2006 NFC South Preview

Along with the NFC East and AFC West, the NFC South will compete for the crown of NFL’s best division in 2006. With Carolina coming off an NFC Championship Game berth, Tampa Bay defending its division title, and Atlanta talented and dangerous – and even fourth-place finisher New Orleans much improved – the NFC South should have a bruising, tough, and entertaining race in 2006.

It looks as if there should be two playoff teams from the trio of Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Carolina; it says here that the Falcons’ and Panthers’ busy off-season will be enough to nose out a Tampa Bay that stood pat and must face a very tough schedule in 2006.

(2005 Regular Season Records in Parentheses)

Carolina Panthers (11-5)

Last year’s NFC finalist looks to return to the NFC Championship, and beyond, in 2006. With the core of last year’s team returning, and the addition of WR Keyshawn Johnson, the Panthers on paper can compete with any team in the league. QB Jake Delhomme, RB DeShaun Foster, and WR’s Johnson and Steve Smith are one of the most potent quartets in the NFL, and last year’s third-ranked defense welcomes back Pro Bowl DT Kris Jenkins from injury.

Injury is the key word for the Panthers this season; Jenkins, Smith, Foster, and others have all suffered serious injuries in the last two seasons, which ruined their season in 2004 and their post-season in 2005. The addition of first-round draft pick DeAngelo Williams should provide depth at running back, but Jenkins is the key. The oft-injured tackle is the key to the Panthers’ front seven, freeing DE Julius Peppers and MLB Dan Morgan to make big plays. If the Panthers can finally avoid the injury bug, a return to the Super Bowl is a distinct possibility.

Like their division counterparts, the Panthers play a tough schedule in 2006, with nine games against winning teams from a year ago. Instead of Tampa Bay’s games against Chicago and Seattle, the Panthers get St. Louis and Minnesota. If the Panthers can stay healthy, the Panthers should hold off the Falcons and Bucs for the NFC South crown, and make yet another NFC Championship Game appearance.

2006 Prediction: 12-4, NFC South Champions, Loss to Dallas in NFC Championship Game

Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

The Falcons followed up their 2004 NFC Championship Game appearance with a disappointing, mediocre 8-8 finish in 2005. The front office responded with an aggressive off-season, trading for LT Wayne Gandy and DE John Abraham, and signing veteran SS Lawyer Milloy to anchor the secondary.

The Falcons were an average team in all respects a year ago, finishing .500 with a fourteenth-ranked offense and a disappointing defense ranked twenty-second. The off-season upgrades will help; the focus, as usual, remains on QB Michael Vick. Vick’s amazing talents haven’t propelled the Falcons into the offensive stratosphere, as yet. Part of the problem has been the lack of weapons on the outside; with little depth behind unproven WR’s Michael Jenkins and Roddy White, and veteran option Brian Finneran out for the year, little change will be seen in 2006. The Falcons’ offense should be average once again.

But that should be enough. The acquisition of Abraham gives the Falcons one of the few front fours that can compete with Carolina’s dominating D-line. The Falcons’ defense will be much improved, and Vick, despite his detractors, is still a premier NFL quarterback. It may not be enough to win a deep division, but it should get the Falcons into the playoffs.

2006 Prediction: 10-6, Wild card berth, loss in Wild Card round to Dallas

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)

NFC South Champions a year ago, Tampa Bay stood pat in the off-season, returning an amazing twenty-one of twenty-two starters in a league that normally sees substantial turnover from year to year. With youth on offense, and veterans on defense, Tampa Bay looks to repeat in what should be a very tough division.

On offense, the Bucs return all eleven starters from a year ago; though they ranked just 20th in points per game a year ago, they should be a better offense this year. Chris Simms played well down the stretch and heads into his first full season as the starter, while Cadillac Williams will try and avoid the sophomore jinx at tailback. There is depth at wide receiver, with David Boston and Ike Hilliard behind Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton. The Bucs’ offense depends on the continued development of Simms and Williams; if they step up, the Bucs will score some points.

As it has been for years, Tampa’s strength remains their defense. Number one in total defense a year ago, the Bucs return ten starters, with the only newcomer free safety Will Allen. There may be some concerns, as defensive leaders Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and Simeon Rice all continue to age, but they should remain a formidable unit.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, both their offense and defense will have to be outstanding to enjoy another playoff run. Tampa Bay plays eleven teams that had winning records in 2005 (six of them on the road); in addition to playing in their own tough division, they have matchups against the NFC East and the deep AFC North; plus games at Chicago and at home against Seattle to close the season. With such a slim margin for error, a repeat of last year’s eleven-win season seems unlikely; in such a deep division, nine wins just won’ t cut it this year. Look for Cadillac Williams to suffer a touch of the sophomore jinx and for the Bucs to fall just short in 2006.

2006 Prediction: 9-7

New Orleans Saints (3-13)

Few teams had as much roster turnover as the Saints, who overhauled their offensive line, linebacking corps, and of course quarterback position with the acquisition of Drew Brees. Add to that the selection of Reggie Bush with the number two pick in the NFL draft, and the Saints are a markedly different team than the 3-13 unit of a year ago.

The Saints will improve. Bush has looked sharp in the pre-season, Brees appears healthy, and Joe Horn is one of the league’s best wide receivers, if recovered from last year’s nagging injuries. All told, the Saints have nine new starters in 2006, along with new head coach Sean Payton.

That said, it won’t be enough in 2006. The Saints will be dangerous, but a tough division and a tough schedule should doom any Cinderella thoughts. Ten games against the NFC South and East will take their toll on a young team, and the Saints will both struggle and provide some excitement, and hope, for their long-suffering fan base.

2006 Prediction: 5-11

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