up the potential for a wild ride in thie division because:

Atlanta is due to fall back to earth
Carolina, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay may all be just a tweak or two away from being playoff caliber teams!

Wouldn't it be something if they all settled in at around 10-6 caliber this year? That's certainly possible. But, we all know football doesn't work that way. Somebody's going to be a very pleasant surprise...but somebody else is going to stumble into a surprise disaster. Let's review some numbers from last year to see which direction all four teams may be headed.  

2012 NFC South Standings (turnover differential/strength of schedule)
Atlanta: 13-3 (+13 turnovers, #19 schedule)
New Orleans: 7-9 (+2 turnovers, #12 schedule)
Carolina: 7-9 (+1 turnovers, #14 schedule)
Tampa Bay: 7-9 (+3 turnovers, #16 schedule)

Atlanta was probably more like an 11-5 team last year if you account for a very favorable turnover differential and a schedule strength that was just a touch below average. They played that way in the postseason...clearly belonging but obviously not being head and shoulders above the other top teams in the brackets (Seattle and San Francisco). Nothing too flaky with the trailing trio. All were near break-even in turnovers...all played schedules that were within an arm's reach of each other. That means there wasn't any one-sided luck with the 7-9'ers. All are an adjustment away from mattering.

2012 Yards-per-Play
Carolina: 5.8 on offense, 5.3 on defense
Atlanta: 5.8 on offense, 5.3 on defense
Tampa Bay: 5.8 on offense, 5.9 on defense
New Orleans: 6.2 on offense, 6.5 on defense

This is where Carolina really jumps to the forefront. Cam Newton gives them big play ability both on the ground and in the air. He still had some maturity issues last year...but he's growing up. He sure didn't like all the news coverage RGIII and Colin Kaepernick were getting. That's a great YPP differential to be carrying into a new season for a young QB who's still improving. Carolina and Atlanta were EVEN in this stat even though the Panthers played a slightly tougher schedule. New Orleans really has to fix that defense if they want to be considered a playoff threat in 2013. Getting Sean Payton back at head coach is great...but it's not like the offense was struggling without his genius last year. It's the DEFENSE that must upgrade.

2012 Third Down Conversions
Carolina: 43% on offense, 36% on defense
New Orleans: 44% on offense, 38% on defense
Atlanta: 45% on offense, 40% on defense
Tampa Bay: 36% on offense, 40% on defense

Wow...more very good news for Carolina. Newton is already pretty good at moving the chains...and he's likely to get better as he matures. That's one of the great indicators for quarterback growth. Always has been. The Panthers also had the best third down defense of the quartet. We haven't talked yet about Tampa Bay. They may be the closest thing to a pretender in the group given their poor differentials in the stats that have proven the test of time. You can't have 36% third down conversions on offense and 5.9 yards allowed-per-play on defense and expect to make a run at the playoffs!

2013 Projected Win Totals in Las Vegas
Atlanta: 10 wins
New Orleans: 9.5 wins
Tampa Bay: 8 wins
Carolina: 7.5 wins

Clearly our stats are more optimistic about Carolina than the legal betting markets are. Yes, a projection of 7.5 wins is a step up from that 7-9 record. But, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are expected to take bigger steps forward while the Falcons regress to the mean. Our favorite indicator stats are warning you about Tampa Bay, and encouraging you to pay more attention to Carolina.

You know that Carolina and Atlanta from the NFC South are on tonight's schedule. Tampa Bay visits New England Friday in a game you can watch on FOX, while New Orleans hosts the Oakland Raiders with the same exact 8 p.m. kickoff. This group has been a popular choice for the TV networks. Atlanta played Cincinnati on ESPN last week. Next week, Carolina at Baltimore will be on ESPN Thursday in a dress rehearsal game. New Orleans visits Houston next Sunday on FOX in another battle of playoff hopefuls.

JIM HURLEY has his eye on several possible pro football BEST BETS from Thursday through Sunday this week and in next week's dress rehearsals. You can purchase game day best bets in football and baseball right here at the website. If you have any questions about service, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

We'll finish our NFL Divisional previews the next two days....with the NFC West on Friday and the NFC North on Saturday. Please check the archives for earlier reports.

Isn't it great to have football back? Isn't it great to know that BIG, JUICY WINNERS are always just a few clicks away with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

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